A Discourse of Wit (1686)



For Men considering the wonderful, and most skilful, and inimitable Actions of Apes, Elephants, Swallows, Bees, Dogs, &c. were loath to allow them to be endowed with some king of Reason, as if they should thereby range themselves among the Beasts.

– Abercromby, 1686, p. 10.

Nature. What does this word mean to you? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is the collective phenomena of the physical world; the plants, animals, insects, birds, mountains, sea, soil and so on. For most of us what does not generally come to mind are humans or the things that we create. Why is that? Are we truly not of nature? Are we something else? Is it just a cultural or linguistic thing?

We have been brought up to think in this way – conditioned if you will. Nature is commonly used as a shorthand to describe the non-human world. This, at least, is one description that the Oxford English Dictionary gives for Nature, but it is not the only one, nor the most prominent.

Nature means all kinds of things, things that most of us don’t really think about.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it can relate to the power or strength of a thing or person, sexual impulses and bodily functions, feelings, and senses. As the word cloud below suggests, nature means many things, to many people, but it seems that in all cases it relates to things that humans feel are somewhat out of their control.

Figure 1: Word cloud created from descriptions of ‘Nature’ (n) in the Oxford English Dictionary
Figure 1: Word cloud created from descriptions of ‘Nature’ (n) in the Oxford English Dictionary

It is the nature of things, we say when something happens that we can’t stop or easily change. Plants, animals and other aspects of the Earth are called Nature as they, too, are not easily controlled by us, although we do try.

Where nature does apply to humans it’s in the form of something that we call ‘human nature’. We tend to use this term most often as an excuse; a reason perhaps for excusing our own fallibility or to explain wayward or taboo patterns of behaviour. It is something negative. Is this a misunderstanding? Are we wrong to think of ourselves as something different than nature? As Satish Kumar, Editor Emeritus of the Resurgence & Ecologist Magazine argues, “Humans are as much part of nature as the mountains, the animals, the birds, and the butterflies”.

All of this suggests that Nature is a challenge to what we believe ourselves to be, rather, perhaps, than what we are. It suggests a separation of uncontrollable elements from our belief in ourselves as intelligent, unique, and civilised beings. We aspire to escape our natures and the uncontrollable physical world, by considering what we create and therefore control as not nature, but human.

None of this is new. In 1682, a Scottish physician and philosopher David Abercromby (d. 1701?) tried to argue that animals had reason and wit. In doing so, he went against established theories about the uniqueness of humans, and against beliefs that the animal realm was thoughtless, wild, and uncivilised. As one small part of that argument, Abercromby argued in his A Discourse of Wit, that Apes, Elephants, Swallows, Bees, and Dogs could all be demonstrated to show both reason and wit. He claimed that humans had been generally ‘loath’ to admit that these animals might have ‘some kind of Reason’ as that might suggest that, after all, we are little different than beasts. Indeed, Abercromby believed that humans were only a little different. He described animals as rational creatures, but did admit that they were ‘of a lower Rank, and less perfect than Men’ (Abercromby, 1682, 10). 

This was not the only reference that Abercromby made to Honey bees as displaying some form of wit and reason that demonstrated a limited uniqueness of humanity. A few pages later he described the honeycomb as a ‘Pleasure and Admiration, a very accurate, and regular piece of Fortification’ (Abercromby, 1682, 12). In other words, the regularity of shape, the effectiveness, and efficiency of its design, was proof enough that honey bees could be just as ingenious as humans.

Whilst I love this depiction of honeycomb as a kind of fortification, the wording is also telling and interesting. It accidentally reveals in Abercromby a very human appraisal of honeybees. Honeycomb is so many different things to the bees; it provides structure, nurseries for their young, storage for food, a means to regulate colony temperature, but also barriers from threats. It is the latter that Abercromby thinks about when he describes the beauty of honeycomb. He describes what he would have seen if he were a beekeeper when peering into a hive – a block perfectly formed that acts as a barrier to human inquisitiveness. At the very least this signalled to Abercromby that honeybees had capabilities that can equal or beat those of a human. He saw similar reflections in spiders’ webs and swallows’ nests. He saw pattern. Design. Intelligence. More to the point, Abercromby saw that what we would term as nature was not all that different from us, after all.

References

Bees      1

Honey   1

Wax      0

Further Reading

Paul Tomassi, ‘Abercromby, David (d.1701?), physician and philosopher’, ODNB (2004) [Retrieved 3 July 2019]. DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001.

David Abercromby, A Discourse of Wit (London, 1686) – EEBO-TCP  

David Abercromby (d. 1701?): A physician and philosopher from Scotland, most probably, a member of the Abercromby’s’ of Seaton in the north-east. In his early life he was a staunch believer in the Roman Catholic faith, going as far as to join the Jesuits in France. Abercromby published on syphilis and the pulse, and, later in life, various religious works. At first, he defended his faith from Protestantism, but later he converted himself and began to attack his old faith. He did this, most prominently, in his A new and infallible method to reduce Romanists from popery to protestancy (1682).

