Ancient law: Charlemagne and the bees

Golden bee from Childeric's tomb

In Charlemagne’s far-reaching regulation of agriculture, he included bees and their wax and honey.  His Capitularies, circa 794AD, give very specific guidance on estate and farm management, revenue collection for royal estates, and remittances due to the Crown and Church.  The abeillage (bee duties)  portion established the regulation of bees and their produce as a feudal right, and remained more or less intact until a few short years before the French revolution.  His is some of the earliest written documentation on beekeeping – perhaps the very earliest in Europe.  Charlemagne ruled or 46 years, 13 as “Emperor” crowned by the Pope.  He certainly got some solid administrative work done in his time.

medieval illumination of Charlemagne and courtiers - chastising a prince?

Charlemagne decreed that all farmers were required to keep bees.  2/3 of their honey and 1/3 of their beeswax was taxed to the Crown.  A beekeeper was assigned to each estate, and the estate was responsible for keeping a tally of income from honey, wax, and mead (Thank you, Charlemagne, for making it clear beyond any doubt that your Franks made mead.  We thought they did but it’s so nice to have proof.).  By the fourteenth century or so, beekeeping had been so thoroughly regulated that wild swarms could only be managed by officially designated gamekeepers of bees, called anvileors or bigres.  Only they could move a swarm; villagers who took a wild nesting swarm for their own were punished as poachers.  The forests, after all, belonged to the local seigneur, the lord of the manor.   Charlemagne regulated the times one could take honey, and how much, so that there was no danger of starving one’s bees.  To put that into regulation means he had access to people who could tell him how successful bee management worked – though I’m sure classical sources were also consulted; Columella certainly wrote of agricultural management and his works were never “lost” to Europe after the fall of Rome.

Charlemagne Emperor coin
To give his coins the weight of Roman-ness, Charlemagne had himself depicted enlaurelled and shaven of his characteristic flowing beard

Foodies have great reason to revere Charlemagne; he was a great manager of stores.  In his thorough effort to bring organized prosperity to his lands, he created regulations that a) succeeded and b) remained in place for centuries.  It’s kind of nice to read about royal decrees that really did benefit the subjects.   Charlemagne’s decrees regulated fruit trees, how many chickens and geese to raise, what cheeses were good, and  how to raise freshwater fish (especially helpful at Lent) .  His Capitulaire is an index of all the vegetable, cereal and medicinal plants in use at his time (which, by the way, does not mention hops).  His de Villis gave farming management regulation  in very specific detail.   His own farming estates were have fishponds to raise pike, eels, and tench, which were sold to Royal profit.  He decreed each farm, royal or otherwise,  should have at least 100 hens and 30 geese.  If there were surplus eggs or hens they could be sold – after the seigneur’s portions were delivered, including that to the King’s court at Aix-la-Chapelle.   When eggs were forbidden in Lent, all the eggs collected from the henhouse were to be kept either for hatching for to be eaten at Easter.  To keep them, they were usually dipped in melted mutton fat or wax – some were then decorated and given to children. I’m not sure, but this may be the beginning of our practice of decorating eggs at Easter.  There was a custom that the biggest egg laid in Holy Week was the sovereign’s by right.

The royal symbol of France – at least one of them – is the bee.  How did the bee become such a national symbol?  In 1653 the tomb of Merovingian king Childeric, father of Clovis, the first Christian king of what eventually became France, was discovered in Tournai.  His tomb was richly furnished, and we are fortunate to have a pretty detailed report written as it was found.  Among other things, there were something like 300 little gold bees with garnet enamelled wings.  They might have decorated a cloak, or horse barding.  Most of these bees have disappeared, but there are still some in the Palazzo Grassi in Venice.  Napoleon chose to integrate them into his own  device, to link himself with a monarchy that predated the Bourbons, so recently deposed, by quite a lot.  (I have seen one author claim they were actually cicadas, but they sure look like bees to me.)

