Dr Matthew Phillpott, the School of Advanced Study’s digital projects officer, on his historical journey to learn about the honeybee and one of its primary products used and prized by humans – honey.

Imagine if you will, being asked to stand up to your neck in a wine cask filled with hot water and honey for three days in a row just so that you could cure a skin complaint. It conjures up a faintly ridiculous image, doesn’t it, but perhaps, instinctively, it sounds sensible at the same time?

It doesn’t seem that strange to think that honey might help ease itches and rashes. Indeed, evidence from ancient Egypt and elsewhere confirms that the earliest civilisationsunderstood that honey had various therapeutic virtues. Modern science agrees, noting that its antimicrobial properties are exceptionally good. Today, honey is used in a variety of skin and hair treatments and as a key component in cosmetics such as lip ointments, sun lotions, shampoos and creams.
When scientists warn us about the loss of bee colonies across the world they talk about how it has been caused, largely, by human over-reliance on monocropping, on chemical sprays such as neonicotinoids, and because of global trade increasing threats of diseases (such as foulbrood) and pests (such as the Varroa mite and Asian Hornet). They talk about how detrimental the loss of the honey bee would be to our food supplies (a truly horrific thought!), but there would equally be as much to lose to our health and capability of medicines to cure us of disease and injury.

A few years ago, with those thoughts in mind, I began my own journey as a historian into understanding more about the honey bee and one of its primary products used and prized by humans – honey. I started by looking at the earliest printed ‘how-to’ manuals on beekeeping produced in England.

The first printed advice for the English beekeeper came in the form of classical writings – Virgil’s agricultural poem, the Georgics; Pliny the Elder’s Natural History; and Aristotle’s History of Animals, among others. Advice also appeared early in the 16th century in various herbal books and husbandry manuals. However, it was not until 1568, ten years into the reign of Elizabeth I, that the first ‘how-to’ manual entirely devoted to beekeeping appeared on the London market. Its author was Thomas Hill. His purpose, as he noted in his preface, was to promote good practice and provide a financial benefit to individuals and to the wider Commonwealth of England. His approachwas to extract knowledge from classical writings, such as Aristotle, Pliny, Varro, Columella, Palladius and Virgil. What he did not do, was write from any kind of personal experience.

Image: The first page of Edmund Southerne’s ‘A Treatise Concerning the Right Use and Ordering of Bees (1593)’

In 1593, Edmund Southerneproduced a shorter book in response entitled A Treatise Concerning the Right Use and Ordering of Bees. He complained that past writers (including Hill), had been misled by learned knowledge and that all too often the public failed to recognisethe worth and profit of honey. He said that too much honey was sold abroadand that English women of wealth tended to satisfy their desire for novelty and exotic imports such as sugar, at the expense of better quality, local goods, produced by beekeepers. He recommended knowledge taken from experience and emphasisedthe health properties of honey while arguing that beekeeping could be highly profitable.

It was not until 1609, when the Rev Charles Butler published The Feminine Monarchie, that an attempt was made to critically analysethe classical knowledge about bees and compare it to actual beekeeping practice and knowledge of his own age. Beekeepers, with an interest in history, tend to call him the ‘father of English beekeeping’ as his work provided the basis for future development and innovation. Beyond correctly introducing the idea to England that the leader bee (what we now call a Queen) was female, Butler correctly identified many of the processes that occurred to transform nectar into honeyand identified the presence of pollen in the wax combs, which bees ferment as an additional food source.

In 1634, John Levett published another book on beekeeping called The Ordering of Bees, and in 1637, Richard Remnant added his own voice in A Discourse or Historie of Bees. It was in this latter book that the advice to stand in heated water and honey was made. Remnant described how a friend of his had ‘such a fouleitch thatheewas like a Leper’ and was therefore advised to stand in the hot honey water to relieve the symptoms. Remnant claims that it worked.

The ‘how-to’ advice published before the mid-17th century emphasisedhow honey could cure various skin complaints, including the removal of nits and lice, cleaning ulcers, healing boils, curing spots and soothing cuts. They also suggested that honey mixed with other herbs and water could be used to cure coughs, undo poisons, ease stomach complaints, remove worms, solve shortness of breath and cure palsy. In addition, honey could be used to make alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks such as Mead, Quintessence, Mulse water, and Oenomel, all of which had medicinal qualities.

My research into these manuals is still in the early stages. On 14 June 2018 I presented some of my thoughts at the Institute of Historical Research’s Food History seminar and I plan to expand this research along various paths, looking not only at ‘how-to’ manuals and how knowledge was used and deployed within them, but also at other literature that might give us a better idea of what was known about bees and honey in the 16th and 17th centuries and how people actually used honey for purposes of health and well-being.

With honey bees under very real threat and human health crises increasing across the world – often related to over-use of sugarcane and industrial sweeteners – perhaps it is time to resurrect some of this old knowledge and pay more attention to the old medicinal recipes. There is much that we can learn from the past, especially, as Southerne, Butler and the other early proponents of beekeeping in print suggest, if we critically appraise it, and combine the old knowledge with our own experiments, observations and experience.

Dr Matthew Phillpott works at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and in addition investigates early modern printed materials for ideas about knowledge, history, culture, health and food. He is about to publish a book on The Reformation of England’s Past: John Foxe and the Revision of History in the Late Sixteenth Century, looking at the appropriation of history at a time of religious change, and discusses his research, including work on beekeeping manuals and honey, on his website, Sixteenth Century Scholars.

 Image: Bees on a honeycomb with nectar and pollen (shutterstock)