Plains Folk

Government of Cattle


Two years ago a couple of students at North Dakota State University decided to find the oldest book in the library. The work that surfaced was The Government of Cattell, a treatise in animal husbandry by one Leonard Mascal, published in London in 1627.


Not much is known about the author. A terse catalog entry at the British Museum merely notes he was farrier to King James and died in 1659. I’ve become personally acquainted with his book, however, courtesy of NDSU Archives. A bookplate pasted into the front indicates the book once belonged to H. L. Walster, dean of agriculture at North Dakota Agricultural College from 1924 to 1953. The book is bound with marbled-cardboard covers.


Mascall devotes a great deal of writing to the treatment of diseases of cattle, or catell, some of which sound quaint today—such as the disease of being “hidebound.” A hidebound ox was one whose skin seemed too taught, and the beast was weak and generally sickly. “This grief happeneth to a laboring Oxe, when he had beene sore travelled in labour, or sore travelling in rainy weather, and thereby come to be hidebound through poverty.” This sounds to me like an ox that has just been worked too hard and fed too little!


As to the cure for a hidebound animal: “it shall be good to seethe Bay leaves in ale, and to bathe him therewith as hote as he can suffer, and suddenly thereupon for to chafe and rub him with oyle and wine mixt together, and to pluck and draw his skinne on both his sides, and loose it from his ribs; and it is good to be done in an hote Sunnie day, that it may drie and sinke therein.”


This sounds pretty labor-intensive to me. Perhaps a good course of feed is called for, but what would that be in 1627? Mascal says “yee may fat an Oxe soone with fetches, pease, boyled barly, or beans husked & bruised; and yee may also fat an Oxe with hay, but not to give him as ye give unto a horse.”


Horses, in general, required different treatments, because of their different nature. “The Horse is of a hot temperate nature, his heate is shewed by his highnesse,” writes Mascal. “He is bold and of long life, for he is of longer life than all other laboring beasts, his temperature is therein found, for he is easie to be taught, and gentle towards his master and feeder. Thus much here touching the beautie and nature of a horse.”


Mascal records quite a bit of folk belief and not a few folk remedies. For instance, there is this case of severe mouse-phobia: “The shroue-mouse is an ill beast and doth trouble and hurt mens cattle in many places: for her teeth are venomous, for whereas thee biteth any beast, it will soone rankle and swell, that if they have not some helpe, they will dye thereof.”


Not only that, but it was said that if a mouse ran over the back of a draft animal, the beast would “suddainely waxe lame” and be unable to rise. The cure had to be arranged in advance by placing a mouse into a hole in a tree and letting it dry out there. Then, when you had a beast lamed by a mouse, you would switch it with branches cut from the tree. Which might indeed cause the beast to get up and go to work!


And yet, notwithstanding the fun we can poke at Mascal and his maladies and remedies, his conclusion is worth considering by farmers in any age. “The office and duty of every skillful Plowman or Carter,” the writer exhorts, “is first to looke to the nature of the earth, next to the seasons of the yeare, then to the customes and fashions of the place wherein he liveth. . . . Yet would I wish no man to binde himselfe more strictly to custome . . . but standing upon the ground of reason, made good by experience, I would ever have him profit in his owne judgement.” Good advice today as it was in 1627.


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