The Renaissance of BeesWoolfson, Jonathan
Source: Renaissance Studies
Volume 24, Number 2,
April 2010, pp. 281-300
Insects have occupied the planet for over 400 million years, humans for a mere one million. Their impact on human development has been incalculable. They are likely to outlive us. This article explores selected cases in attitudes to the honeybee, an insect with a particularly intense history of interaction with humans, from the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries, mainly drawn from England and Italy, but with forays into other parts of Europe. It is argued that the Renaissance of bees is a mixed phenomenon, characterized by the elaboration of ancient and medieval ideas about these creatures; a heightened tendency to moralize about human society in the light of them; and a new curiosity for understanding them better through direct observation. The study of attitudes to bees sheds light on religion, politics, science and gender during the Renaissance.
I am grateful to audiences at the Warburg Institute, Sussex University, and the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference in Atlanta for response to versions of this article. Thanks especially to Susan Brigden, Peter Burke, Rita Comanducci, Martin van Gelderen, Claire Preston and Flaminia Pichiorri. For general orientations to the subject of this article see Peter Burke, 'Fables of the Bees: A Case-Study in Views of Nature and Society', in Mikulas Teich, Roy Porter and Bo Gustafsson (eds.), Nature and Society in Historical Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 112–23; Claire Preston, Bee (London: Reaktion Books, 2006); Bee Wilson, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us (London: John Murray, 2004); Max Beier, 'The Early Naturalists and Anatomists during the Renaissance and Seventeenth Century', in Ray F. Smith, Thomas E. Mittler and Carroll. N. Smith (eds.), History of Entomology (Palo Alto: Annual Reviews, 1973), 81–94; and Hattie Ellis, Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honey Bee (London: Sceptre, 2004).