A very frutefull and pleasant boke called the Instruction of a Christen woman (1529)

The Instruction of a Christian Woman was intended by Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540) as a complete instruction manual for women, providing moral and practical suggestions for every stage of life:

Book 1 – Unmarried young women

Book 2 – Married women

Book 3 – Widows

The British Library suggests that some elements of the book were surprisingly progressive for the Tudor period. Vives advocated, for example, that women, regardless of social class and ability, should receive an education. Nonetheless, the focus is to ensure that women were kept in their place. Vives talked lengthily about chastity and obedience to parents and husbands, and argued that widows should either dedicate their lives to Christ and mourning their husbands passing or, if young, find a second husband for the sake of any children from the previous marriage:

‘for we see it chances often times that they [the children] be brought up with a widow by the means of her over much sufferance and cherishing be stubborn and disobedient to them’.  

Vives wrote the Instruction of a Christian Woman in Latin in 1523 for the education of the future Mary I of England. Richard Hyrde (d. 1528) then translated the work, around 1529.

The book was hugely popular, receiving praise from well-known figures such as Erasmus and Thomas More. Vives himself, in his preface, noted how writers such as Xenophon and Aristotle had given rules for housekeeping, Plato on the duty of women, and Cyprian, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine on the condition of maids and widows, but no one had attempted before a complete guidebook for women. Hyde, in his preface, added that men often complained about the ‘condition’ of women, but neglected their education, which might, he believed, calm some of their impulses (‘to wax better by themselves’).

There is just one reference to bees, another on honey, and another on wax. The reference to bees can be found in the third book, offering advice to widows to mourn for their departed husband. Vives began by arguing that:

A Good Woman when her husband is dead ought to know that she has the greatest loss and damage that can be chance her in the world and that there is taken from her the heart of mutual and tender love toward her, and that she has lost not only the one half of her own life […] but herself also to be taken from herself altogether and perished.

Vives goes on to complain that some women wrongly feel rejoice, feeling that they have recovered their liberty and broken free of their husbands ‘dominion and bond’. Vives calls this foolish. Relief that the husband is dead because the widow is now free from dealing with his illness is also wrong, Vives states:

‘unto a good woman no husband can be so ill that she would not prefer his life than his death’.

As an example, Vives reminds his readers that bees ‘by their craft’ disprove of laziness, whilst dogs ‘damn the untrusting of false people’ and sheep ‘condemn frauds’. Similarly, in Vives’ argument, widows are only worthy of being ‘good women’ if they genuinely mourn their husbands passing, giving themselves to Christ (and not seeking another man, unless children are involved), and do not feel relief or freedom in their new circumstances.   

The singular reference to wax can be found in a subsequent chapter on the ‘burying of the husband’. Vives refers to wax alongside sepulchres (graves/tombs) as an example of the expenditure that is often made for funerals. Vives argues that it is better to give to alms and ‘cloth poor strangers’ than it is to spend heavily on wax candles and expensive graves. The money is better spent on supporting ‘poor widows and fatherless children’. The reference to honey is found earlier in the book, in a chapter on ‘the ordering of the body in a virgin’. This forms part of Vives guidance for young, unmarried women but is little more than a description of the well-known biblical story of John the Baptist, who was ‘fed in desert with grasshoppers and wild honey’.  The story is mentioned alongside other examples of holy men ‘sent by the grace of god’ who were strong enough to reject the pleasures of life in favour of nourishing themselves on God’s love instead. Vives mentions this to warn young women to abstain from meats and wines as they encourage ‘lust’:

‘for neither the burning Etna nor the country of Vulcan nor Vesevius nor yet Olympus boils with such heat as the bodies of young folks enflamed with wine and delicate meats’.

Young women are therefore best advised to avoid situations that encourage the lust of their young bodies, which will ultimately cause harm and sin. 

Juan Luis Vives, 17th century painting (Wikipedia)


Bees 1

Honey 1

Wax 1

Further Reading

Fantazzi, Charles, ‘Vives, Juan Luis (1492/3-1540), ODNB (Oxford, 4 October 2008). DOI: 10.1093/ref:odnb/28337.

Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540):

Juan Luis Vives: Born in Valencia, Spain, to a family of converso Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity after the uprisings in the city in 1391. Whilst outwardly Christian it is likely that his family still conducted observation of Judaism in secret. His ODNB biographer, Charles Fantazzi, argues that the young Vives ‘could not have been unaware’ of this and that ‘the persecution and execution of many members of his family and his converso origins remained a determining psychological factor throughout his life’. Whilst studying in Paris, Vives was introduced to classical texts by Quintilian, Juvenal, Suetonius, and Aristotle.

From there, Vives made a career for himself as a scholar, rising up the ranks of the court of Charles I, making an acquaintance with Erasmus, and gaining a Ward, Guillaume de Croy. In 1523, Vives came to England and won favour with Cardinal Wolsey, who appointed him as reader in humanity at Oxford. He became close to Queen Katherine of Aragon, and it was on her behest that he wrote A Education of a Christian Woman. He wrote the book in Bruges and had it published in April 1523. The 1529 translation into English by Richard Hyrde, a tutor in Thomas More’s household, enjoyed enormous popularity in England. Indeed, Fantazzi argues that it became the prototype for various conduct books for women that were published during the Tudor period.

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.