two bees
September 11, 2023 7:03 AM   Subscribe

The Bees of Childeric I "The 27th May 1653 likely started as any other for mason Adrien Quinquin. A man working on a construction site in Tournai, modern-day Belgium, he was several feet under the ground swinging his pickaxe when he hit something unusual. A glint of gold shimmered up at him. After gathering the attention of nearby people, the rest of Quinquin’s hole was dug up. Inside was a real treasure trove: human bones, hundreds of silver coins, a highly decorated sword and scabbard, and many more gold items including buckles, rings and brooches. Key for us, there were also 300 little bees made from gold. " [via]
posted by dhruva (13 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
That's amazing and I never would have heard of it otherwise, thanks!
posted by kingdead at 7:07 AM on September 11

That is great. Thank you for posting it!
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:49 AM on September 11

From what I've been able to read, it was Chifflet that identified these as bees. That may be so, and all that matters is that Napoleon thought they were bees too. But supposedly they could have been cicadas or even... flies.
posted by vacapinta at 7:56 AM on September 11

Did not answer the central question: why bees?
posted by eviemath at 8:01 AM on September 11

Yeah, those are either 'bees' made by someone who'd never seen one (see also medieval 'lions'), or they are a decent representation of flies. The two wings is a pretty good tell, as is the angle they are held at while in repose.

Then again, the tradition of people being confused by bees and bee-looking flies goes back thousands of years!
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:03 AM on September 11

Bees were a symbol of resurrection and immortality to the Merovingians, and (if I recall) were pretty popular as designs until the Carolingians pushed the previous dynasty out of power. It’s a little hard to find solid information online with all the Holy Blood, Holy Grail silt in the water, though.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:09 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]

This story and the article are lovely, thank you! The bees themselves are beautiful. And how interesting that we have a bunch of historical documentation from 1000+ years after they were made but the artifacts themselves are mostly lost.

See also this 2012 Australian museum exhibit, Napoleon and the Bee. It ignores the Childeric part of the story entirely and instead says the bee was chosen for various forms of symbolism related to industriousness, including Christian association with diligence and honey production.

I'd dismiss their interpretation as another badly researched "just so" story except these are museum curators and are presumably expets. The exhibition labels do cite the Childeric bees. It also labels them as "in fact, cicadas". All this makes me wonder if in fact there's another story here both of the 5th century objects and Napoleon's bees. Maybe the OP's article is just one interpretation of the facts we have.
posted by Nelson at 8:17 AM on September 11

I’m not sure “they don’t look like bees” is a great argument. If you look at Medieval depictions of animals, they are often… stylized to the point of unrecognizability (too be charitable), and that’s for easily observable animals like cats!
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:48 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

Ok, the artist may have never observed a bee carefully, or just been very bad at faithfully rendering them, getting the number of wings wrong. It's not just that they don't look like bees, it's that they look a lot more like other animals. The messed up old cats don't look like very good renderings of weasels.

My understanding is the ancient association with bees and reincarnation is related to the notion of their spontaneous generation. That is widely believed to be due to the behavior of Syrphid flies, as mentioned in the Bugonia link I shared above.

Anyway, details on these such as the huge eyes, two wings, and short antennae match well with the drone fly Eristalis tenax, and not with a bee. The cicada is also a better match.

One thing is that lots of people probably didn't even bother to distinguish bees from flies that looked superficially like bees, so I suppose they could have been intended as bees but a yellow/black hoverfly was used as a model.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:59 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

Bees were so well known in Europe though! Europeans had domesticated bees making honey going back 7000 years, possibly far longer. But as GenjiandProust says even ordinary animals like cats sometimes had very odd depictions in art. It does seem weird to have the wings so wrong though.

Whatever the original sculptor intended Childeric certainly thought they were bees. You can see his writing in Latin here along with his beautiful illustrations labelled "Apes aurea gemmata". I don't know medieval Latin but I don't think "apis" is ambiguous here.
posted by Nelson at 10:12 AM on September 11

Childeric certainly thought they were bees. You can see his writing in Latin here along with his beautiful illustrations labelled "Apes aurea gemmata". I don't know medieval Latin but I don't think "apis" is ambiguous here.

That’s Chifflet’s Anastasis Childerici I. Francorvm Regis, sive Thesavrvs Sepvlchralis Tornaci Neruiorum, mentioned in the article, written in Neo-Latin nearly twelve centuries after the death of Childeric I.
posted by zamboni at 10:43 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]

I think they look more like the feathered lures used in falconry.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:20 PM on September 11

Mod note: [btw, this post has been added to the sidebar and the Best Of blog (along wih its spawn!)]
posted by taz (staff) at 3:24 AM on September 12

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