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Medieval beekeeping

Medieval castle

Medieval beekeeping is part of people’s history and culture. In the Middle Ages, beekeeping was a fairly common occupation. This is evidenced by references in written sources. Charlemagne (747-814) ordered that all estates should keep bees and that two-thirds of the honey produced should be given to the crown.  Laws written during the reign of King Alfred, from about A.D. 885 to 899, proclaimed that the “thief of bees” was subject to the highest penalties.

Still in Europe, honey was practically the only sweetener of food. It was also used to make the honey alcoholic drink mentioned in poems of the 5th and 8th centuries. Wax was also needed for lighting secular and religious events, making seals, paints, glue, and molds for casting. All this stimulated the development of beekeeping and made this occupation very profitable.

Medieval hives in Europe

Unfortunately, in the Middle Ages in Europe between 500 AD and 1000 AD we do not find any depictions of beehives. But there is reason to believe that different types of beehives were used in western Europe depending on the region, including wicker and straw skeps.

In eastern Europe, tree hollows hives were used in wooded areas in Germany, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. Beekeeping in tree hollows dates back to the time when people used to plunder honey from wild bees in hollows. Over time, people began to artificially enlarge existing hollows by hollowing out a rectangular cavity, which they covered with a board with a hole for the bees to fly through. On the board they made a mark on who the hive belonged to. To prevent looting of the hive, it was made at a height of 5 to 25 meters.

From about 1000 AD onwards we have written sources where we can see images of medieval hives after a break of almost 1500 years. Let me remind you that the last depiction of beekeeping is from ancient Egypt. This image is in the tomb of Pabasa, Luxor 650 BC.

European written sources are Illuminated manuscripts. The first such manuscripts containing images of beekeeping are the Exultet Rolls, created in Southern Italy between the 10th and 14th centuries. The Exultet Scroll is a long and wide illustrated scroll containing the text and music of the Exultet, the liturgical hymn of the Easter Vigil. The title comes from the initial words of the prayer “Exsultet jam angelica turba”.
In these scrolls there are often images and praises of bees, as they were the ones who provided the wax for the Easter candle.
The Exultet Rolls contain images of rectangular, cylindrical hives lying horizontally. Some rectangular hives are supported by legs. It should be noted that there are no images of the skeps in the manuscripts.

The first image of skep we find in popular bestiaries. The Worksop Bestiary produced around 1185 in England shows a beekeeper releasing a captured swarm from a bag, and the bees making their way into a skep beehive. The twelfth-century Aberdeen Bestiary, also from England, shows an apiary of three wicker skep hives resting on a short-legged table. It was the medieval skep that became the symbol of the medieval beehive for many years to come. Although people used different types of beehives.

Bees flying into a skep as depicted an early thirteenth-century bestiary. Royal 12 C XIX  f. 45 The British Library
Bees flying into a skep as depicted an early thirteenth-century bestiary. Royal 12 C XIX f. 45 The British Library (http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size = mid&IllID =55682)

In the Lilienfelder Concordantiae caritatis 1350 AD there are images of log hives typical of a wooded area. One consists of a hollow log with a rectangular cutout covered with boards. The other is a conventional log hive standing upright. Such hives are characteristic of the wooded areas of eastern Europe.

The skeps defense

Skeps woven from twigs or straw needed additional protection from wind, snow or rain. Often the skeps were covered with mud and dried, sometimes a kind of straw hut was made and placed over the hive for extra protection. Skeps were placed on shelves against the wall or in niches in the wall. The niches could be closed with doors to protect them from robbers.

Honey and wax as a means of trade

Honey and wax were popular trade goods in Europe.  The Treaty of Wedmore 879 AD stopped Viking raids, promoting trade between England and Norway. Furs and fish from Norway were exchanged for honey, malt, wheat and wool. From Eastern Europe, in particular from the territory of modern Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, honey and the much-needed beeswax were exported to Europe. The need for beeswax in Europe was very great. It is connected with the spread of Christianity where wax was required for candles during various ceremonies. According to some data, the annual demand for beeswax only for The Royal Monastery of St. Mary of Pedralbes, Spain (18 religious houses) was 3000 kg.

Using medieval hives as weapons

The use of bee hives as weapons finds evidence in the legend of the seventh-century nun Gobnait, who lived in Ballyvourney County in Cork, Ireland. According to the legend, she chased away cattle thieves by shaking a hive and releasing bees, which rushed in pursuit of the thieves. An English manuscript from 1326 contains an illustration in which the defenders of the city of Chester, when besieged by Norwegians and Danes, threw bee hives at them, thus ending the siege.

The first protective clothing for medieval beekeepers

Until 1320, all the images we have seen show a beekeeper without protective clothing. In the Middle Ages, thanks to several manuscripts, we see the evolution of protective clothing. The simplest protection was just a veil over the head, essentially just a fabric. Then we meet the specially sewn cap. And finally, in The Bodleian Library’s 15th century Rawlinson Manuscript, we see protective clothing that is very similar to modern clothing. Beekeepers are protected by a mask and a special jacket and gloves to protect them from bee stings. By the way, in all the images we see a man beating a drum to make the swarm land in the right place. This beekeeping tradition we find in the times of Ancient Rome, which was connected with the myth of the Curetes, who made loud noises with their shields to drown out the cries of young Mercury, thus hiding him from his father Saturn.

The Bodleian Library’s Rawlinson Manuscript
The Bodleian Library’s Rawlinson Manuscript (https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/120ef54d-0129-4314-9b62-6a2b754fe1d1/surfaces/7fdfb863-6881-4b57-9090-ac1cecfb3419/)

Killing bees during honey extraction

There are suggestions that in medieval times, bees were killed when extracting honey from a hive. For example, The Tacuinum Sanitatis 1390-140 AD depicts a man cutting honeycomb from a lying hive with a knife.  A woman stands nearby and holds a bowl to receive the honeycomb. We can see that the bees are flying only at the hives in the background. Whereas there are no bees in the foreground. Probably, there are no bees in the hive that is being cut because of the killing. But this is just an assumption, as there is not enough information for a definitive conclusion.

Tacuinum Sanitatis
Bibl. Natl. France. 2016. Tacuinum Sanitatis. (http://visualiseur.bnf.fr/ConsulterElementNum?O=
IFN-08100553&E=JPEG&Deb=163&Fin=163&Param=C)

Another image from an Italian manuscript in the British Library in London 1485 AD shows a large fire in an medieval apiary with beekeepers working with box hives nearby. This may also indicate the killing of medieval bees before the honey is harvested.

Italian manuscript in the British Library of London
Italian manuscript in the British Library of London. (http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=8848)

The killing of bees in the Middle Ages when extracting honey from hives is probably due to the fact that bees lost their connection with their divine origin, as was the case in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. In this connection bees became just a consumable material. In addition, the design of the vertical skep hive made it impossible to extract the honey without destroying the nest.

Beekeeping was a very common activity in medieval Europe. Both honey and beeswax were in demand and were used to make candles, paints, glue, and molds for casting.  Hives wicker made of twigs or straw (Skep) were very common.  They were cheap to produce, so many households could afford them. We also see evidence of the use of protective clothing by medieval beekeepers. Medieval beekeeping is an essential part of the whole history of beekeeping.

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