The horse the ghoos & the sheep (1477)

There is very little to say about the poem of The Horse, the Goose, and the Sheep (published c.1477), by William Caxton, in terms of its sole reference to bees. The poem was written by John Lydgate (c. 1370-c.1451), who by this time was dead some twenty-five years.

The reference to bees is one in a long list referencing the correct terminology for a group of something, in this instance, ‘a swarm of bees’, which fits into the list alongside:

A Gagyll of women

A Chyrme of fynches

A Swarme of bees

A Exaltacion of larkes

A disce[n]cion of wodewalis

And so on. The short pamphlet was possibly printed twice by William Caxton and then reprinted by Wynkyn de Worde in 1495, 1499 and 1500. However, the editions by Wynkyn de Worde did not contain the reference to bees, having cut down the list of correct terminology to a smaller length. According to Curt F. Buhler the poem appears to have been popular for a short time with several manuscript versions also surviving.


Curt F. Buhler, ‘Lydgate’s Horse, Sheep and Goose and Huntington MS HM 144’, Modern Language Notes, 55:8 (1940), pp. 563-569.

The Prologue of this Revelation (1483)

Unusually the ‘prologue of this revelation’ is an early Belgian publication of an English text. During the fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries few texts were published in English abroad unless they were produced by the efforts of an Englishman. This is an exception.

The text contains a first-hand account of a near-death experience recorded by Adam of Eynsham at a monastery in Oxfordshire in 1196. Originally Adam wrote the account of Brother Edmund’s experiences in Latin.

This edition is an anonymous translation into Middle English, probably produced some time after 1470 and then printed abroad by William de Machlinia in 1483. If William hoped for strong sales he was most likely disappointed. The after-world vision of Brother Edmund did not gain much traction as a popular account, unlike earlier visions such as Drichtelm, Fursa, and Tundale. It had, by this time, however, found its way into historical chronicles by Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris (amongst others).   

In a 2012 thesis from the University of Exeter, Christopher Wilson analyses the vision text describing its contents as beginning with ‘a confusing succession of events’ at the monastery at Eynsham, which included Edmund’s long illness, a confession, and delusions. When Edmund’s soul is taken from its body he recounts three areas of purgatory punishments in which he encounters a rector who had allowed his brothers to turn to sodomy, a wife who is punished for a harsh tongue, and two knights who had broken their crusading vow. He then visits a place of rest in which souls are granted repeated visions of Christ’s passion. Upon recovering Edmund admits that he was denied the sight of God until his real death.  

In general, references to bees and honey are marginal in this text. Indeed, there is only one of each. In chapter 7, Edmund decides to break his fast by requesting some bread and ‘a little left-over honey’. This provides the modern reader with an idea of simple food that could be consumed in a monastery. The suggestion seems to be that honey is available, but perhaps not in huge quantities.

Meanwhile, in Chapter 12, we are presented with the vivid image of purgatory in which the number of souls is described as alike to a ‘swarm full of bees’. As recounted in the 1483 publication:

To seyde and bothe the sydys of the hylle the whiche had in hem that horabulle fyre and coold was so full of sowlys as hynes swarmyn ful of bees. To the whyche sowlys thys was a comynne and a generalle tormente that nowe they were drownde in the forseyde ponde and fro thens takyn uppe and caste in to fiere.

The modern English translation of this passage reads that ‘the hillside whose ground expelled such horrible flames and the opposing hillside that was so icy cold, these were as full of souls as a hive is of bees; and it seemed to be a common and general torment that each soul was drowned in the lake and then taken up and cast into the fire and at least carried high into the air by the huge flames’.

The image of a swarm to describe purgatory would appear to be a popular one, having similarly appeared in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (published by William Caxton in 1477), whilst the use of honey as a source of food for recovery provides a possible insight into monastic food provision in the medieval period and certainly connects it to the works of physic and herbals which often referred to honey as useful for ailments.