Medieval Honey Trade

Honey trade was widespread in late medieval Europe, study finds

Europe was a veritable beehive of activity when it came to the medieval honey trade. A study just published in the Journal of Medieval History examines the historical context of the honey industry in the Middle Ages.

Authored by three scholars from King’s College London, the study uncovers how trade, taste, and ecology intersected in the production and consumption of honey during this time. Drawing from a variety of primary sources, the researchers reveal how the trade in honey was a vital part of medieval commerce.

Honey was being produced in practically every part of medieval Europe. The article notes that “everywhere in this region had some form of beekeeping adapted to social, ecological and physical environments, ranging from wicker hives (skeps) in England to the large bee ranches of central Castile, and from the log hives of western Germany and France to tree beekeeping in the vast forests east of the Elbe.”

The study centres on two particular important centres of honey production – Iberia and the Baltic region. Catalonia and Portugal would become major exporters of the product. The study uncovered 163 contracts for shipments of honey out of Catalonia between the years 1342 to 1484. A little over half of those shipments went to Egypt, but other exports went to France, Italy, Cyprus, and even the Syrian city of Damascus.

While Egyptians were voracious consumers of honey, so to were Italians. Francesco Datini, the famous Merchant of Prato, ordered a shipment from Valencia of 9000 litres of honey in June 1397. Several other trade networks also emerged, with honey going from Portugal to England, from Bulgaria to Italy, and from Hungary to Austria. Meanwhile, the Baltic region was also a major centre of honey production, but their trade was mostly local.

The study also notes that in Europe and the Middle East, there was much demand for honey. It was widely used not only as food but in cooking, brewing mead and even in medicines. While many wealthy people consumed honey, it could be found throughout society. For example, the nunnery of the Holy Cross, located in the northern German town of Rostock, kept track of their purchases of honey between 1421 and 1461. On average they purchased over 112 litres of honey, with some years going well over 200 litres. With the nunnery having between 30 and 40 residents, this would mean they were on average, using at least 3 litres a year per person. This is about six times the amount of honey an average American uses.

One of the main reasons that honey was traded so widely was that many places could export different qualities and styles of the product. The researchers commented:

Medieval consumers also recognized and appreciated the wide variety of honeys available and the ecologies they represented. The preference for some honeys over others, the prices special honeys could command and their ability to withstand transport costs over long distances show the extent to which taste played a role in this trade. The honeys which were most attractive for long-distance trade were those which came from floral and herbal landscapes, and areas with a high prevalence of trees like chestnut which imparted recognizable flavors. These honeys found ready markets across the Mediterranean and northern Europe, even in regions that had their own highly developed apiculture, and they existed alongside domestic products. Honey was a sought-after commodity whose consumption was embedded in the cultural fabric of the later Middle Ages.

The article, “Trade, taste and ecology: honey in late medieval Europe, by Alexandra Sapoznik, Lluís Sales i Favà and Mark Whelan, is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Medieval History.

Alexandra Sapoznik, Lluís Sales i Favà and Mark Whelan together run the project Bees in the medieval world –

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