The Bees and the Beekeeper

… the spells began straight away, and at first there was nothing very important in them. They were cures for warts (by washing your hands in moonlight in a silver basin) and toothache and cramp, and a spell for taking a swarm of bees. The picture of the man with toothache was so lifelike that it would have set your own teeth aching if you looked at it too long, and the golden bees which were dotted all round the fourth spell looked for a moment as if they were really flying.

As a child I always wondered about this passage from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Why would a spell for capturing a swarm of bees be in Coriakin’s magic book?

The answer is, because Coriakin was a rural English sort of wizard, and such a spell was well established in rural English Medieval village life.

Before the sugarcane industry took off in the 16th century, honey was the only source of sugar in Europe.  As such it was a precious substance and its husbandry vitally important. Most farms, monasteries, nunneries, cottageholders, and the like had hives, and in an age before printed materials, the knowledge to manage them was passed down orally, often in the form of spells and charms. There’s a whole article about it here on Atlas Obscura, one of my favorite websites.  I won’t repeat it, but only say such spells to control the insects were very real. They could spell the difference between prosperity and failure for the honey farmers.

Now let’s talk about the pictures. The first one, from a Medieval manuscript, depicts a beekeeper swaddled in cloth banging a drum to get the swarming bees to settle down, in the hopes they’ll move into a new skep (those woven, cone-shaped containers) and start a fresh colony. The second pic may be a honey thief running away from some angry bees, or performing a ritual to lead them to a fresh hive.

Going back to Coriakin’s magic book, if you’d like to know what else was in it, I speculate here.

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