Skip to content

Paris is, famously, a city that caters to all tastes. Even so, I did a double-take when I saw posters all over the Métro announcing a major exhibition dedicated to the history of sheep breeding.

“La Guerre des Moutons: Le Mérinos à la Conquête du Monde, 1786-2021” (The Sheep War: Merinos Conquer the World, 1786–2021) recently closed at the Musée des Archives Nationales (National Archives Museum) after a five-month run in the gorgeous confines of the eighteenth-century Hôtel de Soubise, which is itself worth a look no matter what else is on display.

The painted ceiling over the ceremonial staircase of the Hôtel de Soubise, showing The Allegory of Something or The Triumph of Somebody.

The “war” in the title refers to the scheming, conniving, intrigue and machinations that finally brought several hundred Spanish Merino sheep—the envy of the world—to Louis XVI’s experimental farm (the Bergerie Nationale, or National Sheepfold) in the village of Rambouillet. Spanish wool had long dominated the extremely lucrative market, and the French wanted a piece of the action. 

How to do it? Build a better sheep. In 1789, the shepherds and scientists of the Bergerie Nationale began a meticulous breeding program that eventually allowed French Rambouillet Merinos to surpass their Spanish ancestors in both the quality and quantity of wool they produced.

For a fuller account of what happened, I refer you to Carol Sulcoski’s “A Sheep of One’s Own: A Brief History of the Rambouillet.” 

Here, I’d like to show you a few of my favorite things from the exhibition—the stuff that really brought the story to life for me.

Folie à Deux

By great good fortune, I didn’t have to wander the galleries alone. My friend, author Clara Parkes happened to be visiting Paris in early April. We met at the museum before the doors opened, then spent the better part of a morning squealing, gasping, and flailing at everything like the wool-crazed sheep freaks that we are.

Clara wanted to ride the stuffed sheep. She is the reason for all the protective glass.

A Big Flocking Deal

This wasn’t a minor event stuck in a basement. It was the headliner, trumpeted by a banner outside the entrance gate on the Rue des Francs Bourgeois.

The delightful grandiosity continued in the courtyard, where gigantic images of the Rambouillet lined the colonnade. 

Clara and I were on the point of hyperventilating before we even reached the front door.

As you might expect in a museum attached to an archive, the objects on display were … archival. Rare. Delicate. The rooms were dim, and almost everything was behind or under glass. I urged Clara to use her authorial clout to get the cases opened (she knows how to yell, “Do you know who I am?” in French) but she was too chicken.

That made getting good photographs extremely difficult. I did my best. 

From the Files

The French obsession with documentation is well known. They don’t like to throw anything away that they can fit in a file cabinet. 

It was no surprise, then, to see original paperwork dating back to the beginnings of the Franco-Spanish skirmish over the importation of Merinos. There were letters sent back and forth between kings and diplomats and wonders like this book full of swatches of wool and wool-blend fabrics produced in Amiens and Abbeville in the second half of the 18th century.

There were plans for the original farm buildings at Rambouillet from 1785 …

… and a heap of posters announcing sales of Rambouillet sheep from as far back as the 1790s. 

This one is notable for offering two dates: the “vieux style” (old style) of June 3, 1797; and “Le 15 Prairial, An V,” the fifteenth of “Prairial,” the ninth month of the Republican calendar in the fifth year of the Republic. The Republican (or Revolutionary) calendar was adopted after the Revolution of 1789 and was used in France until 1805.

And, from more recent history, detailed dossiers of members of the Rambouillet flock. These, from the 1930s, record each animal in staggering detail, including multi-generational genealogies. 

As one who is presently preparing his documentation (200 pages and counting) in support of eventual French citizenship, I admit I am envious that this ram, “Querelleur” (“Aggressive” or “Quarrelsome”) had it all done for him.

And there was entire wall covered by a collage of photographs of individual members of the national flock, taken between 1909 and 1929. An entire wall!