Two of the golden bees found in Childeric's tomb
Two of Childeric’s bees

In modern Brittany, you can still buy mead; friends brought me a bottle of Chouchen, a cyser made with buckwheat honey that reminded me a lot of Lillet.  The French meads I’ve found so far is labelled hydromel – apparently the French term for mead?  I also have a note around here somewhere about a vineyard in Provence, I think near Toulouse, that makes three meads they claim to have been making since Roman times.  I remember one was a mulsum.  The lavender honey from what is now Provence was famous in ancient Rome; indeed, there are still many specialty honeys available in France.  Charlemagne can’t be solely responsible, but he surely put the nation on a good footing for today’s bounty.

Honey from France  (thanks to honeytraveler for this list!)

Single Flower Honey – Miel de Cru

  • Acacia honey – ‘Miel d’acacia’ (Robinia pseudoacacia L.)
  • Alfalfa Honey – ‘Miel de luzerne’ (Medicago sativa L.)
  • Arborea Heather Honey (aka White Heather Honey)- ‘Miel de bruyère blanche or Miel de Bruyère Erica arborea’ (Erica arborea)
  • Asphodel Honey – ‘Miel d’asphodèle’ (Asphodelus)(Location: Corsica)
  • Blackberry Honey (aka Bramble Honey) – ‘Miel de ronce’ (rubus ssp.)
  • Buckwheat honey – ‘Miel de sarrasin’ (Fagopyrum esculentum)
  • Carrot Honey – ‘Miel de carotte’ (Daucus Carota)
  • Cherry Honey – ‘Miel de cerisier’ (Prunus ssp.)
  • Chestnut honey – ‘Miel de châtaignier’ (Castanea sativa Mill)
  • Clemintine Honey – ‘Le miel de clémentinier’ (Citrus reticulata or C. Clementina)(Location: Corsica)
  • Clover honey – ‘Miel de trèfle’ (Trifolium ssp.)
  • Dandelion Honey – ‘Miel de pissenlit’ (Taraxacum officinale)
  • Erica Cinerea Heather honey – ‘Miel de bruyère cendrée or Miel de Bruyère Erica cinerea or Miel de bruyère erica’ (Erica cinerea)
  • Eucalyptus Honey – ‘Miel d’eucalyptus’ (Eucalyptus ssp.)
  • Fennel Honey – ‘Miel de fenouil’ (Foeniculum vulgare)
  • Hawthorn Honey – ‘Miel d’aubépine’ (Crataegus monogyna)
  • Heather Honey (aka LIng Heather Honey or Common Heather Honey) – ‘Miel de bruyère callune or Miel de bruyère commune’ (Caluna vulgaris)
  • Alder Honey (aka Buckthorn Honey) – ‘Miel de bourdaine’ (Rhamnus frangula)
  • Holly Honey – ‘Miel de houx’ (Ilex aquifolium)
  • Ivy Honey – ‘Miel de lierre’ (Hedera helix)
  • Lavender Honey Try this - Exceptional – ‘Miel de lavande or Miel de lavandin’ (Lavandula ssp., Lavandula officinalis, Lavandula x intermedia)
  • Lemon Honey – ‘Miel de citronnier’ (Citrus ssp.)
  • Linden – ‘Miel de tilleul’ (Tilia americana)
  • Metcalfa Honeydew Honey – ‘Miel de metcalfa’ (From insect: Metcalfa pruinosa)
  • Oak Honeydew Honey – ‘Miel de chêne or Miel de forêt’ (Quercus ssp.)
  • Orange Honey – ‘Miel d’oranger’ (Citrus ssp.)
  • Phacelia Honey – ‘Miel de phacelie’ (Phacelia tanacetifolia Benth.)
  • Pine Honeydew or Spruce Honeydew – ‘Miel de sapin or Miel d’épicéa’ (Pinus brutia)
  • Rape Honey or Spring Honey – ‘Miel de colza or Miel de printemps’ (Brassica napus)
  • Raspberry Honey – ‘Miel de framboisier’ (Rubus idaeus)
  • Rhododendron Honey – ‘Miel de rhododendron’ (Rhododendron ssp.)
  • Rosemary Honey Try this - Exceptional – ‘Miel de romarin’ (Rosmarinus officinalis) – (Other notes: Also called “Honey Narbonne,” was regarded by the Romans as the best honey in the world. Although, strictly speaking, this honey was harvested in late Spring from the Garrigue (wild hillside) and is a mix of rosemary, thyme and lavender honey with moorland blooms, and was not mainly rosemary. It is available now from earlier spring harvests that generally produce purer rosemary honey. It is mainly produced in the Corbières)
  • Sainfoin Honey – ‘Miel de sainfoin’ (Onobichrys vicifolia)
  • Savory Honey – ‘Miel de sarriette’ (Satureja ssp., Satureja montana L.)
  • Silver Fir Honey – ‘Miel de sapin pectine or Miel de sapin des vosges’ (Abies pectinata or Abies alba, insect: Cinara genus)
  • Stoechas Lavender Honey (aka Spanish Lavender Honey) – ‘Miel de Lavande Stoechas or Miel de Lavande Maritime’ (Lavandula stoechas)
  • Strawberry Tree Honey. – ‘Miel d’arbousier’ (Arbutus unedo L.)
  • Sunflower – ‘Miel de tournesol’ (Helianthus annuus L.)
  • Thistle Honey – ‘Miel de chardons’ (Cardus ssp.)
  • Thyme Honey – ‘Miel de thym’ (Thymus ssp.)
  • Wild Thyme Honey Try this - Exceptional – ‘Miel de serpolet or Miel de thym sauvage or Miel de thym serpolet’ (Thymus serpilum)
  • Willow Honey – ‘Miel de saule’ (Salix caprea)

