Most of us don’t spare much thought about animals in the Middle Ages, but it is a topic much discussed and argued by medieval aficionados. What is undisputable is that medieval animals were considerably smaller than modern day animals, but how much smaller?
A modern adult cow can weigh anywhere between 1000lbs to 1800lbs (453kgs to 816kgs) and produce an astonishing 6 – 7 gallons (23 – 26.5 litres) of milk per day. Obviously this is dependent on their breed and other contributing factors like location and food, etc. Some figures indicate a medieval cow weighed in at 440lbs – 551lbs, (200kg – 250kg) which is significantly smaller than the modern bovine, and produced approx. 3 – 4.5 gallons (11 – 17 litres) of milk daily. By my rough calculations, a modern cow is twice as large and produces twice the amount of milk as a medieval cow once did.
But owning a smaller animal in medieval times wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. They were easier to manage, required less shelter and food, and without modern day equipment, milkmaids had an easier time milking. Interestingly, cows were not bred for their meat as they were too valuable to slaughter, but mostly for work (ploughing) and as dairy animals. As milk has a relatively short shelf life, butter and cheese offered a way to preserve the dairy product in another, longer lasting form. The Frisian cow, originally all white or very light in colour, was primarily bred for dairy, and through selective breeding their colour changed to black or red and white we easily recognize today.
In my medieval ‘Falls Ende’ series of books, herdsman Odo Read’s cows are indeed smaller. As I accurately describe, medieval Frisians deliberately crossbred a strain of cows specifically for dairy which were larger and more productive than others during that era and through further selective breeding, still thrive today.