- Honeyed Words and Waxen TabletsAldhelm’s Bees and the Materiality of Anglo-Saxon Literacy
Sometime between 716 and 718, the Anglo-Saxon nun Ecgburg proclaims her friendship with the missionary Boniface, a friendship strong and deep despite the distance between them. “Karitatis tuae copulam . . . gustavi [I have tasted the bonds of your affection],” she writes, and with the taste of it “quasi quiddam mellitae dulcedinis meis visceribus hic sapor insidet [my very inmost soul is filled with a sweetness as of honey].”1 She borrows her words—in particular the formula mellitae dulcedinis and an echo of the verb gusto—from those of Aldhelm in his Prosa de Virginitate explaining how, just as “mellitae dulcedinis gustus ammodum incomparabiliter praecelit [the taste of honeyed sweetness excels everything that is experienced as pleasing and delectable when brought to human mouths],” so monastic virginity excels all other states.2 Ecburg’s borrowing reveals more than simple literary influence. For both Ecgburg and Aldhelm, the sweetness of honey is a real and familiar taste, and the bee is more than a metaphor. The honey on the community’s table, the beeswax on the writing tablets on which these words were composed, and the bees that produce both, are all perceived and (at least partially) rendered meaningful through the lens of allegory and monastic ideology. But, reciprocally, the most traditional and frequently repeated metaphors speak to experiences grounded in the immediate physicality of monastic life—including especially embodied knowledge of those materials that facilitate literary composition and transmission.
Such are the connections I seek to unpack and explore in this essay. In order to do so, I first examine the metaphoric sweetness of words read, transmitted, and spoken in texts such as Ecgburg’s letter. Turning then to legal and medical sources as well as Anglo-Latin and Old English riddles and charms, I show how the materiality of [End Page 43] monastic apiculture underlies literary references to honey and the use of beeswax as a writing surface. Finally, returning to Aldhelm and his particularly complex deployment of apiary metaphor to theorize literacy and monastic virginity, I explore the connections between physical realities and cultural, intellectual concepts in works read and echoed by writers such as Ecgburg that reveal the essential materiality of monastic literacy.
The Sweetness of Monastic Literacy
Ecgburg’s letter is by no means the only early Anglo-Latin text to employ metaphors of the sweetness of honey, or to invoke literary tradition, or (indeed) to do both simultaneously. The sensuality in many contemporary texts develops a complex metaphorical constellation that speaks to the embodiment and materiality of literacy. Like Ecgburg, Abbess Eangyth and her daughter Heaburg (called Bugga) refer to sweetness when they express their affection for Boniface in a letter sent between England, where they remain in their monastery, and Germany, where he serves as a missionary bishop. Repeating Jerome’s question to Rufinus, they ask “quid dulcius est, quam habeas illum, cum quo omnia possis loqui ut tecum [what is sweeter than having someone to whom one can speak of all things as to oneself]?”3 If God sent His angel to transport them (rather than merely their letter) to Boniface as He sent one to transport Habbakuk to feed Daniel (Dan. 14.33) and/or Philip to console the Eunuch (Acts 8.26–27), then they would be able (reversing the models of scripture and conflating the acts of nourishing and being nourished) to feed upon Boniface’s words—something they will enjoy if/when he sends them a reply. And they have no doubt, citing Psalm 119.103, that those words will be sweet: “quam dulcia faucibus meis eloquia tua, domine, super mel et favum ori nostro [the sweetness of your words in my mouth exceeds that of honey and the honeycomb].”4 Honey is sweet and so are the products of monastic literacy, including the friendships these letters facilitate, for monastic virgins write texts as bees make honey.5 Indeed, friendship, like the words that express it, tastes like honey and like honey can be savored and enjoyed physically.
As Mary Carruthers has argued, “sweetness” is ubiquitous as an aesthetic term...