The Life of John Picus Earl of Mirandula (1525)

John Picus of Mirandula was born 24 February 1463; the son of John Francis Picus, Prince of Mirandula and Concordia. In his time, he was considered a prodigy for his learning, producing at an early age an excellent manual or digest to the Papal Decretals (letters and laws of the Papacy), producing poetry in Latin and Italian, and making a name for himself in composing a penegyrical criticism on the poems of Lorenzo de Medici.

In November 1486, Picus published a series of “Conclusions” which consisted of 900 propositions (subjects of discussion) about science, intended to challenge the learned of his day. To an extent his challenges worked – the learned took notice, but the text also resulted in claims of heresy regarding some of his propositions. Retreating to Florence, Picus started work on his Apologia, a work intended for the pope and meant as a means of proving his adherence to Roman Catholicism. Whilst Picus was eventually exonerated (in 1493), the Apologia itself was suppressed by the papacy. A year later, Picus was seized by fever and died at the age of 33.

Image from The Life of John Picus - Profile of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Johannes Picus Mirandulanus) (Wellcome/Wikipedia)
Profile of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (John Picus) from the Wellcome Trust (Wikipedia)

The work here is a translation by the famed English humanist, Thomas More, including a life of John Picus translated by More in 1504 from the original written by Picus’ nephew, Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola (1470-1533). The translation, as noted in 1956 by Stanford E. Lehmberg is ‘quite literal’ but does contain some omissions and additions that reflect More’s own thoughts at this time. The rest is a collected works, containing Picus’ letters, Commentary on Psalm 15, prayers, and theological treatises.

Bees and Honey

The sole reference to bees and honey occurs within the biography on John Picus. It is a reference to the fable of Ambrose in which a swarm of bees is said to have flown about the mouth of his cradle when he was a baby:

The grete saynt ambrose: a swarme of bees flewe aboute his mouth in his cradle & some entred in to his mouthe and after y t  yssuynge out agayne and fleynge vp on hyghe hydynge them selfe amonge the cloudes escaped bothe y syght of his father and of all them that were present

The story further refers to the Prognostication of Paulinus for the interpretation of the fable, explaining that it signified the celestial gift of god and was worthy of lifting the ‘mynde of men from erthe in to heven’. In other words, the writing is acclaimed by Paulinus as alike to ‘swete hony combes’ or is to be considered as the most ‘plesaunt wrytynge’.

In the context of the chapter, this reference is an attempt by Giovanni to credit John Picus with equal talent to that displayed in the fable of Ambrose. He begins the chapter by claiming that a fiery garland appeared over the chamber of John’s mother soon before his birth. This, we are told, was taken as a token the he would be born ‘in the perfection of understandynge’ and be a ‘perfyte fygure’ much like the perfect circle of the garland. Furthermore, his name would circle around the whole world (again symbolised by the garland) and his mind would fire aspiration in heavenly things (referring toe the fiery nature of the garland).

Further Reading

Chalmers’ Biography – John Picus (Italy; 1463-1494), vol. 24 (1812) p. 484. Website.

Stanford E. Lehmberg, ‘Sir Thomas More’s Life of Pico della Mirandola’, Studies in the Renaissance, 3 (1956), pp. 61-74.

The Demaundes Joyous (1511)

As the UK falls further into chaos today over Brexit, it seemed timely to brighten Early Modern Bees with a few jokes to lighten the mood. The Demaundes Joyous is an early sixteenth-century attempt at a joke book, providing corkers such as: How may a man know or perceive a cow in a flock of sheep? Give up? Well the answer is simple: By sight!

My Dad tells better jokes. Really, he does. Well, perhaps not. As I near 40 years old and have a son of my own I’ve also begun to tell bad jokes with concerning regularity. That itself is a joke, is it not? That Dad’s tell bad jokes. The Demaundes Joyous shows us that some things never change. These could easily be ‘Dad jokes’ or perhaps Christmas cracker jokes. They are bad, but deliberately so. Or are they?

To a modern ear these seem to be rubbish jokes, but all joking aside, context is vital here. Were these jokes bad in the early sixteenth-century or quite witty? It would be unfair and wrong as an historian to argue that these are bad jokes without understanding the humour of the age. This point is made readily by a slight resurgence of interest in Demaundes Joyous in the nineteenth century.

In Joseph Armes Typographical antiquities (1810) he recorded a claim by a Mr. Cole that ‘it is a book for the vulgar, and full of jokes and humour of the time’. In 1891, P.H. Ditchfield, in his Old English Sports: Pastimes and Customs argued that ‘such feeble efforts of wit did the country folk try to beguile the long evenings’. Scholars in the nineteenth century tended to look at past writings with an ahistorical magnifying glass: their view, that this past scholarship was often alien to the standards of their own age and was therefore lesser, worthless, or nothing more than the poor ‘wit’ of country folk. But is any of that true?

Historians who study wit and jokes argue that context is everything. Jokes rely on cultural knowledge at the time that they are made. Remove that cultural knowledge and the joke falls flat. Adam Zucker, for instance, argues that what might have been hilarious at one point of time ‘come down to us as eerie fossils of rules we no longer know how to break’ (Zucker, 2011, 102).

Bees and the Demaundes Joyous

So what do we find in the Demaundes Joyous? This is a short book that provides a series of jokes line after line without a gap. Each joke begins with the word ‘Demand’ (meaning in this context ‘question’) and then R. (a shorthand for ‘response’, or in this context ‘answer’). The author is unknown, and the book was published just the once, in 1511 by Wynkyn de Worde.

Some of the jokes try to be clever. For instance,

Demand: which is the broadest water and least jeopardy to pass over? R. the Dewe.