His other interest was philosophy. Whilst studying with the Jesuits, Abercromby published A Discourse of Wit (initially in 1685, with the second edition in 1686), in which he sought to show that humanity was not all that different than animals as all shared properties of rationality.

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.

OR

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).

A good companion for a Christian (1632)

A good companion for a Christian was published posthumously in 1632 by John Norden’s son (probably John Norden Jr, although it could have been Josias). He states this in his dedicatory epistle to the Baron of Dondaulk, noting that ‘my deceased Father very often surveyed the Kings lands, but now by me he humbly tenders himself to be surveyed by you’. Indeed, John Norden had been mostly known for his work as a cartographer and surveyor, but, as his ODNB biographer has noted, in times when work was scarce publishing devotional works helped to bring in some extra money (his biographer, Frank Kitchen is, however, quick to stress that Norden’s publications were also a reflection of his religious devotion).

This text was only printed the once and was advertised as a series of meditations and prayers ‘for every day in the weeke’ relating to preparation for death. Norden’s son claimed that his father had produced the treatise and left it with his children:

‘to assure us, and al men that himselfe chiefly studied and shaped his courses so to dye that he might never dye, & that he prepared himselfe so to depart fro[m] the earth, that when he did leave the Earth he had no other business but to leave the Earth, for his actions were but an example of his precepts’.  

The treatise is divided up by sections on each of the senses, examining first the body, then the tongue, eyes, ears, taste, smell, touch, and heart, with chapters on interestingly sub-titled subjects such as;

  • Signs that a mans house, body and soul are out of order
  • If the heart be good the words cannot be evil
  • Above all seek the illumination of the inward eye
  • The taste hath devoured many
  • The feet are necessary member: yet often used to sin

These sections are then followed by a long list of prayers for each day (morning and evening) and for specific purposes such as before a Sermon, or for specific persons, such as ‘a short prayer for a woman with child’.

References to Bees

Norden refers to Bees twice in this treatise. The first is an example of perfection in the sense of taste. Norden argues that God in his ‘wisedome and goodnesse’ created both man and beast with five senses and that in some creatures he gave them perfection in a particular sense; the Eagle has perfect hearing, the Dog has a perfect sense of smell, the spider excels at touching things, and Bees in tasting. Norden goes on to explain that only man has ‘reason’, but that other creatures do come close in understanding ‘exquisite Art’. He asks, what man can build a spider’s net? What man can form honeycomb? Who can make the nest of a Wren?  These examples show, Norden believed, that God gave many creatures some level of knowledge and capability, which in certain ways exceeds that of man.

The second reference appears in a chapter entitled ‘The best heart hath some feelings of evill motions’. Here, Norden discusses sin. He suggests that sin is a subtle ‘prompter’ and ‘deceiveth the heart not well instructed’, but that a heart with whom ‘the Spirit of God hath sanctified’ can recognise the deception and dislikes the ‘sundry motions which intrude themselves as it were, by stealth into it’. Norden compares such a heart to Bees removing the drones from their hive: ‘to hurle them out of the hyve of the heart’. The description not only recognises the fact that drones are removed from the hive en-masse but also suggests that this is an act of removal of something sinful by the bees. This is interesting as it suggests knowledge that the drones do not forage or work and become a burden on the hive (much like sin can be on a soul).

References to Honey

There is only one reference to honey in A good companion for a Christian. Norden refers to it when describing ‘taste’. He suggests that humans should use their ability to taste for the purpose ‘that God hath given it’, meaning to distinguish food and drink that is safe, from that which is dangerous. He refers to the difference between sweet and sour tastes, wholesome or unwholesome meats and drinks. To illustrate the point, Norden compares ‘hony from Gall’ noting that without taste ‘thou shouldst finde no difference of the relish of edible things, the most tainted and contagious would bee as pleasing unto thee, as the most salutary’.

Sources

Frank Kitchen, ‘Norden, John (c.1547-1625)’, ODNB (2004). DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/20250

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.

Sources

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

The art of knowing one-self (1695)

For around ninety years the Edict of Nantes had protected the rights of Huguenots in France, protecting them from persecution and promoting civil unity. In 1685 that all ended when the edict was revoked by Louis XIV, leading to an exodus of Protestants, many of whom ended up as refugees in the German principalities. Jacques Abbadie (1654-1727), himself born in France, played a crucial role in encouraging many of the Huguenot refugees to settle in Brandenburg during the 1680s, having already been summoned to lead the congregation of refugees in Berlin before the edict had been revoked.

