How the medieval wool trade shaped The Girl from Oto
In 2012 I traveled with my family to a restored medieval tower in Oto, Aragòn, where we stayed for several days looking out at the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees and hiking through the beautiful valley of Broto and Ordesa National Park. The owners of the tower explained that their ancestors were barons whose roots went back to the 1500s in Oto. I began to imagine a fictional world here for the novel that was taking shape in my mind.
During our visit we often saw flocks of sheep being herded by shepherds. Each animal wore an iron bell around its neck and the discordant jangle of hundreds of bells played in the background as we explored the rugged landscape. Adding to the magical atmosphere were entire towns built of stone that had been abandoned generations ago and were now slowly crumbling into the earth.
I began poking into the past and soon realized that we had stumbled upon a place with a complex and fascinating history. Since medieval times, the high valley communities of the Pyrenees were governed by groups of “vecinos”, households that were independent of noble and royal oversight. They shared water, meadows, rights-of-way, and other resources. The leading families of these households kept records of their activities and business transactions. And their existence depended on the great flocks of livestock, especially sheep, that were herded to grazing meadows in the mountains each summer and taken to lower altitudes in winter. This annual movement of animals was called “transhumance.”
A rugged wilderness
I also learned that in those days, the Pyrenees were ruled by wild things (bears, wolves, lynx) and wild weather. Winter snows shut down the trade routes over the Col de Somport for months each year. Avalanches and floods were constant dangers. Bandits plied the roads, their frequent victims the pilgrims who traveled through these mountains from points north to Compostela on the Camino de Santiago. To defend their flocks against the elements and predators, the shepherds of the Pyrenees developed skills and resourcefulness beyond those of any ordinary shepherd. For example, they bred a special type of guard dog, the great Pyrenees, which wore spiked iron collars and had one job: to protect the flocks from bears and wolves. All of these elements added complexity and excitement to the story that was blossoming in my mind.
It turned out merino wool was the jewel of Spain’s economy for hundreds of years. In fact, removing merino sheep from Spain was such a serious offense that the official punishment was death. Merino wool had displaced English wool as the fiber du jour for Europeans in the 1500s (partially because of the Hundred Years War between England and France), and the Aragònese took advantage of this by hauling it over the Pyrenees on the backs of mules and selling it in market towns all along the pilgrimage routes. Some of the richest sheep ranchers were monasteries, and while the nobility played a role, the merchant class was savviest about benefiting from the desire for fine wool in the north. When we visited the medieval town of Nay across the Pyrenees in France, I got to explore the home of an Aragònese merchant, Pedro Sacaze, who got rich off his wool and fabric business and was able to buy himself a noble title and a couple of monasteries with the proceeds. (For those who have read The Girl from Oto— yes, he was the inspiration for Carlo Sacazar.)
I realized merino wool could tie together all the characters in my story. The drama, power struggles, and clash of classes and cultures that were byproducts of the wool trade would add richness to the tale and anchor it in a fascinating historical backdrop. As I created the characters and the world of The Girl from Oto, my research on the wool trade guided many of the plot twists and gave me some of my best ideas. Who knew something as humble as wool would be the source of my inspiration?