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R oyal Bees: The G ender P olitics o f thezyxwvutsrqponmlkjihgf B eehive in E arly M odern E urope J E F F R E Y M E R R IC K * QPONMLKJIHGFEDCBA W hen the vestry of the parish of Saint-Brice in the Flemish city of Tournai undertook the excavations necessary for the reconstruction of their poorhouse in 1653, they stumbled upon the grave of the Merovingian king Childeric, more than a thousand years after his death. The artifacts recovered from the grave, which eventually ended up in the hands of Louis XIV, included weapons, coins, jewelry, and some three hundred gold “bees.”1 When the Flemish antiquarian Jean-Jacques Chiflet published his description of these treasures, he assumed that the swarm of winged orna­ ments had decorated the saddle and gear of Childeric’s horse. He identi­ fied the bee as the emblem of the Merovingian dynasty and the source of the Capetian fleur-de-lis. Struck by the resemblance of the stylized figures, he suggested that clumsy medieval artists had inadvertently transformed bees into lilies in the repertoire of royal symbolism.2 Mezeray, Montfaucon , Mabillon, and other historians refuted these speculations,3 but Chiflet’s Merovingian bees survived the chorus of learned refutations and the iconoclasm of the French Revolution. Like Carolingian eagles, they figured prominently in Napoleonic symbolism. Bees decorated Notre Dame cathedral for the imperial coronation of 1804 and subsequently materialized in the medallions nestled in the wreaths surrounding the Louis XIV L’s on the Perrault facade of the Louvre.4 Bees legitimized the Napoleonic regime iconographically by linking it 7 8 / MERRICK Figure 1: Merovi ngian bees from the grave of Childeri c. JeanFigure 2: Napole onic bees from the imperia l coro nati on of 1804. Jacqu es Chiflet, ZYXWVUTSRQPONMLKJIHGFEDCBA A n a sta s is C h ild e ric i (Antw erp, 1655). L e sa c re d e I ’ e m p e re u r N a p o le o n (Pari s, 1804). R oyal B ees /zyxwvutsrqponmlkjihgfed 9 with the French past and the lost but not forgotten worlds of antiquity. Thousands of years before Childeric, the Egyptians had used bees to symbolize royal authority. “Alone of all the animals,” as Horapollo’s H ieroglyphics explained, “the bees have a king, whom the rest of the bees follow in a body, just as people obey their king.”5 Classical mythology associated the insects with the king of the gods, since the nymphs of Crete concealed the infant Zeus from his hungry father in the sacred cave of the bees, where they raised him on milk and honey. Greek and Roman naturalists and moralists not only praised the divine qualities of these loyal and industrious creatures but also suggested that mortals had much to learn from their example.6 Early modern animal lore, apiculture man­ uals, and emblem books likewise pointed to the hive as a model for human societies under the rule of male monarchs.7 Political orthodoxy infiltrated natural history, which lent scientific and symbolic support to royal authority. As a result of the revolution in entomology in Chiflet’s time, the reign of the king bee, like his own version of Merovingian history, eventually collapsed during the Enlightenment. Thanks to the invention of the microscope, apiologists finally unrid­ dled some of the mysteries of the hive which have fascinated and baffled humans for centuries. Bees have provoked enduring curiosity and admi­ ration because they, unlike other insects, produce useful commodities (both wax and honey) and provide an obvious example of social order. The hive contains thousands of workers (small, infertile females with stings, developed from fertilized eggs), hundreds of drones (large, sting­ less males, developed from unfertilized eggs), and a single queen (the only large and fertile female, fed on royal jelly and endowed with a sting which she uses only against other queens). During their few weeks of life, the busy workers clean and guard the hive, collect nectar and pollen, secrete wax and regurgitate honey, build the cells and feed the young. The proverbially lazy drones, who live for several months but take on none of these chores...