restricted access “A Swarm in July”: Beekeeping Perspectives on the Old English Wið Ymbe Charm
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“A Swarm in July”:
Beekeeping Perspectives on the Old English Wið Ymbe Charm

Inscribed in the margins of an eleventh-century manuscript1 of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and crowded beneath a Latin prayer is a brief bit of advice for beekeepers in the event of a swarm (ymbe), a natural phenomenon in which a substantial portion of an older bee colony migrates en masse with a queen to establish a new colony. The following analysis of this enigmatic text has been inspired largely by three features central to John Miles Foley’s vast body of work: interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and comparative research. While the eight lines of alliterative verse that constitute the greater portion of this swarm charm have assured its standing within canonical Old English literature, its insights into traditional apiary practices of Anglo-Saxon England make it equally appropriate subject matter for studies in folklore or even animal science. It is precisely such unlikely intersections that have long served as foci for the transdisciplinary work of John Foley, and it is thus that we now choose it as the subject of analysis for a volume in his honor.2

John Foley’s work has also consistently embraced genuine collaboration—collaboration not only within the academic community but reaching outside scholarly circles to gain the fullest understanding possible of oral traditions worldwide. In keeping with this goal, we build upon work with this remedy 3 begun by James B. Spamer, who reminds us that “the original speakers of the charm were not Germanicists; they were beekeepers” (1978:280). Our work has also been heavily influenced by Marijane Osborn, who has thoroughly researched skep beekeeping practices as reflected across a broad range of medieval literatures and historical records in order “to open the way for further study” (2006:271, n.2). Our strategy here is to augment and complement such prior work by going a step further and bringing knowledgeable and experienced beekeepers directly into the discussion, sharing the text with them, inviting their reactions, and offering a more collaborative interpretation. That beekeeping (for purposes of honey and wax production) was an integral part of life in monasteries (Rust 1999) has been well-established and corroborates our view that the charm potentially had a vital practical role for those who had easiest access to the manuscript in which it survives.4 Our ultimate goal is thus to shift our “default reading” of Wið Ymbe from its “artistic beauty of structure and treatment” (Storms 1974:132) to one that embraces the “myriad other aspects of the given poem’s reality” (Foley 2002:60), namely its value within beekeeping practice.

The two beekeepers participating in our project both have extensive experience in beekeeping. Chuck Crimmins, Gardening and Forest Coordinator at Heifer International in Perryville, Arkansas, has been educating visitors on bees and beekeeping since 1994. Richard Underhill, founding owner of Peace Bee Farm in Proctor, Arkansas, has served as president of both the Memphis Area Beekeepers Association and the Tennessee Beekeepers Association. We would like to establish from the outset that this comparative study presupposes neither that the practice of beekeeping is the same now as in Anglo-Saxon times nor that even the bees themselves would behave in exactly the same way. As Crimmins explains, bees in the United States have been bred for qualities that produce the best honey and present minimal threat to their handlers. Similarly, materials used to work with bees have changed radically over intervening centuries, and there is obviously “a considerable difference between the hives of the Anglo-Saxons and modern hives, which is not inconsequential in our understanding of the charm” (Spamer 1978:280–81), the now-familiar white boxes of the modern Langstroth hive differing markedly from the traditional skep or basketwork hive most likely used by Anglo-Saxons (cf. Osborn 2005:7–9).5

In his comparative approach, John Foley’s work has always been intensely sensitive to cultural and generic difference at the same time that it is ever-open to insightful and meaningful points of unexplored or unexpected similarities.6 We here extend this...