If Clara tells you I checked to see if the collage would peel off and fit in my bag, don’t listen to her.

Off the Shelves

The curators had also searched libraries and archives all across France for rare copies of seminal French books on sheep farming, like Carlier’s Traité des bêtes à laine, ou méthode d’élever et de gouverner les troupeaux aux champs, et à la bergerie (A Treatise on Wool-Bearing Animals, or A Method for Raising and Herding in the Fields and in the Fold) from 1770 …

… and Jean Marie Louis Daubenton’s Instruction pour les bergers et pour les propriétaires de troupeaux (Lessons for Shepherds and Flock Owners) from 1782. 

Note Daubenton’s extraordinary list of academic associations: the Royal Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Medicine, Lecturer and Professor of Natural History at the Royal College of France, Keeper and Docent of the Cabinet of Natural History of the King’s Garden; [member of] the Academies of London, Berlin, St Petersburg, Vergara, Dijon, and Nancy. No surprise that upon the establishment of the Bergerie Nationale, he became head of the breeding program.

Daubenton’s book also provided two of my favorite images from the exhibition. One showing the shearing process, complete with a guide to creepy-crawlies to watch out for in the fleece …

… and one showing a clearly very contented ram getting a bath …

If I were sloshing about in a pool under a waterfall while two burly farmhands rubbed me all over, I’d probably have that look on my face, too.

This Sheep Belongs To …

Of course since those little “Hello My Name Is …” stickers would just fall off, you have to have other, more permanent ways to keep track of which sheep belongs to whom. The stencil used on the flock during the reign of Emperor Napoléon III (the Second Empire) was characteristically elegant, I thought.

And then there was this rather unpleasant-looking thing, which turned out to be the boxed set of pincers and plaques used at Rambouillet for tattooing sheep’s ears from the Second Empire until 1970. 

It brought back an unpleasant memory involving my friend Renée and a teen-aged clerk with shaky hands at the Piercing Pagoda at Windward Mall, circa 1988.

Wool Under Glass

And of course, but of course, there was actual wool.

Part of the research program at Rambouillet involved sending agents out into the world to gather comparative specimens from other breeds. There were nineteenth-century vitrines filled with vials of wool from other European countries like Prussia …

… and from as far afield as Australia.

But the most amazing thing, if you ask me, were the display cases showing comparative locks of Rambouillet fleece. They went back to the very first decade of the flock, beginning in 1789 …

… with each lock affixed to the board by sealing wax …

… and continued through the nineteenth century …

… right into the twentieth century. Sometimes the comparison between years was incredibly poignant. Here, you see the difference between the end of the 1930s (thick and lustrous), and the depths of World War II and its aftermath in 1944–46 (thin and dull). Not even war and occupation could stop Rambouillet from tending the flock as best it could.

Please Hold Still, Madame

The exhibit was also cleverly fitted out with charming animated videos that helped tell the story. Of course, without the proper permissions I can’t really show them to you here.

This is a still from the bouncy, tongue-in-cheek film explaining the mid-twentieth century method of artificially inseminating ewes.

Clara made me watch the whole thing twice.

About The Author

Franklin Habit has been sharing his brainy and hilarious writing and illustrations with the knitting world since 2005.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Absolutely fabulous, thank you for this Franklin! Wish I were there….

    • My feelings exactly!

    • Merci!
      As I knit, I am “reading” a historical fiction book about the French Revolution. There has even been mention of the farm, nothing about sheep. This adds a wonderful bits of background knowledge and will makes me want to visit even more.

  • Fascinating and fabulous! Thank-you Franklin!

    • I too would have that look on my face if burly farmhands were bathing me

      • Love this! Entertained, and informed, as always!

  • Amazing and wonderful! I definitely saved this article! And will reread it at least 1000 times! Thank you, Franklin and Clara!!!

  • Witty and just fun! I feel like I was there!

