On the bull semen explosion, animal husbandry, and how medieval people were nicer to cows

Because I like to talk about the fact that I can connect almost any event to the medieval period, and I am indebted to all my lovely readers and bound to give them the high-grade content that they crave, this week we have a bit of a … weird one. Why? Well, I was mentioning to the good Dr Öberg Strådal that I needed to write you all a blog, and it was then that she challenged me to talk about the bull semen plant explosion. So buckle up, kittens.

Now if you are not Extremely Online, then you may somehow lived your life until now unaware of this story. The bull semen explosion story. That one. Well, allow me to ruin that for you with the headline:

Ahem.

This particular story comes to us from Australia, where a “cattle services” building caught fire, and some 100 vats (?!) of bull semen subsequently exploded.

Why was there a bunch of bull semen in containers there? Well, Australia was about to enter cattle insemination season, which is apparently early Spring, and the good people at Yarram Herd Services in VIC STAY READY. Anyway, it’s gonna be a difficult manually-knocking-up-cattle season in rural Victoria, and “It’s going to be a huge blow, especially for our farmers”, according to Aaron Thomas, who is Yarram Herd Services’ Vice Chairman.[1] I did not make that quote up.

So that is nice, isn’t it? What does this have to do with the medieval period?

Well, sorta kinda nothing actually. Why? Oh, because medieval people were nicer to cows.

What do I mean by nicer? I mean that they didn’t intensively farm cows the way that we do now. It is the intensive farming of cows that leads to us hoarding bull semen and artificial insemination.

Now you may be wondering why it is that we are going around interfering with cattle, like I was before I started writing a post on a dare about a bull semen explosion. Luckily the Alberta Milk commission has an answer for that. They would like you to know that the reason that many farmers choose to artificially inseminate cows is that: “First and foremost, it’s a safety factor for both the cow and the farmer. Dairy bulls often weigh over 2,000 lbs and are especially aggressive and unpredictable. By limiting the interactions between the farmer and the bull, there is a lot less risk that the bull could injure a person or another animal.” 

Yeah, we have managed to make bulls so fucking huge that they are a threat even to the cows that they would theoretically be trying to mate with at this juncture. This is because a big thing that we are aiming for with cows is specifically size. That’s nothing new and is a hallmark with intensive animal husbandry. That makes sense, of course, because it’s sort of a bang for your buck type of situation.

A cute little bull in Morgan MS M. 285, fol. 3r.

Now medieval people, in contrast to us, had smaller cows. Why? Well, largely because the cows were left to do their thing more often.

A really interesting study by Sirignano et al on early medieval animals in the Basque country showed that after the fall of Rome, the size of almost all animals cultivated there (largely pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, and horses) fell.[2] This is because a lot of the time breeds get bigger as a result of improvements to the environment that they favour, for example. So, some Roman cattle got pretty big as a result of deforestation undertaken in order to farm cattle more extensively.

Another thing that makes animals bigger is bringing in other animals to breed with them from elsewhere. While the long-distance trade networks of Rome allowed for this, the early medieval period made it a bit more difficult, and the archaeological team behind the study found after studying 41 various sites, and about two and a half thousand sets of bones that as a result, early medieval cattle shrank a bit over the centuries, hitting their smallest size in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Now, that means some disadvantages for humans. Obviously, there is less meat per cow, for one thing. Thing is, it was probably pretty nice for the cattle and it’s likely that part of this shrinking of cow sizes came about because a lot of peasants were using “free foraging practices” aka just sort of letting the cows have a nice little wander and feed themselves. One of the researchers from this study suggests that “In this period, probably labour for animal keeping was kept to a minimum [and] It is possible that animals were being kept free range for most part of the Early Middle Ages.”[3]

So yeah the cows were probs just having a whale of a time cavorting and such with nary a farmer trying to jack them off, hoard their semen, and then “clean[ing] the cow’s vulva with a paper towel and [putting] on a full-arm glove and lubricant” in order to “[i]nsert your arm into the cow, by forming a cone with your fingers and keeping the tail aside with your other hand” in order to shove said semen up there, in sight.

I saw it. Now you have to.

Now there were some advantages to smaller cow sizes for people too. Smaller more tractable animals were absolutely a benefit if you actually had to handle them in a world without machines and metal fences. The great majority of peasants would have just one cow (if even that) which they used to get milk for themselves. If it was you marching out to the stable with a pail and a stool, you probably wanted to make sure you had a docile animal on your hands and failing that, an animal that was not so huge it could crush you alive if it was in a bad mood.

