I am currently reading a huge book, Customs in Common, in which he discusses the battles not just for enclosure of land, but the battle between the various users, in particular, for grazing of household beasts. Whist there was still space between fields, and parts such as embankments that were too small to be used for animals, the poor with no access to land were sometimes able to keep beasts, especially a cow for milk. It was generally seen as not worth the bother trying to control cows on such difficult lands, but the poor had plenty of children who could spend the days wandering lanes and stream edges holding the cow on a halter.
In Wordsworth’s rambles with his friend Beuapuy, he was saddened by the sight of a girl leading the family cow. The beast led round the margins and along ridges of a field, or up and down the lanes, by the children or the aged, can be seen in any poor peasant economy to this day. Wordsworth encountering in his country walks with Beaupuy:
a hunger-bitten girl,
Who crept along, fitting her languid self
Unto a Heifer’s motion, by a cord
Tied to her arm, and picking thus from the lane
its sustenance, while the Girl with her two hands
Was busy knitting….
He found the image of poverty to be a deep affront and his friend Beaupuy “in agitation said, ‘This against that which we are fighting’”
And yet, they were all doing their bit to help support the family. And there are other tales by John Clare and others of spending the Sabbath with young buys who were watching sheep. IN W H Hudson’s book A Shepherd’s Life, the shepherd often talks of how he loves the landscape he has grown up with, of the company of the sheep, of the endless skies, the birdsong, the peace and tranquillity, so I am not sure if these children are really suffering – this is a far cry from the workhouse which would be the alternative.
And back to my research on wife sales, this puts the process into a different perspective. The children and animals are all helping, in their way to support the family. The children have an almost idyllic existence, and spend more time with animals than with humans. So I think we need to reassess how much of a humiliation being put up for sale as an animal would be to these people. They all had their purpose, they all played t heir roles.