  • This post brightened up a dreary, gray, wet day. 🙂

  • When I was reading Clara’s tales of her Paris adventures I wondered if and when the two of you got together. This was perfect! Thank you for sharing.

  • As always, an enjoyable read! TY Franklin!

  • Now I know why I’ve seen and read so many articles about the Merino War. I don’t think my rudimentary French would have been useful but it still looks like an exhibit I’d enjoy. Enjoyed your review, particularly your reaction to the ram’s barn. Thanks for another excellent letter from Paris.

  • Baa Baa, I missed this exhibition by a week. Thanks for the full report, Franklin.

  • I always look forward to your articles. They are informative, witty,band entertaining. I had read a bit about Spain, France and Rambouillet sheep not long ago, this article continued the story. Thank you! So looking forward to more writings from you.

    • What a civilized way to shear sheep-sitting in a chair whilst the sheep lay there peacefully . I know some shearers who would like to meet those well trained sheep! Thank for sharing!

  • It all sounds fascinating. And of course your description of it is delightful and funny 😀

    • And of course I would absolutely museum with you anytime 😉

      • Exactly what I was thinking. Any museum, any country, any time.

  • Merci, monsieur.

  • You broaden my view of the world. Thank you!

  • We’ll, this just made my morning! Magnifique!

  • Merci, Monsieur! Tres bon! I am very interested in learning about the history of various sheep and their wool and this is fabulous information.

  • Am I not right in thinking that it used to be a capital offence to try and export Merino sheep to anywhere from Spain? I must read more about this! Thank you Franklin (and Clara) for fascinating insights.

  • I grew up in Hudson, NY which boasts Mt. Merino where imported Merino sheep flocked. Thank you for this wonderful journey through their history.

  • Super cool exhibit! I wish I had known about it. Thank you Franklin (and MDK) for “shearing” it with us.

  • A pun in another language! That I understand! Marveilleux! (But cannot spell)

  • When I’m feeling down, all I need to do is read this headline! It’s parfait!

  • Oh my goodness, I wish I could have seen it for myself, but you have given us a delightful glimpse. Thank you!

  • Oh my!! What a pair you make!!! Have you and Clara ever taught a class together? Did anyone stop laughing long enough to learn and/or teach anything???

  • I look forward to reading EVERYTHING you write, Franklin!!

  • MDK, I love what you do for my mornings! Franklin AND Clara? Bonus! C’est fantastique!

  • Merci. Merci.
    Not only for the exhibit review, but for allowing us to be w you vicariously at the Hotel Soubise.
    (Ah beautiful 18th c buildings that are now public spaces ….I remember gaping at the Carnevalet.)

  • I had a lot of fun with both of your Instagram posts that day. I can just picture the giggly excitement induced by all those samples of fleece and fabric. It’s like the exhibit was curated just for you two! Thank you for bringing us along.

  • Oh my! I would love to see that exhibition; perhaps they’ll bring it back someday? Or maybe send it on tour? If you have get the chance, please attend a fleece competition! I had the opportunity to help the show superintendent for a couple years when I lived NE of Seattle. Fleece competitions will really give you an education on the various sheep breeds, alpacas, camel, yak, bison, etc., and an up close view of the differences in the qualities of the wool.

  • I am always so tickled to see a post from Franklin, and he doesn’t disappoint!

  • The whole article is fascinating and wonderful, but I think this is my favorite quote: “If I were sloshing about in a pool under a waterfall while two burly farmhands rubbed me all over, I’d probably have that look on my face, too.” The first thing I noticed in the picture was the contented mini-smile on the face of the sheep! Bravo for this fantastic piece!

  • Wonderful! Thank you.

  • Thank you, Franklin. (Merci, Franklin.) I think I found the color way for my next project in your photos of the locks and sealing wax.

  • Am ambling along with the Rambouillet. Great to hear from you!

  • Oh Franklin, could you just host all of us on a trip to Paris and guide us through this exhibit in person?! So much history!!! So many sheep!! So much yarn!!!!!! So much fun!!!

