A King Bee
Insects are rarely the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Polish cookery. This is despite the fact that honey bees have played a crucial role in traditional Polish (and not only) cuisine for centuries. Even in the oldest known description of Poland at the dawn of its history, written by the Sephardi traveler Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, we can read that Poland was a land full of grain, meat and honey. This opinion was echoed a century and a half later by an anonymous Gaulish monk who praised the country of the Slavs as abounding in "milky cows", "fishy waters", "wooly sheep" and "honey-flowing forests". Was this a reference to the Biblical "land flowing with milk and honey" or mockery made of the northern savages who, rather then feed on bread, wine and olive oil (like the civilized Mediterranean farmers did), made their living by hunting, gathering and herding? Hard to tell; perhaps it was a little bit of both. Anyway, my point is that it's difficult to imagine Polish cuisine without honey cakes and honey-flavoured gingerbread, honey-sweetened tea, mead, and honey liqueurs, such as krupnik or krambambula.
But the bees' culinary role doesn't stop at their sweet secretion. Poland is one of the world's major producers of temperate-zone fruits largely thanks to these little fluffy workers in black-and-yellow stripes that tirelessly pollinate all those Polish apple, pear, cherry, plum, peach and apricot trees, not to mention berries, buckwheat, cucumbers and canola.
While doing some research about the importance of these insects in the history of Poland, I came across the following little story in an "encyclopedia" of sweets:
|There is an old legend about a vacancy for a Polish crown prince (apparently, the lines of inheritance for heirs were empty), and someone named Michael Wiscionsky was the chosen candidate to fill the vacancy. Why? Because a swarm of bees settled on him during the selection process (history also suggests he was not an outstanding leader nor was he remembered for much of anything but the bee story). The bees have such significance in Poland that a bee made of diamonds remains in the crown of the kings, its presence officially extolling the virtues of the bees.|
|— Timothy G. Roufs, Kathleen Smyth Roufs: Sweet Treats around the World: An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, ABC-CLIO, 2014, p. 272–273
You can see at the first glance that it's one big pile of rubbish. It wasn't the heir to the throne that was (usually) elected in Poland, but a new king after the previous one had died or resigned. The process was called an "election", not "selection". And whatever one might say about the actual political power of Polish kings, it was still too important an office to leave the job of picking the right candidate to a bunch of insects. Besides, no one in Poland has ever heard of King "Wiscionsky" or a diamond bee in any of the crowns known to have been kept in the royal treasure vault. Yet, someone thought the story was credible enough to put it in a book with the word "encyclopedia" in its title, so maybe there is a pollen grain of truth to it?
A Drone on the Throne
So what's the deal with the king elected by bees? Did any of the Polish monarchs have anything to do with these critters? Well, Encyclopædia Britannica for example, in its 1911 edition, says that King Vladislaus IV, the ruler under whose reign Poland reached the peak of its power (which, if you think about it, means that the realm's decline started under his watch), was known as the "king of bees". So how did he earn this moniker?
|Wladislaus IV, who succeeded his father [Sigismund III] in 1632, was the most popular monarch who ever sat on the Polish throne. The szlachta [nobility], who had had a “King Log” in Sigismund, were determined that Wladislaus should be “a King Bee who will give us nothing but honey” – in other words they hoped to wheedle him out of even more than they had wrested from his predecessor. Wladislaus submitted to everything. He promised never to declare war or levy troops without the consent of the sejm [parliament], undertook to fill all vacancies within a certain time, and released the szlachta from the payment of income-tax, their one remaining fiscal obligation.|
|— William Richard Morfill: Poland, in: Encyclopædia Britannica, vol. 21, University of Cambridge, 1911, p. 913
In fact, the nobles loved Vladislaus so much that his election was probably the calmest and shortest in the history of Polish monarchy – nobody else would even bother to run against everyone's favourite candidate. But the nobles loved those kings who gave them much and required little in return. The more inactive a king, the better. It turns out that the man who first compared the nobles' darling to a lazy drone was Paweł Piasecki, Bishop of Kamieniec, who criticized his majesty in these words:
|The king of Poland, in the exercise of all his public functions, is like a king of bees, who only brings honey to his subjects. […] He has no sting whatsoever, as the lives, personal freedoms and property of the nobility are entirely outside the scope of his power.|
|— Paweł Piasecki, cyt. w: Karol Szajnocha: Dzieła, vol. IX (Dwa lata dziejów naszych: 1646–1648, dalszy ciąg), Warszawa: Józef Ungier, 1877, p. 36–37, own translation
It's true that drones, or male bees, have no stings; but they don't produce honey either, so I'm not sure about the accuracy of this simile. But are we sure that Vladislaus IV was the same as the king in the election-by-bees story? Not really; neither the surname nor the first name check out. And even though Poland has never had a king by the name "Wiscionsky", it did have one whose first name was Michael.
