Zoophyte Folklore: The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

The Vegetable Lamb – Source

History of Cotton

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was  a very strange idea that sprang up in the middle ages to explain the origin of cotton.  People have used cotton since ancient times and it was  thought to have been first cultivated in the Indus delta and later spread from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Nubia.  In the 1st century Arab traders introduced it to Spain and Italy eventually reaching northern Europe during the medieval period becoming  a popular and valuable commodity.

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

During the Middle Ages the world outside Europe was relatively unknown to most Europeans.  The few intrepid explorers who did travel through unknown regions brought back mysterious and outlandish tales.  They told of exotic countries and strange things beyond the experience and imagination of most Europeans.  Fantastic claims were made that could not be verified by ordinary people as to what they had encountered and were generally believed because no one could effectively disprove  them.  

Their reports had a lasting influence on European societies.  One of the strangest stories that was brought back told of the existence of animals that had similar characteristics to plants, and vice-versa called zoophytes. There were several kinds and were claimed to exist in far and remote parts of the world.  One of the most famous of these was known as the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, sometimes known as the Lamb Tree, or  the Borametz and as well as other names.

Sir John Mandeville

One of these early travelers was known as Sir John Mandeville.  He is credited with writing a journal of his travels called,  “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville,” which was being circulated from 1357-71.  The actual identity of Sir John Mandeville is open to debate.  He claimed to be  a knight from St. Albans in England but this is disputed by some historians today. According to his book, Mandeville traveled through many remote and unknown regions seeing many new and incredible places, animals, plants, birds and people previously unheard of in Europe.

His memoirs were very popular and translated into every European language and were believed to have influenced Christopher Columbus.  Among many strange things he reports was  the existence of the Vegetable Lamb as the source of the fluffy pods that were processed to make cotton.  Cotton had begun to reach northern Europe where there was little knowledge of how it was derived.  

Earlier Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 BC), the 5th century Greek historian, had written in Book III of his Histories that in India there was a plant, assumed to be a  tree and not a shrub, that grew in the wild and produced wool.  Because unprocessed cotton resembles wool it was believed to have been obtained from a hybrid plant-sheep type of zoophyte and Mandeville’s  account backed up Herodotus.

Source

Zoophytes

Zoophytes are animals that closely resemble plants such as a sea anemone. The term “zoophyte” is not often used in science today but during the Middle Ages it was in popular usage.  It was not until the 17th century that the term began to be refuted. 

During medieval times and the later renaissance era many weird types of zoophytes were widely accepted.  For example the mandrake root was shaped like a human and was said to be able to run away from people.  Another weird example was the barnacle goose tree. This was supposedly a combination of a tree and a crustacean that produced barnacles each of which had baby geese growing inside of them.   

The Vegetable Lamb was supposed to be a type of these zoophytes, essentially a lamb growing from a plant either through a pod or being connected to the ground by a stem from its navel.  It was believed to have originated in Tartary which was a great region of Europe and Central Asia.  The Tartar word for “lamb” was “Borametz,” which explains one of its alternative names.

Henry Lee

As well as Mandeville other medieval writers and travelers wrote about the Vegetable Lamb.  In some texts it was described as a plant that produced pods that had unborn lambs inside. One of the more questioning of these writers was Henry Lee, a naturalist and author.   He  became sceptical while researching for other books he was writing and began delving into this bizarre notion.  He wrote another book called, “The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant.”  In his book he gives a typical description of the day of this weird, fantastical being,

“the fruit of a tree which sprang from a seed like that of a melon, or gourd; and when the fruit or seed-pod of this tree was fully ripe it burst open and disclosed to view within it a little lamb, perfect in form, and in every way resembling an ordinary lamb naturally born… (1)

He provides other versions of the myth describing how the lamb  were attached to the plant by a stem from their navel.  The stem was flexible enough to allow the lamb to graze in a circle around the main plant while still remaining tethered to it.   When all of the grass was eaten or if the stem was broken the lamb would die,   

Source

“a living lamb attached by its navel to a short stem rooted in the earth. The stem, or stalk, on which the lamb was thus suspended above the ground was sufficiently flexible to allow the animal to bend downward, and browse on the herbage within its reach. When all the grass within the length of its tether had been consumed the stem withered and the lamb died. This plant-lamb was reported to have bones, blood, and delicate flesh, and to be a favorite food of wolves” (2)

Lee was not convinced.  Nevertheless, despite his doubts the existence of the Vegetable Lamb was widely accepted by others up until the 17th century.  The main arguments raged not over its existence, which was not widely doubted, but over the tricky question of whether it was a plant or an animal. 

Vegetable Wool

In his research Lee looked to Scythia, an area  that covered many other regions of Europe and Asia.  He looked specifically at the region bordering India, an area Alexander the Great had conquered in the 4th century.   One of Alexander’s officers named Nearchus had reported that they had found the local people wore “vegetable wool”.  He reported, 

 “Garments the material of which was whiter than any other … made of the wool like that of lambs, which grew in tufts and bunches upon trees,”

This was probably the product we know of as cotton wool but this term can be used for two different products.   The first term describes it in its unprocessed state the second is where it has been subject to increased processing especially to help increase absorbancy.  In fact, the term “cotton wool” is an anomaly with cotton coming from a plant and wool coming from sheep or other animals.

Banishing the Myth

In medieval northern Europe it was being imported  unprocessed  but people had no idea of its origin or what it was.  All they were certain of was that it was derived from some kind of a plant.  They believed this because the Greek historian, Herodotus, had written about claiming that in India it came from trees growing in the wild that produced wool.  Therefore Europeans assumed that it must be a tree that it came from.  This can be seen in the German word, Baumwolle, meaning tree wool.   With its similarity to wool, people came to the erroneous conclusion that it must have come from some kind of a plant-sheep life form and  Mandeville simply reinforced this belief.  This European myth was  banished by the end of the 16th century with cotton cultivation in Asia and the New World.

© 07/10/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 07, 2020 zteve t evans

10 thoughts on “Zoophyte Folklore: The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

  1. Fascinating. I suppose the idea of a plant producing such a soft source of fiber would be very strange for people used to making their clothes from sheep wool. I wonder if the silk worm would have been an easier concept to accept without embellishments.

  2. Really makes me wonder, zsteve, what other stories could be made up about modern materials!
    (I remember how naive I was about polyester. Oil is oil.) Interesting post. M

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