Multifloral Honey – Miel Polyfloral

  • Honey of the Plateau – ‘Miel de causse’ (Mainly from; wild thyme, sainfoin, blackberry and clover) (Location: Produced mainly in the Causses of Mejean, Larzac and Quercy. The Causses are limestone plateaus on the Massif Central region of France, primarily in the regions of Auvergne & Limousin. Other variations: ‘Miel de causse Méjean’)
  • Garrigue Honey – ‘Miel de garrigue’ (Including rosemary, thyme, savory, white clover, blackberry and lavender) (From the Mediterranean regions of Languedoc-Roussillon & Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur. Garrigue ‘scrubland’ describes geological/botanical areas around the Mediterranean. Characterized by limestone plateaus interspersed with valleys and basins; wet winters and hot, dry summers; shrubs and herbaceous plants with different species dominating, depending upon the location and use of the land. Ranging from open garrigues suitable to grazing goats, to closing garrigues transforming to forests, dominated by shrub and possibly the beginnings of oak and juniper. Other variations: ‘Miel de Garrigue des Pyrenees, Miel de Garrigue d’Automne’)
  • Forest Honey (aka Deciduous or Hardwood Forest Honey) – ‘Miel de forêt or Miel de feuillus’ (Nectar of lime, clover and honeydew of maples, ash and linden trees)
  • High Mountain Honey – ‘Le miel de haute montagne’ (Mainly rhododendron and wild thyme) (Produced mainly in the Western Pyrenees at an altitude of 2,000 meters in the Pays de La Loire region. This was once known as Miel de Chamonix, a premium honey, named after the small alpine town that actually produced very little of it)
  • Mountain Honey – ”Le miel de montagne’ (main: raspberry, blueberry, clover, knapweed (centaurea ssp.), trefoil (lotus ssp.), hawthorn (crataegus ssp.), wild cherry (prunus avium) and basswood – variable: fir honeydew, hogweed (heracleum ssp), erica, buckwheat (polygonum ssp.), buckthorn, forget-me-not (myosotis ssp.), thyme, widow flower (knautia ssp.), scabious (scabious ssp.), bellflower (campanula ssp.), rock rose (cistus ssp.), fireweed, dandelion) (Honey from various mountainous regions over 1000 meters above sea level: Alps, Pyrenees, Massif Central, Jura, Vosges. May be light (clair) or dark (foncé) depending upon composition.)
  • Spring Honey – ‘Miel de printemps’ (Rapeseed (Brassica napus) fruit trees, sainfoin, willow, alfalfa, hawthorn, dandelion) (Harvest late May to early June. Miel de printemps is actually brand name)
  • Summer Honey – ‘Miel d’été’ (acacia, clover, phacelia (phacelia ssp.), mulberry (morus ssp.), honey dew)
  • Country Honey – ‘Miel du pays’ ()

Try this - Exceptional – Exceptional or Rare Honey

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