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How Sweet It Is

by His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the April 2006, A.S. XL issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

One of the most fond desires within the SCA is the chance to sample someone’s mead. Alcohol, rareness, and variety all contribute to this longing. The basis of both the drink and the word is honey. Humans have a built-in desire for sweetness, and for a large part of history, it is honey that tempered that desire.

Honey, of course, is the product bees create from plant nectar. And so beekeeping is a key activity. Period beekeeping is a very much different activity. Period hives were known as skeps which were cone or dome shaped structures usually made of straw, and occasionally wicker, and covered with clay. These were set on stools or occasionally in niches in walls. Collecting the honey usually involved killing the bees using sulfur infused smoke, though driving the bees to a new skep could be attempted. The bees would be replaced by capturing a wild swarm. The average beekeeper was a serf, and frequently female.

The first guide to beekeeping was written by Aristotle, and several first century Roman writers also produced works. But nothing new was written until 1609 when Charles Butler wrote a book called “The Feminine Monarchie”. Modern beekeeping techniques did not begin to develop until the end of the 17th century, though it was not until the mid 19th century that many of the techniques and equipment used today came into existence.

Once the bees had been removed from the skep, the comb would be cut from it, mashed up, and the honey strained out. This was not always carefully done and one English writer claimed that English honey was better because “cleanier vessled up than that which cometh from beyond the sea, where they stamp and strain their combs, bees, and young blowings altogether into the stuff”1.

While its use as a sweetener and making mead are now the most common conceived uses of honey, that was not its primary purpose during the period. (Actually the most valued bee product was the wax.) Honey was most valued as a medical cure. It was said that it could cure a long list of aliments as well as a salve for wounds and ulcers. And even as a preservative. These last uses are valid as there are substances in honey that are anti-bacterial.

Mead is most likely the earliest fermented drink. But it was supplanted by ale as the common drink as grain became available as it was cheaper. Mead remained available throughout the period, but generally was restricted to those households that keep bees.

It should be noted that today’s honey is largely a product of a single form of nectar as bees are used to pollinate fields of a mono-crop. But this was not true during the period as fields were much smaller. As a result, period honey was the product of many different flowers found in the region. And thus, each local honey had its own distinctive appearance and taste.

The other source of sweetness is sugarcane. (Sugar Beets did not become a source until around 1800.) Sugarcane is a tropical grass that originated in New Guinea, and has worked its way westward since prehistoric times. As a tropical plant it requires a lot of light, heat, and water, which limits the areas in which it can be cultivated. Thus for Europe it has always been an imported substance, and during the period it was classified as a spice. While the cheapest of the spices, it was still a luxury until the 17th century when the plantations of the West Indies greatly increased supply.

While the ancient world knew of sugarcane, it was largely unavailable. Sugarcane cultivation reached the Middle East around the end of the 8th century and quickly spread though Muslin lands, with Egypt becoming a major center. But it was not until the Crusades that Europeans became acquainted with the stuff. By the mid 13th century, Venice had a virtual monopoly on the importation of sugar.

Like honey, the main use of sugar was for medicine. But in this case, while there were some aliments sugar was said to cure, it was principally used as a means to cover the bitter taste of the usual potions proscribed. As a sideline, apothecaries would sale candies as the techniques were much the same.

That is not to say that this was the source of candy. That was a development from sweet fruits and nuts which were originally made with honey. By the 15th century, Venice made a high art of doing the same thing with sugar. And from there arise the various candy traditions.

For all its expense, sugar was used in large quantities. King Edward I used 6258 lb. in 1288. One ship entered Bristol in 1480 with ten tons. Queen Elizabeth ate so much that her teeth rotted.

The discovery of the New World radically changed everything. One of the first things done was setting up sugarcane plantations. When the local natives proved inadequate in providing labor, slaves from Africa were imported. A whole new trade system arose. The resulting fortunes rivaled the royal houses. Sugar became available to the merely well off. And diets changed.

 

Footnotes

1. Description of England, pg. 337

 

Bibliography

Aykroyd, W.R.. The Story of Sugar. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967.

Hammond, P.W.. Food and Feast in Medieval England. Dover, NH: Alan Sutton Publishing, Ltd., 1993.

Harrison, William. The Description of England. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.

More, Daphne. The Bee Book: The History and Natural History of the Honeybee. New York: Universe Books, 1976.

Morrison, Terri A.. "Treatise on the History of Honey in Medieval Eurasia." Tournaments Illuminated 119 (1996):

 

Copyright © 2006 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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