Of honey, bees and beekeeping in Medieval Ireland

Alisons_honeyOne of the newest participants in Eplaheimr, the newly named Alice de la Wode, formerly known as Alison of Cantebury, is one of those naturally fantastic at everything, really interested in everything, extremely knowledgeable about cool stuff people (I’m not jealous, honest 🙂 ) On Facebook recently she posted a picture of a little of her spoils as a beekeeper (reproduced here with her kind permission) and it reminded me that I seem to have come across a lot of articles lately about the Brehon laws regarding bees, honey and beekeeping on a few of the medieval sites I follow.  Then I caught the tail end of a documentary about beekeeping on Monday evening so I’m reading up some more.  I’ve always adored the idea of honey more than the reality, but since I’ve started medieval research and practicing some of what I’ve been learning the gap is slowly narrowing.   There is still something so indulgent about it, so absorbing and sensual, I adore that rich colour as it glows in jars in the sunshine.  Beeswax, too , is so rich, so fabulous for cosmetic use and for candlemaking.

I’ve always had a cautious but fervent interest in bees, probably in no small part down to my Granddad having been an amateur beekeeper – a thing of endless mystery on our visits to Wicklow to see him.   It’s true that one of them stung me – cruelly right on the very top of my head – when I was very small, but I still find them fascinating.  My grandad was a great gardener, he had an orchard of exquisitely gnarled old apple trees beside the vegetable patch where the earth was dark and heavy with worms, worked into drills and carefully maintained, circled and lined with frames and homemade supports.  You left the house with the nose tingling smell of geraniums and tomato plants and went wandering about the veg and flowers outside,  humming along with the heavy drone of the bees about their business, or imagining the hairy seed pods on the masses and masses of sweet pea as weird beasts. He grew Honesty plants, I loved them because once they went to seed they looked so tatty until you peeled off the paper-like seed coverings and revealed discs of diaphanous silver, like thin peelings of moonlight.  His bee were kept in three wooden hives placed along the back hedge, nestled in the hedgerow and tall grasses.  His shed held all his equipment and spare parts.   I loved when the fresh combs were taken from the hive, the rough, bright timber frames heavy with regular hexagons of creamy wax caps that you could flick off. That was the best bit, you got wax over your fingers and it felt great to roll it around your finger tips while you watched the honey ooze out of the gap.  Honey, however you might feel about it, is beautiful to look at, it really does look like riches in liquid form.   One of my favourite Greek philosophers, Democritis, was supposed to kept himself alive a few more precious days by inhaling the scent of honey.

Honey has always been associated with death, not least because it is an excellent preservative, and its association with death is a positive one – immortality, transformation, reincarnation, solace.  Amoung other reasons there is a very ancient myth that swarms of bees spontaneously generated from the carefully prepared corpses of certain animals. The Lyle Golden Syrup tin has a picture of a dead lion surrounded by bees and the motto “From the strong came forth sweetness”, a reference to the biblical Samson and the bees story. Actually the animal most often used to “create” a swarm was an ox – Ovid gives us an early example of this: “Swarms rush from the rotten ox; and one extinguished life produces a thousand”  Virgil, always interested in things afterlife, uses the idea of the bugonia (swarm of bees gathered from dead oxen) many times.  It’s a practice, or at least a literary idea, that is immeasurably ancient, there are Egyptian variations, and in Arabia they used horses, not oxen.    The long and the short of it is that it was all a big mistake, such a corpse does indeed produce a swarm of what are commonly known as drone flies, which look like bees but have 2 wings and not 4 and obviously don’t produce honey.   It would seem likely that while writers and artists used the idea a lot, actual experienced beekeepers would have known differently.

