Bees in the Medieval Economy

by Alex Sapoznik (King’s College, London)

This article is published by The Economic History Review, and it is available on the EHS website

In his seventh-century Etymology Isidore of Seville wrote ‘bees originate from oxen, just as hornets come from horses, drone bees from mules, and wasps from asses’, reflecting the belief that bees were the tiniest of birds, which sprang spontaneously from the putrefying flesh of cows. Such ideas were not new to the Middle Ages, and had been common from Antiquity, when Pliny the Elder commented that dead bees could be brought back to life if covered with mud and bovine carcass.

Yet despite this peculiar (to modern eyes) belief, medieval people were in fact keen observers of the natural world. They knew that there was a larger bee which was especially important—although they thought this was a king, rather than a queen—which the other bees protected, even to the death. They knew that bees lived in well-ordered communities, where every bee had a particular task which it dutifully carried out. They especially emphasized worker bees, which went out tirelessly collecting dew, from which they thought honey came, and flowers, which they thought turned to wax. But they observed no mating in bee colonies, and the implications of this were profound. Medieval theologians associated the virginity and chastity of bees with the two figures whose virginity and chastity were central to the Christian faith: Christ and Mary. This religious symbolism had a singularly important practical consequence, for it meant that beeswax candles were required for observance of the ritual of the Mass.

Over the high and late middle ages Christian religious practice became increasingly elaborate, with a greater number of services celebrated at an expanding number of cathedrals, churches, chapels, chantries and shrines. All of these required wax candles. Candles also burned on the rood screens and before each image, shrine, and many tombs in every church in Europe. Every stage of a medieval Christian’s life, from the baptismal font to the grave, was accompanied by candles.

The imagery of light and dark, fundamental to Christian devotion, was reliant on the supply of vast quantities of beeswax for candles and torches. The cost of provisioning religious institutions with lights was significant. In England wax accounted for on average half of the total running cost of the main chapel of major religious institutions and, apart from the fabric and bells, was the most expensive single item in parish churches. The need for wax across medieval Europe was continuous and persistent, yet the extent and significance of the production, trade, and consumption of wax has yet to be fully considered.

 

Figure 1. Bees (apes) are so-called because they are born without feet. A medieval bestiary

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By permission of the British Library: Bestiary: BL Royal MA 12 C XIX f45r

 

Where did this beeswax come from? Although demand for wax was high across Europe, production itself was unevenly spread. In northern and central Europe high medieval urbanization and settlement expansion came at the expense of favourable bee habitats. This meant that the areas with the greatest need for wax were under intense pressure to meet demand through local production. These regions were therefore especially attractive to merchants bringing wax from the Baltic hinterland, where large-scale sylvan wax production took place in forests which had not been felled to make room for arable fields. This high-quality wax became an important feature of Hanseatic trade, and a brisk westward trade brought this wax ‘de Polane’ to England and Bruges where eager buyers were readily found.

Yet even this thriving international trade was not enough to meet the demand for wax from the c.9,000 parish churches which existed in England by the early fourteenth century.  Comparing the total amount of wax needed for basic religious observance with wax imports suggests that foreign wax accounted for only a fifth of the amount of wax needed in England before 1475. The remaining wax must have been the product of hundreds of thousands of skeps kept by small domestic producers. This local beekeeping is almost invisible in manorial documents, and it is only by considering the total demand for wax that the importance of beekeeping within the peasant economy becomes apparent.

What emerges, then, is a dual economy for wax. Wealthy religious institutions attracted merchants bringing high-quality Baltic wax in great quantities, demonstrating that geographically peripheral areas were not only vital to European trade, but that the cultural practices of high and late medieval society were dependent on these regions. At the same time, small producers found ready markets for the product of their hives in their local parish churches, supplying much-needed injections of income within the household economy.

 

Figure 2 Bees in the Luttrell Psalter

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By permission of the British Library:  Luttrell Psalter: BL Add MS 42130 f240r

 

Bees and bee products held a uniquely important place in medieval culture, and consequently in the medieval economy. In these tiny golden creatures medieval people saw something flung from Paradise, imbued with mystical qualities and powerfully symbolic. Today, as we face climate change, habitat destruction and the decline of bee colonies, we might do well to look at the natural world with something of the same wonder.

This research is being expanded in the Leverhulme project ‘Bees in the medieval world: Economic, environmental and cultural perspectives’, which will also explore the Mediterranean trade in beeswax and consider encounters between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

To contact Alex Sapoznik: Alexandra.sapoznik@kcl.ac.uk

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