 

The Art of Knowing One-self

The Art of Knowing One-self is a book about moral philosophy, providing an alternative to the views on self-love and morality purported by Jansenists and Calvinists in the seventeenth-century, which were based on a severe reading of Augustine. Abbadie described the principle of self-love in detail, looking at pleasure and happiness as aligned to Christian morality. Isaac Nakhimovsky has argued that Abbadie’s moral theory was a rejection of the Augustinian claim that only divine grace could correct the corruption produced by the fall of man. Nakhimovsky stresses that Abbadie viewed self-love as an integral part of the eternal, uncorrupted soul, rather than an aberration caused by human sin.

In what he terms as epicureanism, Nakhimovsky argues that Abbadie only took up the ethical elements of what Epicurus had described before 270 BC, and not the physics. He accepted that an ideal of happiness or good should be equated with pleasure, as Epicurus had suggested, but rejected the idea that pleasure is nothing more than an arrangement of atoms ‘agitated in a certain manner’. He aligned his understanding also to Descartes moral theory, which argued that a desire for happiness is the primary feature of self-love and that ‘true and eternal happiness must be founded on the soul’s awareness of its perfection’ (Nakhimovsky, 2003, 8). Overall, Abbadie offered something different, building upon such ideas to come to his own understanding of morality that would influence theories around morality, luxury, and pleasure in the following centuries.

Indeed, in 1853, G. de Felice described Abbadie’s book as ‘full of judicious observations, and shows that the author had profoundly meditated upon the relations of the human conscience to the duties of the Gospel’ (Felice, 1853, 386). In 1992, Ruth Whelan went further, by describing Abbadie as ‘the father of Christian apologetics in the eighteenth century’ (Whelan, 1992, 32), although she does not refer directly to The Art of Knowing One-self but rather to Abbadie’s religious treatises. In this, Whelan is referring to Abbadie’s ideas about deism, or, in other words, his belief in a god that does not intervene, but could be known through understanding of natural laws and knowledge; a knowledge that is both acquired and innate. Abbadie argues for a connection between ‘natural revelation and natural religion and morality’ (Whelan, 1992, 34-5), providing a front of religious debate and discussion in the emergent process of Enlightenment. 

Pride, Pleasure and the Honey Bee

The last portion of The Art of Knowing One-self deals specifically with pride; dividing it into five branches: love of esteem, presumptuousness, vanity, ambition and arrogance. It is in this section that the single reference to the Honey Bee is made.

This appears in a section on pleasure obtained by ‘vain-glory’. Abbadie argues that ‘any man in the World would openly praise himself, if he dar’d be so bold’ but does not as he is fearful of ‘a breach of Modesty’ and instead uses ‘Cunning and Artifice in displaying his Merit to the Eyes of Mankind, so as not to attract the Reproach of too great Vanity’. The claim that Abbadie makes is that we are all vain in our own way, that we often disparage others, or make an accusation of fault, as to show ourselves as exempt and better: “As for my part, tho’ I have very great Defects, yet may I boast that I have not This”, as Abbadie quotes as an example of a kind of ‘dull and unpolitick Self-love’.   

He goes on to note that pride can therefore bring pleasure, as can hatred, but neither lasts. The Pleasure of conversation is not ‘innocent’ as ‘indifferent things are tedious to us’ but those things that relate to our own pride, hatred, impiety, ambition, or some other passion, ‘excite’. Thoughts also bring pleasure as ‘our Heart, being prepossess’d with certain Passions, can’t enjoy it self, but when it thinks upon certain Objects; and therefore suspends all our other Thoughts and Reflections’. The pleasure of a Lover who forgets all things but the object of his love is given as a prime example. As is dedication to God, ‘for indeed these proceed merely from the too great Pleasure, which the Ideas of temporal things excite in our Minds’

The essential point that Abbadie makes is that pleasure is in all things, even where we would prefer to pretend that it is not. It is, as he suggests, that:

The Bee metaphor is used not only to suggest that pleasure, like flowers, can be found in abundance, but also that the Bees can often find them ‘in foul and Moorish places’. This extension of the metaphor is to suggest that pleasure is often found in bad places; the excitement of an affair, the risk of life, delighting in ‘lamenting the death of illustrious persons’ and even, perversely, in prolonging our own sorrow. 

Further Reading

G. de Felice, History of the Protestants of France from the Commencement of the Reformation to the present time, trans. By Philip Edward Barnes (London, 1853).

Isaac Nakhimovsky, ‘The Enlightened Epicureanism of Jacques Abbadie: L’Art de se connoȋtre soi-mȇme and the morality of self-interest’, History of European Ideas, 29 (2003), 1-14.  

Ruth Whelan, ‘Abbadie, Jacques [James] (bap. 1654?, d. 1727)’, ODNB (Oxford, 2004).

Ruth Whelan, ‘From Christian Apologetics to Enlightened Deism: The Case of Jacques Abbadie (1656-1727)’, The Modern Language Review, 87:1 (Jan., 1992), 32-40.

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.

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.

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