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 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.

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.