Hild’s bynames #1: Freemartin

In Hild and its sequel Menewood, Hild acquires a variety of additional names, or bynames: freemartin, Butcherbird, hægtes, Yffing, and Light of the World. In Hild they’re rarely used together—not like, say, Æthelfrith Flesaur, or, centuries later, Richard Longshanks—but in the course of Menewood she acquires a few more—Cait Sith, Baedd Coch, Gul—and then this pairing happens more often.[1]

Some of the terms are, I think, interesting in their own right, so I thought I’d start an occasional series about bynames. I’ll begin with freemartin (which I discussed on my other website a few years ago).

Freemartins have been around longer than recorded history. But where does the word come from? Most people divide it into two parts, with martin being the easiest to deal with. The OED offers “Of unknown origin: cf Ir., Gael, mart, heifer.” On further investigation (that is, a quick cruise through the first two pages of search results) mart is Middle English for cow or ox fattened for market. That might be from the French which is from the Latin (which might, depending on how you trace it, originate with the Etruscan *merk—). Mart is also a term that was apparently used relatively recently in Scotland—from the Gaelic, which of course originates with Old Irish. (Both, naturally, begin with Indo European…)

Free is even trickier. Again, you could link it to Old Irish, in this case fiadh, which means (roughly) wild. But why “wild”? (We’re really reaching…)

In the end, I don’t think there’s any way to tell. The only way to know for sure is to delve deep, and to consult experts. So that’s what I did and found this, from a 75-year old Journal of Agricultural Research[2]:

“The freemartin has been known to cattle breeders since before the establishment of the Roman Empire. The sterile cow born twin with a bull was referred to by Varro, a writer who died in 28 B. C.

“It was called ‘taura,’ which apparently meant ‘barren cow.’ Although the condition has been recognised for some 2,000 years the origin of the term ‘freemartin’ is obscure. According to one authority the word ‘free’ meant ‘willing’ or ‘ready to go,’ as the freemartin was supposed to be an especially willing worker. It has been proposed also that the word “free” was used to signify exemption from reproduction (sterile). Another authority saw in the term a contraction of the words “ferry,” “ferow,” or “farrow,” which appear to be associated with the Flemish “varvekoe”—a cow that gives no milk—and with the West Flemish “varwekoe”—a cow that has ceased to be capable of producing offspring. It is not difficult to imagine an association between the two words “free” and “farrow.”

“There is probably greater speculation about the word “martin.” It may have been derived from the Irish and Gaelic “mart” meaning heifer or cow. Efforts have been made to trace it to St. Martin who, according to legend, once cast the devil from a cow. Moreover, St. Martin is said to have been the patron saint of twins and unusual fecundity. Another explanation offered is that on or near November 11, which was called Martinmas day in Scotland and England, it was customary to slaughter cattle the meat of which was salted for winter use and called martinmas-beef. An early English dictionary referred to martin as “not a true heifer, but an undeveloped male with many of the characteristics of the ox, and generally fattened and killed about Martinmas.” It has been suggested further that the freemartin may have been given that designation because its meat was so choice that it was reserved for St. Martin’s—a great feast day. Moreover the words “mart,” “maert,” “mert,” and “mairt” appear to have been used in Scotland and parts of England in referring to the cow or ox fattened for slaughter and salted or smoked for winter use.

“Hart showed that it is not difficult in view of these facts, to imagine such an individual being referred to as the “farrow-mart-one,” or in Scotland as the “farrow-mart-yin,” either of which might have been corrupted or shortened into “freemartin.”

I learnt from reading the paper that freemartins aren’t invariably sterile, just mostly. Figures vary but let’s say 1 in 18 develop enough to reproduce. As this can take a couple of years, farmers might let female co-twins live on the off-chance they could end up being able to have calves and produce milk.

This is why there’s been a reasonable amount of observable behaviour: freemartins will mount a cow in œstrus but not hurt it or (of course) impregnate it. So before blood tests and thermometers, farmers might have used freemartins to tell when their cows are coming into season. Knowing this makes all the more obvious the contortions the authors of paper go through to avoid mentioning sexual behaviour. I’m sure it must have occurred to them that another way to regard ‘free” is to approach it from the “free with her favours” angle (especially when linked to their phrase “ready to go”). Either they were coy on their own behalf or at the direction of their editor, or they were utterly clueless about sex. And if you’ve spent time on a farm, one thing you are not is clueless in this regard…

The stuff about Saint Martin is interesting, too. I’m assuming they mean Martin of Tours (though the fact that he’s the patron saint of twins is new to me). He lived 250 years before Hild, and I’m not sure how well known he was in her time, particularly in the north of England. Perhaps if her contemporaries ever did use the word freemartin, it came from somewhere else. But that is an investigation for another time. 


[1] Possibly because partway through Menewood she begins acting as a leader in her own right, not just an enforcer or mouthpiece for others

[2] Early Recognition of the Freemartin Condition In Heifers Twinborn With Bulls, by W. W. Swett, C. A. Matthews, and R. R. Graves, Division of Dairy Cattle Breeding, Feeding, and Management Investigations, Bureau of Dairy Industry, United States Department of Agriculture

One thought on “Hild’s bynames #1: Freemartin

  1. Does not at all surprise me that West Flemish comes into the discussion. It’s a rich and robust dialect even now, and a thriving sector of Belgian musicians rap, sing, perform in Westvlaams, to the resigned bemusement of the rest of Flanders who can barely understand them. But I’m glad you’ve explained freemartin: that was one of the words that tripped me up on first reading Hild. Not having an agricultural background.

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