‘What can we learn from ancient beeswax?’ is a lecture presented by Professor Matthew Collins on 6 October, 2021 and may be of particular interest to readers who enjoyed Dr Alister Sutherland’s article about beeswax seals in the Middle Ages in the September magazine.

The Zoom event is hosted by Cambridgeshire Beekeepers' Association: visit Eventbrite to book a ticket.

Making an impression Beeswax seals in the Middle Ages

by Dr Alister Sutherland postdoctoral researcher at ArcHives, University of Copenhagen

Humans and beeswax share a history stretching back thousands of years. Residues found in 9,000-year-old Anatolian pottery are the earliest evidence of this, but beeswax has also been found as a filling in the tooth of a man from 6,500 years ago, used for embalming the dead in Ancient Egypt, and moulded into death masks by the Romans.

The medieval beeswax economy

Beeswax was a very important commodity in the Middle Ages. The Roman Catholic Church required the use of beeswax candles for Mass, its central act of worship celebrated every Sunday, and also for many other Christian festivals including Candlemas and Easter. Remarkably, there were over 9,000 parish churches in England in the Middle Ages, all needing candles, and the Church’s demand for them helped drive a booming international trade in beeswax.

Much of England’s imported wax came from the great forests of north-east Europe which were a great source of beeswax because wild bees often build their nests in hollow trees. From here it was shipped to English ports, especially London, by merchants of the Hanseatic League, a trading organisation of German towns which dominated northern European trade during the later Middle Ages.

However, the amount of wax produced domestically in England far exceeded the amount of wax imported. The imports were destined mainly for wealthy religious foundations and households. Domestic, small-scale beekeeping supplied the rest from hundreds of thousands of hives throughout the country, providing many people with an extra source of income.

Uses of beeswax

In addition to ceremonial use and daily illumination, beeswax was used for votive offerings which were deposited in places of worship by people seeking intercession for ailments, injuries or thanks for their recovery from them. Similarly, people who had survived a harrowing ordeal sometimes offered thanks for their deliverance in the form of a beeswax gift object to a church. Tithes were sometimes paid in beeswax and bequests and gifts of beeswax, especially candles, to churches were common.

ealthy households used beeswax for lighting, although tallow remained the preferred material, even if it smoked and smelt foul, because, unlike beeswax, it was cheap. Poorer people had to make do with tallow as the price of beeswax was beyond reach. Wax tablets were used as learning aids, notebooks and for keeping administrative records because they could be reused by heating the wax and smoothing it over. Many documents record the payment of rents in beeswax by tenants to their lords, and it was even used for paying fines. As a multipurpose ingredient, beeswax was handy for many crafts and uses including waterproofing fabrics and ceramics, binding pigments in paints, lost-wax casting, and as a sealant. However, another very important use of beeswax was for seals.

Beeswax seals

Beeswax seals were used to authenticate documents in the Middle Ages. The earliest surviving example from the British Isles is attached to a writ of Edward the Confessor (reign 1042–1066), but the practice of attaching a wax seal to a document could be much older because there is a small number of pre-Conquest seal matrices (the hard object from which an impression is created). One of these dates to the seventh century and belonged to Bathilde, wife and queen of Clovis II, king of Burgundy and Neustria (reign 639–658), and was found in Norfolk.

Medieval seals were nearly always made from beeswax and in the 11th and 12th centuries they were usually made without additives, which created ‘palewhite’ but fragile impressions. Sometimes uncoloured seals were varnished and this frequently gave the seal surface a patchy brown layer. From at least the later 12th century, resin was added to the beeswax to help strengthen the seal.

Colour was also added to sealing wax from the early 12th century, the most common being brown, green and red. Colours were achieved by adding inorganic pigments to the wax such as cinnabar, vermilion, or redlead, for red, and carbon-based pigments for blacks and browns. One of the main ways to produce green beeswax was to heat wax in a copper pan to release copper into the wax, or to add green pigments like verdigris to the wax. Certain people or institutions sometimes used specific colours, such as the Exchequer’s use of green. Wool or hair were occasionally added in an attempt to make impressions more durable, as were twists of straw and grass pushed into the wax around the edge of the impression.

To make red wax, one 15th-century recipe says you should melt one pound of yellow wax with two ounces of turpentine, strain it, mix in one pound of powdered vermilion, let it cool and afterwards make it into balls, cakes or rolls. Another recipe on the same parchment adds that you should grease your hands after the wax, rosin and vermilion have been combined and toss it between your hands to complete the process.

According to the household account of Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster, wax and colourants could be purchased separately with the intention of combining them at a later date to produce coloured sealing wax. In 1313/4 his household purchased a staggering 1,714lbs (777kg) of wax with vermillion and turpentine to make red wax at a cost of £314 7s 4½d, a monumental expense for the time.

