Disclaimer: the contents of this blog post are highly speculative. Close reading of Middle English can be contagious and may result in an addiction to literary analysis.
It’s June – days are getting longer and so are the to-do lists of medieval husbandmen. According to Thomas Tusser, the time is ripe for sheep shearing, mowing the meadow, and setting a hop garden. Roughly eleven centuries before him, Palladius, the grandfather of husbandry books, was also passing on husbandry advice in his Opus Agriculturae. His work remained popular throughout the Middle Ages and around 1420, “son, brother, and uncle of kings” Duke Humphrey of Gloucester ordered a translation of Palladius for private reading, known as On Husbondrie.
It feels slightly alienating to read Middle English instructions for setting up olive and sesame groves and growing pomegranates, all of which are not particularly suited to the British climate. Yet Humphrey, being a humanist collector, was typically interested in Mediterranean scientific literature. To satisfy Humphrey’s appetite for ancient knowledge, the translator freely wrought Palladius’ aureate Latin into rhyme royal stanzas while sticking to the original content. This makes for an intriguing mix of didactic, scholarly, and literary genres and what is more, there might be hidden political commentary in the text, as I will point out later in this blog.
To illustrate that On Husbondrie is no straightforward husbandry book, I will focus on a chapter on beekeeping which occurs in the month of June. In the original work, Palladius describes the practice of gelding (drawing bees out of their hives in order to collect honey) as follows: “Fumus admovetur ex galbano et arido fimo bubulo, quem in pultario factis carbonibus convenit excitare: quod vas ita figuratum sit, ut velut inversi infidubli angusto ore fumum possit emitter” (Palladius Liber VII sive Mensis Iunius, VII.2). Humphrey’s translator renders this as:
Erly, when they slepe in their stacioun,
With smoke of galbane & drie oxendonge
Bismoke hem in their beddis, old & yonge. (ll. 132–4)
While Palladius simply uses the verb excitare for “waking up” the bees, the translator pictures how the tiny workers, resting in their own little hexagonal stations, are brutally blown of their beds by foul-smelling smoke. If this is not a warning against idleness, I do not know what is. There is further allegory to be found in the passage, for the hierarchy within beehives lends itself easily for reflecting on human society. As Daniel Wakelin points out in Humanism, Reading, & English Literature 1430-1530, a political reading of On Husbondrie might be worth exploring. It must be pointed out that the allusions are indeed sketchy and it is difficult to establish what events might be referred to by the translator, but let’s just give it a try.
First, consider the following passage describing the ‘coronation’ of a new king bee (NB: queen bees were not recognised as such until the late seventeenth century). For those who are not familiar with Middle English I have modernised the language – a translation of a translation, if you will:
In order to avoid overhasty conclusions, consulting the Latin text will be necessary in order to find out if translator added anything significant. For the Latin text visit ForumRomanum.org; an English translation by John G. Fitch can be found over here. Wakelin argues that the translator does not attempt to further allegorise potential nods to Humphrey’s political situation (for instance cosyns, oost, and regne) any more than is already present in the Latin text (45). Still, there are certain elements in the translation that diverge ever so slightly from the Latin source. For instance, consider the lines “Oon king ther is, or kinges beth accorded / That oon shal regne, and alle on hym be lorded” where the Latin reads “noris aut unum regem esse uniuersis aut reconciliatis omnibus manere concordiam” (Palladius Book VII: VII.6). Could the future tense in “the one that shall reign” in any way be significant? Perhaps some historical context will provide the answer.
If the composition of On Husbondrie is correctly dated at 1420, the reigning monarch at the time would be Humphrey’s brother Henry V. In June of the same year, Henry married Catherine of Valois, the daughter of the French king. On 6 December 1421, their only son Jayden, no sorry, Henry again, was born. After his father’s death in August 1422, Henry VI ascended the throne at the tender age of nine months, making him the youngest monarch in English history. According to Henry V’s will, he envisioned Humphrey as regent of England yet his dying wish was vetoed by Parliament. However, when Henry VI came of age, Humphrey was assigned as Lord Protector of England, so he was in charge of the country after all.
This is, of course, a rough sketch of a far more complex political situation. Yet all of this matters for an alternative reading of On Husbondrie. Say the work was actually translated after 1420, for instance during Henry V’s illness. Then, the lines “Concord amonge this cosyns to repare / Among hem is a swete auctorite” (cosyns can mean both “kin” and “cousins”) could be read in a different light. The beekeeper, Humphrey presumably, must maintain the harmony and hierarchy in his hives, lest his cosyn Henry VI should be “translated” before his time.
If there is indeed a political veneer to the text, it would prompt several other questions. Could the rivalry between the various hives refer to the Wars of the Roses? Who, then, are the “other noble kings” that pose a threat to the infant king? As I said before; there is not enough direct evidence to prove any of this is really true. Yet, if we imagine Humphrey as a reader of the text (the translator makes it seem as if he actually revised the text himself) we may wonder how he would have interpreted the beehive.
Fitch, John G. Palladius: The Work on Farming. (Totnes: Prospect, 2013)
Liddle, M, ed. The Middle English Translation of Palladius De Re Rustica. (Berlin: Ebering, 1896).
Wakelin, Daniel. Humanism, Reading, & English Literature 1430-1530. (Oxford: UP, 2007).