Making the Middle Ages Sweet

A Limited Slice of Honey History

Photo by Arwin Neil Baichoo on Unsplash

Honey is famous. We all know what it is and where it comes from. That has always been the case, and it has been the case everywhere.

The very earliest mention of honey is in cave art in Spain. The Egyptians started keeping bees in unbaked hardened clay pots about 4000 BCE, and they were clearly using the honey from the pots. Other people in places were hanging logs from trees.

Basically, people are like Winnie-the-Pooh: where there are bees, we find lunch.

This was also true of Medieval Europeans, but the details differed on how honey was used and how they acquired it.

The Romans doused their food in honey constantly. They used it with vinegar as a flavoring for food and as a binder. They called wild honey ericaeum, and they loved honey collected in the summer.

The De Re Coquinaria, a late Roman cookbook, recommended preserving fruit such as quinces and apples in honey.

The Franks, Merovingians, and Carolingians also loved their honey.

Its use was native to what is now Germany. In fact, archeologists have found evidence for beekeeping as far back as 400 BCE, and they found a straw beehive from the turn of the millennium. Once Germanic people and Gallo-Romans from France and Germany were ascendant in the middle of Europe, they continued making honey their way with just a few Roman twists.

People, sometimes monks from abbeys and sometimes tenants of lords, captured bees and put them in hives generally made of wicker, wood, or bark. Alternatively, they could go in the woods and mark as theirs the trees where bees lived. The abbey or lord would then charge a tenant with the responsibility of watching over the hive and taking care of the bees.

They initially used honey in the same way as the Romans, since they generally aped the Romans when they wanted to have luxury, but they also went beyond that. They roasted meats with honey, they sprinkled it on vegetables, made mead with honey, used it in stews, and mixed it with milk to drink. They even made a drink called hydromel that was honey and water.

There is every reason to believe that they were still preserving fruit in honey in the Gallo-Roman areas.

Salic Law, which is Frankish law from roughly 500 through 900 BCE, held that stealing someone else’s beehive was illegal and you could be fined 15 golden solis. Other laws from Bavaria and for the Visigoths covered keeping bees out of people’s yards.

It was even suggested that you could use it in medicine and lighting.

The Ménagier de Paris was written in the 1400s and it still considers honey as the go-to sweetener. Sugar was too expensive. That book recommended using honey to make things such as candied orange peels. (Candied horehound was used to treat the bubonic plague, so this method of making candy is pretty old.)

Beekeeping remained largely rural, where abbeys and lords had hives kept by tenants. They collected the honey as rent from their tenants well into the Middle Ages, when they switched to accepting money instead of food for rent.

The bees were kept in hives made of oak or pine, and then covered with a mixture of cow dung and ash. The beekeepers would leave wine and honey out to feed them and put savory (the herb) out to help them reach the honey as food. The keepers would inspect the combs for damage and remove the dirty ones to keep the bees from overcrowding.

And they were obviously important, since our buddy Magnus weighed in on bee keeping in the Summa Zoologica. Even if he did think the drones were some kind of angelic lifeform instead of male bees.

Honey was still used a lot in a multitude of recipes for centuries. That we don’t use it nearly as much today is a trait from the Early Modern Era, when sugar outcompeted it, and not the Middle Ages.

Sources:

Feasting with the Franks: The First French Medieval Food by Jim Chevallier

The evolving history of man and the honey bee (heathmonthoney.com.au)

Treat… or Treat? How Did Medieval People Get Their Sugar Fix? — Medievalists.net

Medieval Beekeeping (medievalists.net)

Summa Zoologica by Albertus Magnus

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Writes for content farms and fun. Has an AU historical mystery series on Kindle.

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Vivian Yongewa

Writes for content farms and fun. Has an AU historical mystery series on Kindle.