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

Strange Folklore: The Mystery of Concealed Footwear

Collection of St Edmundsbury Heritage Service, St Edmundsbury Borough Council – Image by Edmund PatrickCC BY-SA 3.0

A Very Peculiar Practice

Footwear such as shoes have been part of folklore and folktales for centuries and there are many tales and rhymes that refer to them.  For example Cinderella’s glass slippers, The Red Shoes, by Hans Christian Anderson, the nursery rhyme of The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, and I am sure you can think of many other examples. There are also many traditions and customs concerning footwear and a very strange practice of concealing them in buildings.  Presented here is a brief discussion concerning this very peculiar practice of concealment.

Hidden Footwear

In many parts of Europe and other parts of the world footwear has been found concealed in the  structure of buildings for many centuries. They are often found hidden in parts of the structure such as under floors, in ceilings, roofs, chimneys and other structural cavities.  The reason for this is unclear.  Some people suggest  they may be lucky charms intended to bring good luck or ward off evil supernatural beings such as ghosts, witches and spirits. 

Another suggestion is that they were intended to bring fertility to the females in the home and may have been an offering to a household deity.  This may have been a deity or spirit of some kind such as Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth and home, the family, domesticity and the state.

Footwear has been found concealed within the structure of many different types of buildings.  For example, some but not all, public houses, country houses, a Baptist church and a Benedictine monastery and many other ordinary and less ordinary buildings have been discovered to hold hidden shoes.   

The Concealed Shoe Index

The English town of Northampton has a strong tradition of shoe making.  The local museum keeps a Concealed Shoe Index that has collected 1900 reports of findings of concealed shoes by 2012.  About half are believed to date from the 19th century.  It appears the majority of  finds had been worn or repaired and strangely most finds were of single items, rather than pairs and approximately half were children’s shoes.  The practice of concealing footwear  appears to have faded out during the 20th century.

Spiritual Middens

Since the late Middle Ages it was quite a common practice to hide different objects in the structures of buildings.  Many different kinds of objects have been found including such peculiar items as horse skulls, witch bottles, dried cats, charms written on paper and many other strange objects.  There is an idea that the items were intended as lucky charms to ward off evil or perhaps attract good luck. Hidden caches of such items are sometimes called spiritual middens.

Modern Practice

After 1900, the practice seems to have tailed off. Although it is rarely practised, documented, or  admitted today, there have been a few instances in recent years of such concealments.  The shoe manufacturer, Norvic deliberately placed a pair of women’s  boots in the foundations of its new factory in 1964.  More recently, after finding an old court shoe behind wood paneling, at Knebworth House, an English stately home in Hertfordshire,  it was replaced by one of the estate worker’s shoes to maintain custom.

Location of Finds

The custom of shoe concealment seemed to have been more prevalent in Europe and the USA, especially in New England and northeastern states.  There were many immigrants to these areas from places where the custom was practiced such as East Anglia, in England and other European regions.

A study by June Swann a British footwear historian,  revealed the Concealed Shoe Box Index, in Northampton Museum showed 22.9% of items found were hidden ceilings and floors and the same number accounted for roofs, while 26% were hidden in chimneys, fireplaces and hearths. Other places of concealment were around doors and windows, under stairs and buried in foundations.

Footwear has been found concealed in many different types of build used for many different purposes.  For example, thay have been uncovered in public houses, factories, warehouses, ordinary and stately homes and even in the Oxford colleges of St. John’s and Queen’s.  An English Baptist Church in Cheshire, England and a Benedictine monastery in Germany have also rendered up concealed footwear.  The earliest known find was discovered in Winchester Cathedral at the back of the choir stalls dated from 1308.

Characteristics of Hidden Footwear

There have been many different fashions, styles and types of footwear found that have been deliberately concealed.  Although the majority were made of leather;  rubber boots and wooden clogs have been found and others made from other materials.  From what has been found 98% appear to have been worn or repaired at some time prior to concealment.

All ranges of sizes have been found from babies to adult footwear. Slightly more female footwear has been found making about 26.5% against 21.5% of male and about 50% accounted for children’s footwear.  It is usually single items that are found rather than in pairs.

Although the custom of concealing shoes may seem quirky, finds do render up important information to archaeologists and historians.  As well as giving clues to what fashions and styles people from another time wore they also tell us about the different types of materials that were available.  They also give clues to the social status of the dwellers or uses of the building and the different types of occupation they were involved in and the local economy.

Explanations

Of course, the big question is why would anyone want to conceal such items in the first place?   There are many answers possible but one is that they were fertility charms.   There has been a long association between footwear and fertility.  For example, there is the custom where a shoe is thrown after the bride as she leaves or tied to the back of her car or carriage. Another example is the nursery rhyme called The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.  There are many versions similar to the one below,

Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810-) – Public domain
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed. 

In the English county of Lancashire when a woman wanted to conceive she tried on the shoes of another who had successfully given birth.  This practice was called smickling.

Witch Traps

There is an idea that the hidden footwear was deliberately placed to act as a protective charm against supernatural beings such as demons, ghosts, witches and other undesirable entities. There was an old belief that witches were attracted to the human odour found in used footwear and attempt to enter the shoe.  However, once they entered they became unable to turn around or go backwards to get out and were trapped.

Another idea is that shoes had protective powers and may be associated with an unofficial 14th century saint named John Schorne.  He was the rector of the English Buckinghamshire village of North Marston. He was a very devout and godly man who was credited with a number of miraculous cures including toothache and gout.   According to legend, one year during a particularly bad drought he discovered a  well whose waters had wonderful curative properties.  He was renowned for his piety and dedication to God and there is a tradition that he trapped the devil in a boot.   Nevertheless, the idea of trapping the devil in a boot or shoe existed long before Shorne and gout was also sometimes called “the devil in the boot.”

Household Deities

Archaeologists and historians think that the custom of hiding footwear in buildings may be connected with ancient pagan deities and spirits and the legend of Shorne may relate to the protective power footwear was once seen to hold.  Therefore an old shoe under the floorboards or buried under the fireplace may be seen as an easy and prudent tactic to thwart malevolent beings just in case.

Substitute for Sacrifice

Another idea is that the hiding of footwear was a substitute for sacrificing something live such as an animal or even a child.  In some places around the world babies and children were sacrificed or placed in foundations.  From  Geofrey of Monmouth, in his pseudo-history, “History of the Kings of Britain,” we learn when King Vortigern was looking to build a stronghold the walls kept collapsing. His wise men advised the sacrifice of a child to put a stop to this.  The child chosen for this sacrifice was the young Merlin who persuaded the King there was an underground pool that held two fighting dragons.  Vortigern excavated the pool and found the dragons. Merlin was set free and went on to fame and glory with King Uther and King Arthur, while Vortigern had to find another site.  Certainly an offering of footwear is much more humane than a human or animal sacrifice and leather is an animal product.

The Essence of the Wearer

There may also be another reason.  Many types of footwear adapt shape to suit the wearer.  It is not unusual for new shoes or boots to have to be “broken” in by the wearer before they feel comfortable. They are seen as containers and were believed to contain some of the “essence” of the wearer possibly guarding against evil but perhaps also preserving that essence for the future.  Nevertheless, the concealing of footwear in buildings is still very much a mystery and will probably remain so.

© 12/08/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 12th, 2020 zteve t evans