The impetus for this blog post arose from a twitter thread today, in which after a news article on the adaptability of bees took flight like a queen in search of a new hive, Stephanie Lahey followed with a fulsome swarm of medieval and occasionally classical miscellanea. Her first tweet on the subject may be hound here. The thread has been constructed in a number of phases, for instance with the fines given for the theft of hives in the late-ninth-century Anglo-Saxon laws of Ælfred the Great appearing towards what is currently the end of the thread: including a fine of 120 shillings for the theft of horses, gold or bees. At a previous point in the thread the Anglo-Saxon ‘beoceorle’, or beekeeper, was mentioned (Nos 6-6.2), although one exciting detail was omitted; that (at least in the estates addressed in the Rectitudines Sngularum Perosnarum & Gerefa text), a beekeeper with a taxable swarm owed five sesters of honey to his lord per year [No. 6], or more on some estates should it be the custom [No. 6.1]. A sester being about 5kg. Further details and laws may well be added to this growing thread, but I thought I would take the opportunity and inspiration and see what could be found on the subject from the Lombard perspective.
Bees and beehives are mentioned in two adjacent clauses in the Edictus Rothari (643 CE), Nos 318 and 319. In the manuscripts of the Edictus which include the capitula list or incorporated rubrics, the first of these clauses is introduced simply with the heading ‘de apes’ [on bees], while the second clause continues on from it directly. While the clauses are relatively brief, a closer look, as ever, reveals some interesting features.
The first, Rothari No 318, outlines a fine of twelve solidi as a standard fine for the theft of one or more hives. A number of points of significance arise from this. Firstly, bees are counted by the hive, rather than individually, which is understandable, but it is a little unusual for the laws that the theft of multiple hives is explicitly given the same composition as taking one. That is to say, a person who risks being fined for taking just one hive of bees from another person’s land, may as well be stung for taking the lot. This approach is a little at odds, if we consider the surrounding clauses, values are set per animal, with no mention made for the circumstances in which more than one beast or fowl is taken. Should I steal one domesticated swan from you (Rothari No. 317), then I owe you six solidi in composition, and it is inferred therefore that should I steal both your domesticated swans (surely you didn’t own more than two?), then I should pay six solidi composition for each. This isn’t stated explicitly, but it seems to me a fair inference, from the contrast with the clause on bees were the scope for multiple payments are clearly excluded.
The next point to be observed from Rothari No. 318 is the relative weighting of the fine. As Stephanie noted, Ælfred’s Domboc collates the theft of horses, gold and bees into one fine. In the Lombard laws, bees are treated independently. Nevertheless, the value can be contrasted with the theft of other animals in the surrounding clauses: a hive of bees at twelve solidi is double that of the domesticated swan mentioned earlier, and Rothari No. 317 also includes a falcon belonging to another man and a crane at the same value of six solidi, or twelve solidi where it the king’s (Rothari No. 320). The values for domesticated stags vary depending on whether the beast is juvenile or mature, with a fine of six or twelve solidi, respectively, for just ensnaring it, or else a requirement to return it eightfold should the creature be stolen. The clauses on bees, that is Rothari Nos 318 and 319, then, are interspersed in the middle of a selection of other clauses in which falcons are addressed, Rothari Nos 317, 320, as well as Rothari No. 321 which I have not yet mentioned. Rothari No. 321 sets another fine of six solidi for taking falcons, plural, from a marked tree in somebody else’s woods. Two (or more) birds in the bush, then, seem to be worth literally the same as one on the hand!
The second clause on bees, Rothari No. 319, introduces the same distinction between whether they are domesticated (that is in hives) or wild (in marked trees). The fine for taking bees from a marked tree in someone else’s woods is half that of taking a hive, or six solidi. However, should the tree not be marked, however, then anybody may have the bees, unless the land is king’s. Finally, if the lord who actually owns the woods comes along, then he may take the honey without further blame or consequence. These points in their own right are interesting, especially the distinction made between domestic and wild and the brief implications for how beekeeping may have been pursued (or imagined by law-givers and custom) in seventh-century Lombard Italy.
The point about bees in unmarked trees (on somebody else’s land), however, raises for me an important question. Was it expected or imagined that the person who discovered the bees would take them away and establish a hive on their own land? If not, would they leave them in the tree where they were? The latter seems to be implied by the end of the clause where the owner of the woods is permitted to take honey from these claimed bees with impunity. But going back a step, how would the person investigating someone else’s woodlands and discovering an unmarked tree with bees in claim them? Presumably by marking the tree themselves, but that brings our attention back to Rothari No. 240 in which a fine of forty solidi is established for marking a tree belonging to another person, while Rothari No 241 dictates that an enslaved person who does this of their own accord should have their hand cut off. As well as being a significant sum in its own right, the severity is further emphasised by the fine being paid half to the person whose tree it was and the other half to the king. As such, the marking of trees becomes as much a public matter of concern to what might loosely be considered the Lombard state as it is a private issue of the person whose land was thus affected.
This apparent contradiction in whether trees could be marked or not may be resolved, on the basis that Rothari Nos 240-41 follows on from a set of clauses on the destruction of boundary markers, with Nos 238-39 explicitly detailing the cutting down of trees which had been marked as such (the former by a freeman, the latter by an enslaved person on his own authority). It would perhaps make sense, then, that the unauthorised marking of trees in Rothari No. 240 specifically related to boundary markers alone, but unlike in the preceding clauses on their destruction, this point was not made clear. Moreover, the phrasing in Rothari Nos 240-41 seems to imply that the marking of trees could be for any purpose, not just to signal a land boundary. I cannot yet, then, provide a good explanation for how these two clauses, with heir apparently opposing attitudes to the marking of trees, might be resolved, except to assume that the latter, when addressing bees, presents but does not make explicit, an exception to the normal rule.