Honey was apparently the first cure man came up with for hangovers, (and it’s true, the sugars helps metabolise the alcohol), which is funny, since it is also likely to have been the earliest form of hangover inducing alcohol in the first place. Mead in its most basic state, a sort of hydromel, is described by Pliny as 3 parts rainwater to 1 part honey left in the sun for 40 days, he complicates it, it’s true, by including instructions regarding the desired position of Sirius, but the base recipe was an accident waiting to happen and be discovered.  Over the centuries additions like wine, grape juice, vinegar and spices created new types of mead.  I am very keen to try out some mead making and, though it was printed out of period in the 1660s, I am inclined to try some from The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened by Kenelm Digby – http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=193953&pageno=1

In the SCA honey butter is extremely popular (nom nom nom) and I’ve heard it said a couple of times that it’s not actually period.  Given the very ancient description of lands of “milk and honey” I’m given to think otherwise.  In Ireland, according to the Smaller History of Ireland (1906), honey was a condiment always brought to the table, sometimes still in combs, and sometimes mixed with lard.   It was used to baste roast meat and cooked salmon.   Early Medieval Ireland, 400-1200 by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín states that honey was utilized as a sweetener in brewing ale and in making dairy spreads.

It’s difficult to imagine a time where there was no sugar, medieval Ireland certainly wouldn’t have seen that much of it, so beekeeping would have been extremely common.   For centuries honey and wax was hunted, parties went to gather from wild swarms in forests until someone figured out how to gather and house a swarm to keep conveniently close to home. we know that beekeeping was known to the ancient Greeks, and therefore by the Romans who would have spread the art throughout what became medieval Europe.  The church in Ireland would almost certainly have been early adopters of techniques passed down through classical texts and beekeeping is known to have been widespread in Brehon times.  Wild swarms would still have been very widespread, as Ireland then was so deeply forested.  Giraldus of Wales in the Topography of Ireland says

“Like other countries, it has bees producing honey, and I think it would flow from their cells more abundantly, if the increase of the swarms were not checked by the bitter and poisonous yews with which the woods of the island abound; or rather, if the violent winds, and the moisture of the climate, in Ireland, did not disperse the swarms of so minute an animal, or cause them to perish.”

The idea that yew trees caused bees to die was one held by Virgil as well, and probably came from him.  The description of Irish weather is apt (listening to the wind and rain beating on my window at the minute)

Bees were said to have been brought to Ireland by a Welsh monk/an Irish monk who was based in Wales to Wexford. The story goes that the bees followed him here, that he resisted three times before relenting to their loyal affection and settled in Ireland forever – leaving the Welsh monastery and the area in which it was built devoid of bees for a looooong time.

The patron saint for bees and beekeepers in Ireland is St. Gobnait, she was a bit awesome going by the stories, my D&D druid character is certainly impressed, she protected Ballyvourney by releasing her hives of bees against soldiers that had come and ransaked the food stores in the area. The bees attacked and stung them til  “nar fágadar súil ná srón ionnta” – they didn’t leave an eye or nose with them and they had to abandon their loot and flee.  Another time a local chief asked her for assistance so she transformed a hive into fighting men for him.

Bees were often kept in hives called skeps, made of wicker smeared with cow manure or woven straw. These hives were kept in arched alcoves called bee boles, usually built into stone walls and are, in my opinion, one of those interesting architectural features that add real character to an old castle/large household site.

In Brehon times there were An Bechbretha, or bee laws/judgements – over twenty pages detailing the rights of the various parties concerned to swarms, hives and honey production, covering ownership, correct sharing of honey yielded by bees foraging on the land of several people, punishment for the destruction of bees, compensation for anyone stung by another’s bees, and neighbourly sharing.   The most commonly cited law on pretty much every internet site and book I’ve come across is the one providing that the occupants of the four nearest farms to a domestic hive were entitled to a share of the honey each year and a swarm of bees every fourth year, because a bee taking nectar from plants growing on the neighbours’ land were guilty of ‘grazing trespass’ and they were entitled to compensation.   Wild hives and swarms found on cultivated land were recognised as free moving entities that conferred rights as they shifted – if bees from one plot swarmed onto another, their produce for the following year was evenly divided between the two plots.   If you were stung and you swore you had not retaliated by killing the bee (which in truth had doomed itself to dye anyway when it stung you) , you were entitled to a meal of honey from the bee keeper.   However you were unfortunate and died from the sting then two hives had to be paid in compensation to your family.

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