I've found the same amusing anecdote about a swarm of bees which picked the right candidate for the Polish throne, in another English-language book. This one is about bees in folklore and religious beliefs, and it's better than the one cited before in that at least it provides the source of the story. And the source turns out to be a late-19th-century German-language History of Beekeeping by Johann Georg Bessler. Here's what he wrote on the topic:
|Michael Wyscionsky received the Polish royal crown from the people, because during the royal election a swarm of bees sat on him.|
|— Johann Georg Bessler: Geschichte der Bienenzucht: Ein Beitrag zur Kulturgeschichte, Ludwigsburg: nakładem autora, 1885, p. 63, own translation
The mysterious Mr. Wisionsky appears here again! But elsewhere in the same book, you can find a more detailed version of the legend. Here, the surname of the king allegedly elected by bees is no longer butchered to the point of being unrecognizable.
|When Prince Michael Korybut Wisniowiecki […] rode to the royal election field at Wola outside Warsaw, he was accompanied not only by a numerous retinue, but also by a mighty swarm of bees, all the way to the place where the Primate of Poland proclaimed him king. It was seen as a propitious portent, which would later come true.|
|— Ibid., p. 218, own translation
So, as you may have guessed by now, "Michael Wiscionsky's" actual name was Michael Korybut Wiśniowiecki (pronounced kaw-RIH-boot veesh-nyaw-VYET-skee). His election to the Polish throne 350 years ago was quite a surprise to pretty much everyone – not least to Prince Michael himself. His father, Prince Jeremi Wiśniowiecki, Palatine of Ruthenia, owned vast swaths of land in Ukraine and became a national hero by ruthlessly quelling a Cossack rebellion, but Michael inherited neither his father's leadership skills nor his wealth. He wasn't even considered a candidate right up to the point when he got elected.
Let's go back 20 years, to the time after King Vladislaus IV's death. Both his throne and his wife went to his half-brother (and maternal cousin), John Casimir Vasa. John Casimir never had enough patience to keep any job for long (his CV included stints as a commander of cuirassiers, a viceroy of Portugal, a Jesuit and a cardinal), but hung on relatively long on the Polish throne and under his former sister-in-law's thumb. Until finally, grieved by Marie-Louise's death and disenchanted by the nobility's opposition to his policies, he quit and moved to France, where he holed up in a Benedictine monastery until his death.
The Polish political scene at the time was divided into two main factions, with different ideas for Poland's foreign policy and its relations with Europe's two major powers – the Habsburg Monarchy and France. The pro-French party initially supported two candidates for the throne vacated by John Casimir's abdication – Prince Louis Bourbon, better known as the Grand Condé, and Prince Philip William Wittelsbach, Count Palatine of Neuburg. The pro-Habsburg faction, on the other hand, endorsed Duke Charles Leopold of Lorraine. The Grand Condé, famous as an accomplished military commander, was perhaps best suited for the job; which is probably why he was also the first to drop out of the race. As always in Polish politics, negative selection prevailed. It was now down to two contenders, neither of whom spared the expenses needed to bribe the senators (promises to the nobility could be made for free).
Where two are fighting, the third wins, as a Polish proverb goes. Eventually, the nobility got tired of the endless bickering among the senators and decided to take up the idea advocated by Crown Underchancellor Andrzej Olszowski to elect a so-called "Piast". House Piast was Poland's first royal dynasty, back when the throne was still hereditary and not elective, but the idea was not to elect someone with actual Piast roots in his family tree (if this had been the case, then Charles Leopold would have stood a better chance, thanks to Cymburgis of Masovia, a Piast duchess who was his great8-grandmother in two different lines; besides, the last actual Piast, George William of Brieg, was still alive). The idea was simply to elect a native Pole rather than any of the foreign princes. The only question was, who specifically was to become this "Piast" king?
And this is when, according to the legend, a swarm of honey bees arrived in the election field and sat on the Polish-born Prince Michael and the nobles concluded that if the bees had already made their pick, then the rest was just formality. All the senators could do was to agree with the choice made by the bugs and the nobility, and thus a completely astonished Michael was proclaimed king.
