Tag Archives: Honey

Beekeeping In The Middle Ages

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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.

Seal of Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford c 1218 to 1230

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.

 

Sources:

Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe – by Peter Spufford

The Medieval Cookbook – Maggie Black

Medieval Southampton – Colin Platt

The Medieval Cook – Bridget Ann Henisch

Tudor Monastery Farm – Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn, Tom Pinfold

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century – Ian Mortimer

 

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Sugar

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Sugar was an expensive foodstuff. Like cinnamon, cloves and saffron it was considered, and used, as a spice, but it did not travel quite as far as they did to reach England.

Sugar first came into Europe from Egypt and Syria. Crusaders brought it with them when they returned home. This was the beginning of Europe’s addiction to sugar. In the thirteenth century the Venetians and Genoese were able to set up cane plantations on Mediterranean islands, which enabled them to control the whole process of sugar production and distribution.

Once refined, sugar was formed into cone-shaped loaves. It is still sold in this way in some parts of Europe. Sugar loaves were white and brown. If the sugar was refined and pure, it was white. If it was unrefined, it was brown.

Sugar was used in sauces for what we would consider savoury food, but it was also used to make sweet confections to follow it.

Sugar was very versatile and soon came to be preferred to honey by those who could afford it. Honey could be produced anywhere in England by anyone who had a skep and the necessary skills to manage the bees. For those who had to buy their sweeteners, a pound of sugar would have cost a skilled labourer a day’s wages, four times more than a pound of honey.

In the fourteenth century some large towns in Europe had sweet shops selling expensive sweets made from melted and crystallised sugar. These were sold by weight. Again, they were something only the wealthy could afford.

Venice, as it did with spices, controlled the refining and distribution of sugar across Europe for centuries. Sugar only became affordable for the masses in the eighteenth century, when sugar cane started to be grown in the West Indies, using slave labour. In the sixteenth century it was possible to extract sugar from beetroot, but this was not done on a commercial scale until the nineteenth century.

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