Seals were attached to documents by passing a thin strip of parchment through a slit at the foot of the document to create a seal tag, which was then sandwiched between two cakes of warmed sealing wax, before being moulded together by hand. While still warm, the engraved face of a seal matrix was pressed into the wax and pulled away to leave behind (with luck) a clear impression. This type of seal is called a pendant seal.

Contrary to popular belief, beeswax seals were used by a wide cross-section of society, from kings to peasants, and nearly everyone in between, both men and women. Initially their use was restricted to kings and secular and ecclesiastical nobles, but over time seal usage spread to other parts of society, so that by the late 12th century even peasants were using them. Most surviving seal impressions and matrices belonged to people of lower social status, like peasants, craftsmen, clerics, merchants and small landholders – not the social elites. Aristocrats tended to use large seals with equestrian imagery as befitted their high social status, but from hereon we will focus on the seals used by people of lower status because they are less well known.

Most impressions were made with one of two types of matrix. The first was a flat disk, typically round or pointed-oval in shape, made of a base metal like lead, and with a small tab or loop on the back for the sealer to hold while making their impression. On the front, a motif and legend were engraved in reverse so that the impression in the sealing wax could be read correctly. During the 12th century, they were often 35–40mm across but they decreased to about 30mm or less in the 13th century.

The second type, often known as the chesspiece style, became increasingly common from the early 14th century and got its name from its tall conical handle, usually with a suspension loop at the top, with its base carrying the engraving. Most of them were made of base metal but gold and silver were also used. The face was frequently less than 20mm in diameter, but round ones were often no more than 10–15mm across. Signet rings were also used but did not become widespread until the 1400s.

Most impressions have two parts: a motif and a legend. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the motif was often a stylised lily, plant, star, cross or animal, although numerous other symbols, such as tools, can be found. The legend typically named the owner using the formula, ‘Seal of A son of B’, or a variation thereof, most often in Latin, and preceded by a star or cross. Furthermore, abbreviated words and names were the norm owing to the limited space available.

In the late 13th century, the 'anonymous seal’ emerged, so-called because it omitted the owner’s name. Instead, legends tended to use more generic phrases like ALAS IE SV PRIS (French for Alas, I am caught) and more of them were in French or English. Motifs became more elaborate and the interaction between motif and legend became more complex like the image of a hare riding a hound and blowing a horn with the legend I RIDE. Many were clearly stock patterns showing that the act of sealing was more important than what the seal said.

Seals were generally chosen by their owners and can provide fascinating insights into the lives and choices of the people using them. Motifs and legends reveal much about status, gender, piety, humour and fashion, which we would know little about otherwise and shed light on people’s sense of personal identity. This is especially important for men and women of lower status for whom there is often little surviving evidence about their lives but for which seals can provide invaluable information. Indeed, the aforementioned hare riding a hound and blowing a horn, appears to turn the natural order of things on its head and is perhaps subversive.

Beeswax continued to be used throughout the medieval period for seals, but from the late 16th century, shellac, a resin secreted by an insect (Kerria lacca) native to Asia, began to supplant it as the material of choice. It was introduced at a time when sealing practice had shifted so that most seals were applied to the part of a document that would be broken before revealing its contents to the recipient, rather than dangling from a seal tag. Shellac’s brittle nature and its better ability to adhere to the surface of documents compared with beeswax brought the heyday of beeswax seals to an end.

ArcHives – beeswax seals as a biomolecular archive

Medieval beeswax seals contain the biomolecular record of the bees that produced the wax: DNA, proteins and pollen from the plants the bees foraged. Medieval beeswax seals contain the biomolecular record of the bees that produced the wax As a result of the manufacturing process, sealing wax may also include the DNA of the people who handled and made it, making seals an exciting but untapped biomolecular archive. As such, the ArcHives project, funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, has developed new ways to detect and utilise the biomolecular information to explore scientific and historical questions in tandem. These include assessing the health of past bee populations and the changing diversity of the hive microbiome through history to understand better the declining bee populations today, as well as shedding new light on medieval beekeeping practices, the geographic origins of beeswax, the domestic and international trade in beeswax, the composition of sealing wax and possibly also the climate record.

Photos of personal seal impressions: Duchy copyright material in the National Archives is the property of Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Her Duchy of Lancaster and is reproduced by permission of the Chancellor and Council of the Duchy of Lancaster, DL 25/2648, DL 25/2839, DL 25/2555, DL 25/2533

Photo of a manuscript image of bees and a skep: © British Library Board, Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 45r

September 2021

Other articles this month included:

Other Stingless bees: The world bee of the future? by Martin Kunz of Fair Trade
Sugar feed: Why you needn't worry about exact recipes, by Rusty Burlew, director of the USA Native Bee Conservancy
How to make late-season nucs, by Ged Marshall, British Honey Producers 

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