Friday, 27 July 2012

Medieval Beekeeping

The plot of my latest release, Sweet Taste of Love, takes us to the famous Lindisfarne Abbey off the north east coast of England. Among other things, Lindisfarne was famous for its mead, and to make mead you need honey.
I learned a lot about medieval beekeeping in my research for this book that I thought I would share with you.
Egyptians believed bees were the tears of Ra

Honeybees were among the first domesticated creatures, and yet, they are still basically 'wild'. The science of commercial beekeeping has been part of man's experience on planet Earth for at least three thousand years. Indeed, on the walls of the Sun Temple of the Pharaoh Nyuserre Ini (2400 BC), workers are depicted blowing smoke into hives as they remove honeycombs. Bees have often been associated with the divine.

Medieval beehives were conical baskets called skeps. The word derived from the Anglo Saxon "Skeppa" which means literally, basket. They were made of woven wicker bands with a daub or clay mud coat, or could be fashioned from long straw coiled and stitched with blackberry briar. My hero, Aidan, suffers lacerations to his hands from splitting and stripping thorns from blackberry brambles for the purpose. The straw skep is said to have started with tribes west of the Elbe in Germany.

Skeps were broken open in the spring, but the bees were killed beforehand, usually with sulphur smoke. The monks of Lindisfarne then offered fervent prayers for the repopulation of new skeps by new colonies. If the honey and wax were taken later in the year, there would be no chance for a new colony to establish itself before winter set in. Without the summer stores, the bees would perish.

Skeps were often protected in the winter by hackles, pointy shaped straw tents. This word came from the Old English hacele, meaning a cloak or mantle. It was later applied to birds’ plumage, particularly roosters and led to our expression, raising the hackles.
Skep in bee bole

On Lindisfarne, the skeps were sheltered in bee boles, recesses in the south wall.

Skeps at a Dutch bee market c.1900
Sometimes the bees outgrew the skep and then an extra chamber called an eke would be added to the bottom to allow them more room. This gave rise to the present day use of the word eke, meaning to stretch out or make something go further.
Sometimes the trunks of trees were hollowed out to provide hives for bees. In this case, the bees would be lulled into gorging on the honey by smoke produced from slow burning cow dung. Fortunately for Aidan, he doesn’t have to hold the hot clay shell of smouldering cow dung as the monks gather the honey from the hives in the tree trunks. However, he does have to collect the honey and since these hives were normally quite high off the ground to protect them from animals, it becomes a back breaking chore.
By now you may have gathered that the hero of Sweet Taste ofLove is a monk! Hmmm! How does that work in a romance?
Sugar cane was unknown in the early middle ages, so honey was an important sweetener. It has been argued that the main product of medieval beekeeping was not the honey, but rather the beeswax. This energy rich natural substance was used by chandlers to make candles and clerics made writing tablets for the Church right up until the Reformation in 1536. Throughout history honey has been produced, but in medieval times was largely the preserve of the nobility. It was used in baking confectionery and making sweet tasting folk remedies, wood polish and the manufacture of Mead, which is the oldest alcoholic drink.
More to come on mead making.


  1. Ekes are still used today. They can be used either under or over the brood boxes but, in either case, they allow you to eke out a little extra space:

    1. I guess these days they are tailored more to the modern style beehive.Thanks for your comment.

  2. I will be going to Spain and France soon, and am interested in visiting any monasteries that allow visitors. Do you know of any, by any chance?

    I will be interested in hearing about your research on mead making. An older beekeeper told me she made it the way the old-time monks did.


  3. Hi Mil, I believe the Abbaye aux Hommes built by the Conqueror in Caen allows visitors, but I'm sure there are many more. Perhaps a search on Google might be helpful? Not familiar with Spain.