  • Thank you, Franklin! Fascinating, informative, delightful article with a perfect title! Paris suits you. ❤️

  • Why does that collage of photographs remind me of police booking photos?

  • Best punning post title EVER!

  • Merci, Franklin! How fascinating! Takes me back to my ‘majoring in agriculture’ days at Texas A&M and my high school days raising Fred the sheep!

  • Oh my dear Franklin – In reading your article I could almost smell the lanolin. As a former shepherd of Romeldale sheep (a cross of Rambouillet & New Zealand Marsh Romney from the early 1900s) I wish I could have been there peering over your shoulder. Thank you, Franklin!

  • Fantastic! This brought a huge smile.

  • Wonderful that you share all this with us!

  • OMG This article made me laugh out loud. Wish I could get on a plane to Paris right now!

  • Thank you for the detail/overview all with humor. Truly enjoyable.

  • This line made me laugh out loud: a teen-aged clerk with shaky hands at the Piercing Pagoda at Windward Mall, circa 1988. The visual discrepancies between the different fleeces before and during the war are striking – thank you for sharing that. Fascinating exhibit!

  • Fantastic article!

  • It’s a puzzle to me how Franklin can post several times on the same topic and each one is better than the last. We are so very lucky to have him to entertain and educate us.

  • Thank You for the hilarious tour!

  • Thank you for this delightful account.

  • Clara and Franklin, two of my favorite writers when it comes to anything sheep and wool!

  • Thank you so very much bringing me to Paris this morning. Each time you bring me into your world- my world is brighter!

  • An interesting read is Sally Coulthard, A Short History of the World According to Sheep, 2021. Much more informative than a world history class I took in college, with a truly global viewpoint.

  • Thanks for the sheep thrills, Franklin!?

    • Question mark was a mistake.

  • Franklin – I heart you!

  • I’d read anything by Franklin. Even his grocery list. I look forward to these pieces! This one was delightful. Rambouillet sheep are also raised in CO. They are the cutest!

  • Very interesting… and the title of the exhibit is ‘typically’ French. In as much as there is a typical French idea…. la guerre des moutons… check La Guerre des Boutons, by French author Louis Pergaud. Made into a couple of movies as well…

  • What fun to read this article! Sadly, we will be in Paris next month and will have missed this wonderful exhibit. To be so close…Merci for the photos and your excellent review!

  • I always look forward to reading anything you write. Thank you for another wry informative message. Your writing starts my day with a smile and a head full of knowledge.

  • Merci!

  • Brilliant and informative and amusing, as always!

  • Absolutely fascinating! Thank you so much! Loved see Clara too!

  • Thank you for sharing this exhibit with those of us who haven’t made it to France in the right time frame. And I am sure that Clara was a perfect companion for this exhibition.

  • This is such a good article, Franklin. For France to keep detailed records for 400+ years on a very specific part of the wool industry shows how incredibly important and valuable the Rambouillet sheep breeding program was to the country. The story is fascinating and your gentle wit is heartwarming. Thank you MDK for sharing with all of us.

  • You AND Clara! What joy!!!

  • Franklin, and Clara. This was a great story. I am mad about sheep also. One of the many things I love about Paris is all the out of the way places and and the tiny museums to all sorts of ephemera.

  • Merci beaucoup Franklin! What a wonderful exhibit and thoroughly enjoyed your sharing with us.

  • Fabulous as always! The sheep lying still on the tables makes me laugh.

  • Love your writing Franklin! Très divertissant!

  • Franklin, thank you for an informative and humorous tour of the exhibit. I would have loved to see it with you and Clara-you could have charged admission.;

  • Fun, informative, entertaining, enjoyable, Thank you. Most of us wool-aholics never have such a delightful experience.

  • Priceless and PERFECT!!! Thank you!

  • Loved it.

Come Shop With Us

My Cart0
There are no products in the cart!
Continue shopping