Last week Robyn, from Big Dreams for a Tiny Garden, asked a question in the comments section about honey in the Middle Ages and I had to admit that I have avoided tackling the subject. Not because I’m afraid of bees; I’m not and I love seeing them in the garden. It’s because, if I think too much about them, I might be tempted to get a hive and turn out to be very allergic to bee stings.
Despite all this, bees and their products do deserve a post of their own, so here it is.
In the fourteenth century bees were kept in skeps – upside-down conical baskets with a small hole allowing bees to enter and exit. Skeps were usually kept in a sheltered place, since bees don’t like bad weather. As a means of keeping bees, skeps were far from perfect as they could not be examined for wax or honey without disturbing the bees.
Bees produce two things much in demand in the fourteenth century – honey and wax. You might think that honey was the more important of the two, but you’d be wrong.
Until sufficient sugar cane could be grown outside of the eastern Mediterranean to make it affordable for most people, honey was the main source of sweetness in food. Wax was the more valuable product, however, and theft of skeps was a perpetual problem. They were small enough to be portable and there were usually several of them kept together.
Honey was extracted from the wax by pressing it. The wax had to be washed to remove any remaining honey before it could be put to one of its many uses.
Honey was a versatile product. Its most important use was as a food flavouring. It was used to flavour ale and to add sweetness to the porridge with which many people started the day. This is certainly my favourite use for honey. Honey has antiseptic properties and was used to help wounds heal. This use of honey is definitely going to make an appearance in one of my novels. It was used in bread making and was also rubbed onto horse’s legs when they were sick.
Wax was much more important than honey. Both were imported into England as well as harvested here, but it wasn’t worth transporting honey long distances, because merchants could not make as much money from it as they could from wax.
The most obvious use for wax was for candles. Beeswax gives a pure and odourless light. This was particularly important in monasteries and churches. Monasteries kept bees in order to collect wax for candles, but they could not always collect enough. Wax was imported into England to meet the demand for wax candles by royalty, monasteries and nobles. Most of it was imported into London. Edward I bought a large amount of imported wax from John of London, a merchant living in Southampton.
Like honey, wax had medicinal uses and was included in a remedy for an abscess in the throat, amongst other things.
Pilgrims left wax images at shrines they visited as a sign of gratitude or as a reflection of their prayers. Wax could be shaped as something relevant to the saint or to show the reason for pilgrimage.
The king and his nobles had another use for wax. They mixed it with a resin, melted it and attached it to documents, then they put their seals into it to show their agreement to whatever was in the document.
Wax was imported from Spain and Eastern Europe, mainly from Russia. Some also came from North Africa. The main African centre was Béjaïa, whose name gave the French their word for candle – bougie. France imported greater quantities of wax than England.