Many, however, are naughty,

Demand: who was he that let the first fart at Rome? R. That was the arse.


Demand: what beast is it that has her tail between her eyes. R. It is a cat when she licks her arse.

The joke that refers to bees fits into the first category:

Demand: which is the most profitable beast & that men eats least of? R. That is bees.

The joke refers to the popularly understood notion that bees provide humans with profit either in terms of their ability to split into additional colonies, or in terms of their provision of honey and wax. Bees are not profitable as food in themselves, but for what they produce.

Further Reading

Adam Zucker, The Places of Wit in Early Modern English Comedy (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2011).

John Fitzherbert – The Book of Husbandry (1523)

The Book of Husbandry

In 1523 either John Fitzherbert (d. 1531) or his younger brother, Sir Anthony Fitzherbert (1470-1538) published a short manual on husbandry, that was simply called The Book Of Husbandry. This little book contained advice on various agricultural processes, such as:

  • Using ploughs;
  • growing fruit, seeds, and vegetables;
  • following rotations;
  • sowing oats;
  • looking after sheep, horses, and cattle;
  • advice on carrying wood and managing trees.

It also contained advice for the wife of the husbandman to take heed and, additionally, a short chapter on managing bees.

This book might well be the first to offer guidance on beekeeping printed in the English language, beating Thomas Hill’s treatise on bees (the first full ‘how-to’ manual on beekeeping printed in England) by some forty years. In their study of 2000, on beekeeping in English gardens, Penelope Walker and Eva Crane certainly believed this to be the case, although no evidence is presented as confirmation by them. In print, there is certainly no other book entitled for either bees or husbandry, which immediately stands out as a likely alternative.

Bees in The Book of Husbandry

It is quite surprising just how much Fitzherbert fitted into a section of only 528 words. He started the account with advice on the placing of a hive in a garden or orchard; he then followed up with advice on how to deal with swarms. The account ends with advice on how to protect the hive from pests such as mice, wasps, and other bees. One final sentence identifies the drone and the fact that it is ‘greater’ than other bees as it does not work, but eats all the honey. In later editions, Fitzherbert (or perhaps his printer?) adds the advice that such drones should be killed for the good of the hive.

The inclusion of a chapter on beekeeping in this book of husbandry is interesting. It would appear to be one of the few topics that Fitzherbert himself is not highly knowledgeable about. His other advice is detailed, exacting, and obviously based on local knowledge and practices. The chapter on Bees could easily have been extracted out of a classical agricultural book (Walker and Crane have noted the similarity to Palladius) or perhaps borrowed from someone else with more knowledge (a beekeeper perhaps?). At the least, the suggestion that June and July are the months when a swarm is most likely is true of the English situation.

At the very least we can say something about why the chapter was included in the book. The inclusion of beekeeping is explained by Fitzherbert in the proceeding chapter on swine. Fitzherbert suggests that a landlord could gain the most profit, for minimal space and cost if he kept sheep, swine, and bees. Yet he neglects to say anything about the products of the hive that might achieve that profit: the honey, the beeswax, or propolis. On these subjects Fitzherbert is silent.

Who wrote the book?

There is some doubt over the authorship of The Book of Husbandry first published in 1523 and republished many times after. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several arguments were made, some favouring John Fitzherbert, and some favouring his younger sibling, Sir Anthony Fitzherbert. The book itself only describes the author as ‘Master Fitzherbarde’. Mid-sixteenth-century writers assumed that the reference was to Sir Anthony, who was known to have written various legal writings, including Magnum abbreviamentum (1514-1517), La novel natura brevium (1534), and The New Boke of Justices of the Peas (1538).

Sir Anthony (c. 1470-1538) was the youngest son of Ralph Fitzherbert of Norbury and became a well-regarded judge in his time. However, around the turn of the nineteenth century, both Reginald H.C. Fitzherbert and Edwin F. Gay opted for John, the older brother, as the correct author. The original Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) entry, by J.M. Rigg, still argued for Sir Anthony, as did an editor of the work in 1882, Walter W. Skeat, but the more recent version of ODNB, by J. H. Baker, states categorically that John is correct.

Less is known about John. He is Sir Anthony’s older brother and appears to have inherited most of the lands from their father. According to evidence supplied by Reginald H.C. Fitzherbert, John inherited these lands around 1483, having married three years earlier. It is therefore quite possible that he could have written both the Book of Husbandry and the Book of Surveying.

Essentially, Fitzherbert’s goal was to improve English agricultural practice. Whether he succeeded in any way with this goal is difficult to judge, but the book itself appears to have been popular, reaching eleven editions between 1525 and 1598. It is therefore possible that his beekeeping advice was read and used, although this was a minor part of the whole.

Further Reading

Reginald H.C. Fitzherbert, ‘The Authorship of the “Book of Husbandry’ and the ‘Book of Surveying’, The English Historical Review, 12:46 (1897), pp. 225-236.

Edwin F. Gay, ‘The Authorship of the Book of Husbandry and the Book of Surveying’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 18:4 (August 1904), pp. 588-593.

E. Fussell, The Old English Farming Books from Fitzherbert to Tull, 1523-1730 (London, 1947), pp. 5-6.

Penelope Walker and Eva Crane, ‘The History of Beekeeping in English Gardens’, Garden History, 28:2 (Winter 2000), pp. 231-261.

M. Rigg, ‘Fitzherbert, Sir Anthony (1470-1538)’, ODNB [Archive Version]. DOI: 10.1093/odnb/9780192683120.013.9602

J.H. Baker, ‘Fitzherbert, Sir Anthony (c. 1470-1538)’, ODNB, 23 September 2004. DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/9602.