Anglo-saxon beekeepingBeekeepers – the lowest rank of free men! In Anglo-Saxon England there were extensive laws written down between the reigns of Kings Ina, Alfred, and Edward the Confessor between the years 700 and 1050. Some of those laws dealt with the punishment meted out to those who stole from beekeepers but there is no information about beekeeping itself except the mention of honey measurements in sextars and tubs which leads us to conclude they had liquid honey.

‘Rectitudines Sungularum Personarum’, dating from 1000 AD, contains descriptions of duties and benefits of various occupations or stations, including that of “beo ceorl” (beekeeper) who belonged to the lowest rank of free men, listed with the swineherd, and owed his Lord all the work other vassals did. As a vassal, his bees and the land they were on belonged to the Lord, he held them by virtue of his job description alone, and reverted to his Lord upon his death. If his land was good, he was required to have a horse which would allow him to tend the hives located on all his Lord’s lands.

The Anglo Saxons, despite their initial marauding of the British Isles eventually settled in and effectively started England and the English.

They found a land that was already steeped in beekeeping tradition and practice and added to this in many ways, one being the introduction of the skep to east Anglia and new methods for swarm collection as shown in the following Anglo Saxon ‘charm’. Here is a translation of a 12-hundred-year-old charm. The charm is named for the opening words of the text that was found by John Mitchell Kemble, which were in Old English, “wiþ ymbe”, meaning “to(wards) a swarm of bees

To a swarm of bees

Against a Swarm

Take dirt

Throw it over-head with your right hand

Throw it under-foot

Step on it with the right foot and say;

I seize it under-foot;

I found it.

Indeed. Earth has power

Against every creature,

And against hatred

And against enmity

And against the great tongue of man.

Cast earth over them

When they swarm and say:

Sit you victory women

Sink to the earth.

May you never wildly

To the woods fly!

Be as mindful of my welfare

As every man of food and property.

Sitte ge, s?gew?f,

s?gað t? eorðan,

næfre ge wilde

t? wuda fleogan,

be? ge sw? gemindige

m?nes g?des,

sw? bið manna gehwilc,

metes and ?ðeles

The last 6 lines of the charm are shown in the old Anglo Saxon English and many scholars have seen the sigewif (‘victory-women’) as metaphors for supernatural beings to be called on for aid in battle – perhaps the Valkyries.

 

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