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The Sweet Side of War: The Place of Honey in Military Provisioning

The Sweet Side of War: The Place of Honey in Military Provisioning

Paper given by Ilana Krug at the High Medieval Warfare session, at the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2011)

In Krug’s research into the provisioning of medieval armies, such as King Edward I’s provisioning of castles in Scotland at the end of the 13th century, she has found that honey was usually one of the last supplies to remain in a castle’s stores, even once all other food supplies had ran out. This leads her to ask why was honey kept in a castle’s provisions?

During the Middle Ages, honey was used as a sweetening agent (since there was no sugar at this time), and cooks used in many recipes. This has led some scholars to believe that honey may have been used as food, perhaps saved for the nobility and commanders of castles. Other historians suggest that the honey was needed to make the alcoholic beverage mead. But Krug discounts this possibility, as wine, beer and cider were much more in demand by the English troops stationed in these castles – she notes that every 6 tonnes of honey shipped, 100 tonnes of wine went north.

Krug offers another explanation for the use of honey – medical. The item was known since classical times to be effective in wound treatment – scientific tests show that honey is very acidic and anti-bacterial, and would be effective against barrier against infection. For example, when King Henry V was wounded by an arrow at the Battle of Shrewsbury, honey was used to keep his cheek wound clean after the surgery to remove the arrowhead.

Moreover, medieval medical practitioners used honey for a variety of other ailments – such vertigo, gout and tumours. Since honey was being purchased for English garrissions in Scotland at irregular times and in relatively low quantities, Krug believes that it was being kept for medical purposes, and not used as food, which would explain why besieged castles would have still had honey in their storerooms even after they had run out of their food supplies.

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