Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Bee Boy

In my recent encounter with Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne, I was reminded of a favourite letter to Daines Barrington from that book:
SELBORNE, Dec. 12, 1775.


WE had in this village more than twenty years ago an idiot-boy, whom I well remember, who, from a child, shewed a strong propensity to bees; they were his food, his amusement, his sole object. And as people of this cast have seldom more than one point in view, so this lad exerted all his few faculties on this one pursuit. In the winter he dosed away his time, within his father's house, by the fireside, in a kind of torpid state, seldom departing from the chimney-corner; but in the summer he was all alert, and in quest of his game in the fields, and on sunny banks. Honey-bees, humble-bees, and wasps, were his prey wherever he found them: he had no apprehensions from their stings, but would seize them nudis manibus, and at once disarm them of their weapons, and suck their bodies for the sake of their honey-bags. Sometimes he would fill his bosom between his shirt and his skin with a number of these captives; and sometimes would confine them in bottles. He was a very merops apiaster, or bee-bird; and very injurious to men that kept bees; for he would slide into their bee-gardens, and, sitting down before the stools, would rap with his finger on the hives, and so take the bees as they came out. He has been known to overturn hives for the sake of honey, of which he was passionately fond. Where metheglin was making he would linger round the tubs and vessels, begging a draught of what he called bee-wine. As he ran about he used to make a humming noise with his lips, resembling the buzzing of bees. This lad was lean and sallow, and of a cadaverous complexion; and, except in his favourite pursuit, in which he was wonderfully adroit, discovered no manner of understanding. Had his capacity been better, and directed to the same object, he had perhaps abated much of our wonder at the feats of a more modern exhibiter of bees: and we may justly say of him now,

" — Thou,
"Had thy presiding star propitious shone,
"Should'st Wildman be —."

When a tall youth he was removed from hence to a distant village, where he died, as I understand, before he arrived at manhood.

I am, &c.
To any photography enthusiast, this letter will inevitably conjure the mental image of Richard Avedon's "Beekeeper" portrait from In the American West. The more literary may also be put in mind of Iain Banks' novel The Wasp Factory. Needless to say, my own enthusiasm and advocacy for wasps does not extend to stuffing them up my shirt.

But the letter has a number of puzzling references, which I must either not have noticed or simply passed over in previous readings. My edition of the Natural History lacks any annotations, so I thought I'd be my own editor, and indulge in a little looking things up, one of my favourite pastimes. Here, in order of occurrence, are my notes:

1. Nudis manibus : The Latin phrase means "with bare hands". But why does White feel the need to Latinise such an innocuous expression? There are generally two reasons for this in the discursive prose of that time. First, a coyness about physicality and in particular sexual matters. Latin formed a suitable barrier against servants, children, and women, whom a clergyman like White might feel needed to be protected either from such knowledge, or from the fact that their pious master had or was interested in such knowledge. Second, and more likely in this instance, a quotation from or reference to some classical or Biblical source, often unattributed, sometimes ironic, which the reader could be presumed to recognise. My knowledge of either in Latin is minimal, and a Google search throws up no obvious candidates. There must be something going on here, but I confess I don't know what it is.

2. Metheglin : Despite sounding like something brewed up in Breaking Bad, metheglin is simply mead (alcohol fermented from honey) flavoured with herbs and spices. We once bought a bottle of mead on Lindisfarne, and it quickly became clear why its popularity has declined since mediaeval times. Maybe the added flavouring helps. As White might have put it: having sampled the aforementioned bee-wine, one wonders whether the lad had been better employing, as an initial consonant, the unvoiced, and not the voiced, bi-labial plosive. But I suppose if you like the taste of bees, you might go for mead, too.

3. "Had his capacity been better..." : This is one of those sentences that makes no sense whatsoever until you are supplied with one vital piece of information. That is, that Thomas and Daniel Wildman were 19th century apiarists, the former well-known in naturalist circles for his Treatise on the Management of Bees (1768), and both more widely famous for their displays of, ah, bee-taming. Here is an advertisement from 1772 (pinched from here):
June 20 1772
Exhibition of bees on horseback! At the Jubilee Gardens, Islington, this and every evening until further notice (wet evenings excepted).

The celebrated Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments, never attempted  by any man in this or any other kingdom before.  The riders standing upright, one foot on the saddle and one on the neck, with a mask of bees on his head and face. He also rides standing upright on the saddle with the bridle in his mouth, and, by firing a pistol makes one part of the bees march over the table, and the other swarm in the air and return to their hive again, with other performances too tedious to insert.
I'd pay to see that. Which brings us to:

4. The quotation : this is from Blenheim : a poem (1705) by John Philips, a ridiculously overblown, quasi-Miltonic account of Marlborough's triumph, dedicated to Robert Harley, a major statesman of the time, but best remembered now as a patron of the arts and the collector of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English manuscripts now in the British Library and known as the Harley Collection. White has substituted "Wildman" for "Churchill" (i.e. Marlborough). These lines, I eventually worked out, lament the "egregious prince" (Prince William, Duke of Gloucester) who died aged 11, but who, had he lived, might himself have been a contender for Churchillian glory, a veritable Marlborough Man. Thus, our idiot-boy, had he not been several worker-bees short of a hive, might have been able to explain the bizarre feats of beemanship as displayed by Wildman, and indeed might have aspired to be his equal. White, presumably, must have assumed both source and substitution to be common knowledge, at least to his correspondent Daines Barrington, in order to make ironic play with them in this way. Or maybe he was just showing off, over-excitedly, causing the mystified Barrington to scratch his head and wonder about White's own idiocy. Indicatively, perhaps, Barrington's half of the correspondence seems not to have survived.

So, there we have it. All is now clear. It's just like being back at college, isn't it? Except about 10,000 times easier, with the resources of the entire internet at your disposal. It's also a salutary reminder of both the usefulness of a well-annotated edition, and how today's witty allusion is tomorrow's egregious footnote, too tedious to insert.


mistah charley, ph.d. said...

I very much enjoyed this post. As far as I recall, I have never encountered the word "metheglin" before - there's a recipe at

Mike C. said...

Thanks, mistah charley, I've still got that (disgusting) bottle of mead around somewhere, but i doubt it's improved or improvable...


Martyn Cornell said...

When Welsh kings demanded payment in kind from their tenants, a barrel of mead was reckoned to be worth four barrels of ale.

Mike C. said...


Hence the origin of the expression, "taking the piss"... But, yes, maybe a sample of one bottle brewed for the tourist trade in 1979 *is* a bit like dismissing all beer based on one unfinished glass of Watney's Red Barrel...