“A Swarm in July”: Beekeeping Perspectives on the Old English Wið Ymbe Charm
Garner, Lori Ann & Miller, Kayla M.
Oral Tradition, Issue 26, Number 2, October (2011)
This exploration of an Old English charm against a swarm of bees (wið ymbe) augments and complements prior work on this enigmatic text by bringing knowledgeable and experienced beekeepers directly into the discussion. Based on insights gained through sharing the text with them and inviting their reactions, this essay offers a highly collaborative and genuinely interdisciplinary interpretation of both the charm’s ritual instructions and the poetic incantation.
Inscribed in the margins of an eleventh-century manuscript1 of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and crowded beneath a Latin prayer is a brief bit of advice for beekeepers in the event of a swarm (ymbe), a natural phenomenon in which a substantial portion of an older bee colony migrates en masse with a queen to establish a new colony. The following analysis of this enigmatic text has been inspired largely by three features central to John Miles Foley’s vast body of work: interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and comparative research. While the eight lines of alliterative verse that constitute the greater portion of this swarm charm have assured its standing within canonical Old English literature, its insights into traditional apiary practices of Anglo-Saxon England make it equally appropriate subject matter for studies in folklore or even animal science. It is precisely such unlikely intersections that have long served as foci for the transdisciplinary work of John Foley, and it is thus that we now choose it as the subject of analysis for a volume in his honor.