by Susanne Price
(reprinted with permission from the AMA Journal)
In the Middle Ages, honey was used as a sweetener, a medicine, a preservative and a basic ingredient of mead. Even though sugar was first extractred and refined sometime before 2000 B.C., little sugar was available in Europe until the 14th century. Instead, honey was used by confectioners to mix with fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices, and in ancient Gaul and England, the flavor of poor-quality wine was conceled by the addition of honey and spices (mulled wine). Honey itself was so valuable that it became an informal medium of exchange.
There is evidence apiculture was practiced in ancient Crete and Israel, and identifiable remains of beekeeping in Athens date to 600 B.C. Unfortunately beekeeping fell into neglect after the Hellenistic period and had to be relearned. Although honey was common throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, the earliest written record of honey production and use appeared in England. One of the oldest surviving texts in English is found in the Anglo-Saxon charm "For a Swarm of Bees". In the charm, the desperate beekeeper tries to control bees (called 'victory women), through magic.
Some interesting rituals were described in many late medieval manuals on husbandry. For example, Jewish children were introduced to their studies by a ceremony in which "the letters of the alphabet were written on a slate and then covered with honey. The child then licked them so that the words of the Torah might be 'as sweet as honey'".
The method for making mead taught in the manuals might be given as this: crush the combs by hand or pestle, strain the honey, then mix with water in a 1:4 ratio. Stir and skim for three days, then boil the mixture until it is of the desired strength. Strain the liquid through linen, add spices and store to ferment.
In Anglo-Saxon times, beekeepers' hives were taxed on their value. The peasant on a manor could pay customs and duties with cakes of beeswax and honey. Merchants and peddlers, a new class in society, were paid for their wares in honey and wax as well.
The folklore of all northen countries contain many references to bees, honey and mead. These tales and sagas point a picture of mead not only as a drink that brings pleasure, but also as an essential element of the diet. An Old English riddle on mead begins with the bees' wings and continues through the brewing to the final victory of the drink over all men.
Anglo-saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (1963), by Paul F Baum
The Feminine Monarchie; or a Treatise Concerning Bees and the Due Ordering of Them (1609), by Charles Butler
Food and Drink in Britain (1973), by Anne Wilson
The Sacred Bee (1937), by Hilda M Ransome
Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie (1878), by Thomas Tusser