These days we often hear the word transgender in the news. But what about transhumance? And why was it important to Cornwall? The dictionary definition of transhumance is the seasonal movement of livestock from one grazing ground to another.
Let’s go back around 1,300 years to the time when transhumance was widely operating in Cornwall. The practice involved moving animals every May from the fields around the hamlet to rough grazing on the uplands. This helped to protect the crops and hay being grown and harvested over the summer close to the farms. In October the stock was rounded up and brought back down to the home settlement.
Groups of small huts discovered on Bodmin Moor provide the physical evidence for the practice. Around two metres by four, there was ‘room for a single bed, open fire and some storage’. The huts were clustered in groups of up to ten, probably reflecting a hamlet, with the individual huts used by different households.
From May to October, these huts were occupied by the young women who watched over the animals. But that was not their only task. They milked the cows, made butter and cheese and worked with wool. Periodically, they would have been visited by others bringing supplies and taking away the dairy produce. Meanwhile, men and older women remained in the home hamlet to harvest the crops, care for the children and the vulnerable and generally maintain their households.
This system involved an estimated minimum 1,000 households on Bodmin Moor alone. It was in place by the late 600s at least from the evidence of placenames such as havos (or summer-land). It survived into the late 700s but began to disappear in the early 800s.
Peter Herring, the expert on Cornish transhumance, tells us this was not merely of interest economically. He suggests its extent ‘suggests a stable and peaceful rural society [and] a sophisticated farming practice’. The annual round-ups on the open moors and downlands ‘would have required administration and authority’ at some level above the hamlet.
Moreover, the cycle of transhumance was marked by the festivals of Beltain and Samhain, bringing communities together and marking the passage of the seasons. Meanwhile, for the young women, time spent on the uplands acted as a rite of passage and provided a spell of independence. In all, Peter Herring concludes that ‘many, maybe all, Cornish hamlets seem to have practiced transhumance in the early medieval period; it was, perhaps, a fundamental part of being Cornish’.
For the context of transhumance see my Cornwall’s First Golden Age