And yeah, the above explanation for why we are JOing bulls relates to bulls specifically, but the thing is cows can be pretty aggressive now as well. Currently, cows are also bred to be very big in order to up production, and if they get in a bad mood you had best not be too close to them. Medieval people weren’t having that same issue, which was nice for them

Cutest little mama cow licking her baby bullock, Bod. MS 763.

Over the medieval period, animal sizes did begin to increase again as more arable land opened up with, for example, the draining of the lowlands. Sheep in particular increased during this size, but overall medieval and, hell, even Roman, cattle had absolutely nothing on the Big Bois that we breed now.

So why is it that I am saying all of this means that medieval people were nicer to cows?

Well I am of the not so wild opinion that a semi-free range lifestyle, with a cosy barn in the winter when it was too cold out was probably better than mass factory farming. It is certainly better than some of the less savoury practices that some dairy farmers are forced into now when they have a number of cows without much land. In current-day southern Bavaria, for example, there is an apparently still widespread (and very depressing!) practice called tie stalls, wherein cows are sort of shoved halfway into a barn and restrained with a strap so they can only really stand or sit in one place. Lovely.

How did I come to learn about this extremely depressing practice? Oh, I was doing the research for this post and came across this headline:

Is the practice medieval? Well, hahahaha, no it fucking isn’t, as subsequent reading makes clear. Some basic named Sophie Greger, who undoubtedly has cows’ best interests at heart, was heard to remark, “It seems strange that something from the middle ages still exists.” That WOULD be strange Sophie. It would indeed. Except this particular practice “date[s] back to the 19th century.”[4] So that’s not medieval at all, is it? That’s modern. We did that. It’s a modern thing.

In fact this is actually the least medieval practice possible, as the tiny frolicking cows of the medieval period could attest. If we were treating cattle more like medieval people did, these cows would be having a good and nice time out in a field somewhere. Of course they would also be smaller, and likely they would produce less milk as well. Them’s the breaks.

More. Mama. Cows.

We are the ones out here giving bulls hand jobs, hoarding their semen, letting it explode all over everything, ramming our arms inside cows, and then strapping them into a harness for a long sad life. Medieval people do not deserve the blame for whatever the fuck it is we think we are doing now. They were mostly just trying to get some milk and also drawing indescribably cute pictures of cows. How about we try for ten damn minutes not to blame them for a bunch of weird stuff that modern people did and are doing?

And THAT is what a bull semen warehouse explosion in Australia has to do with medieval cows.

Suck it, Sara.


[1] Maddie Bender, “Bull Semen Lab Explosion a ‘Blow’ to Farmers”, Vice.com, 17 September 2019, <Accessed 19 September 2019>.

[2] Carmina Sirignano, Idoia Grau Sologestoa, Paola Ricci, Maite Iris García-Collado, Simona Altieri, Juan  Antonio Quirós Castillo, Carmine Lubritto,  “Animal husbandry during Early and High Middle Ages in the Basque Country (Spain), Quaternay International, 2014/346, 138-148.

[3]Quoted in, “Study reveals size of livestock were at their lowest in Early Middle Ages”, Medievalists.net. <Accessed 19 September 2019>.

[4] Tom Levitt, “’It’s medieval’: why some cows are still living most of their lives tied up ,The Guardian, Saturday 8 December 2018, <Accessed 19 September 2019>.


For more on blaming medieval people for our own behaviour, and weird medieval myths see:
I assure you, medieval people bathed
On why the misuse of the word ‘medieval’ is a bad thing
FUCK YEAH Genghis Khan – an emergency pubcast
There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK
“I wasn’t taught medieval history so it’s not important” isn’t an argument, but OK
That’s not what chivalry is, but OK
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kendrick Lamar enthusiast.

4 thoughts on “On the bull semen explosion, animal husbandry, and how medieval people were nicer to cows”

  1. Bavarian here, and indeed lots of the old stables are quite a sad sight. :c I get my milk directly from a farm now that switched to a run and installed a vending machine for the milk, so they don’t lose money to middlemen (and decided to keep the flock small) . Lots of Farmers simply don’t have the means to modernize their old buildings,especially with small flocks. My uncle for example would have liked to get a modern stable, but he was not eligible for building subventions, so instead they were forced to give up the cows for financial reasons. I didn’t question how the cows lived when i was a small child on the farm, but this type of husbandry should have disappeared yesterday. At least it gets more common again to see cows out grazing, that was not a thing at all two decades ago either (but it used to be when my mother was a child, cause the farm children had to bring the cows out to the pasture, and free roaming chickens and piggs with an outdoor pen were common, so you know… we regressed in the last 40 years). This is exactly why i want to get my own chickens for eggs and and the occasional meat…

    Liked by 1 person

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