It wasn't just Michael, though, who was totally taken by surprise. The senators and many of the nobles were shocked as well. No wonder his unexpected election was soon being explained away with divine intervention by means of insects and birds (other legends talk of a dove perched atop the Senatorial Shed and an eagle soaring above the Circle of Knights). Interestingly, I've been able to find two eyewitness accounts which actually confirm the presence of a bee swarm in the election field. In details, though, not only do they contradict the legend; they also contradict one another. Let's start with the point of view of Wespazjan Kochowski:
|There was one more event, which was taken to foretell a propitious future; during the vote, a swarm of spring bees arrived from the east and settled among the nobles of Łęczyca Palatinate. And they were so gentle that when they dispersed, they bit no one and they soon flew out of sight. It was something to congratulate the king for, an incitement to hope for a felicitous fate.|
|— Wespazjan Kochowski: Roczników Polski klimakter IV obejmujący dzieje Polski pod panowaniem króla Michała, tłum. August Mosbach, red. Jan Nepomucen Bobrowicz, Lipsk: Księgarnia Zagraniczna, 1853, p. 30, own translation
But that would mean that the bees did not pick any specific candidate; they just flew into the field, sat down to rest for a while and then flew away. And it was already after Michael had been elected, so all the bees could do was, at best, to approve the choice made by the nobility. You can see exactly this interpretation of the event in an anonymous poem cited by Kochowski:
This swarm confirms our verdict by auspicious omen,
|— Ibid., own translation
The other account belongs to Count de Chavagnac, who in the name of the Habsburg court promoted the Duke of Lorraine as a candidate. In his version, the bees didn't join Prince Michael's retinue, but pestered the Palatine of Podolia on his way to the election field. His report is particularly fascinating, as it reveals large-scale corruption and shady arrangements made behind the scenes – in which Michael's would-be successor, John Sobieski, and his wife, Marie-Casimire Sobieska née d'Arquien, played a crucial role. As it turns out, the Sobieskis, who belonged to the pro-French faction, struck a deal with de Chavagnac that, in return for allowing Charles Leopold to take the Polish throne, Lorraine would ally itself to France against the Habsburgs, Lord Sobieski would receive tracts of land in Ruthenia and 100 thousand francs in cash, Lady Sobieska would get a large diamond and the count would become a marshal of France…
|I spent the entire following day, the eve of the election, meeting with senators. I talked with the chaplain to Grand Crown Marshal John Sobieski, who told me that his master hadn't written down the treaty yet, but he would trust my word. The real reason for the delay was that Lady Sobieska had forgotten to include her brother, Lord d'Arquien, in the treaty, and as the date of the election would fall on the feast of Corpus Christi, she wanted to postpone it by one day, so that she would have more time to haggle something out for her brother. The Palatine of Podolia [Aleksander Stanisław Bełżecki], whom she had enlisted into her service, could think of no other way to delay the election than to propose a Piast, that is, a native-born king. He imagined that the Crowners would never agree to a king from Lithuania, nor would the Lithuanians ever vote for a Crowner king;* that it would cause mayhem and put off the election, giving Sobieski's wife the time to make me accept her conditions. Confident of this scheme, he left her and went to [meet the nobles of] his palatinate, whom he told that on his way he had been harassed by swarms of bees, which led him here, and that it surely meant that a Piast should be elected king, as these were the bees from Piast's own apiary.|
|— Wyjątek z pamiętników hrabiego de Chavagnac, in: Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz: Zbiór pamiętników historycznych o dawnej Polszcze, red. Jan Nepomucen Bobrowicz, vol. IV, Lipsk: Breitkopf i Haertel, 1839, p. 228–229, own translation|
* The Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were the two constituent nations of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
As you can see, this was a very clever plot, but it didn't quite work out. All because of possibly the greatest miracle in Polish history – the Poles immediately agreeing to elect a single common candidate, no other than Prince Michael Wiśniowiecki. It's quite telling that, apart from this one incredible miracle, there is nothing supernatural in either of these accounts. A swarm of bees had come and gone, and it was up to the politicians to assign a symbolic meaning of their choice to a simple natural occurrence. Kochowski is actually quite straightforward about it:
|Wasn't it due to blind fate rather than a miracle that the bees appeared on a beautiful spring day? Whether their numbers had grown and could no longer fit inside their hives, so that entire swarms went looking for new settlements, or they simply left the nest to gather honey in nearby fields, one can presume that only chance led them within the Circle, where they rested before flying on.|
|— Kochowski, op. cit., p. 30, own translation
After all, it was June, the height of swarming season for honey bees, so the election field may have been swarming with swarms.
Piast the Honey Hunter
It's curious that the Palatine of Podolia purportedly made the association between the bees and "Piast's own apiary", expecting his listeners to recognize the reference. Today, most Poles would be more likely to identify Piast, the legendary progenitor of Poland's native royal dynasty, as a wheelwright, rather than an apiarist. But let's see what old chronicles have to say about Piast's actual profession.
In the oldest version of the legend of Piast, known from the work of the aforementioned anonymous Gaul, Piast kept no bees and made no wheels; he was just a simple ploughman, who treated his unexpected guests to pork and beer, a meal he had prepared for his son's hair-cutting and name-giving ceremony. The story would evolve over the centuries until, in the 16th-century chronicle by Marcin Bielski, Piast eventually became a honey hunter (that is, someone who steals honey from wild bees nesting in tree hollows, rather than keeping bees in hives) and served his guest not beer, but mead.
|There lived at that time in Krushvitsa a townsman named Piast, son of Koshichko, a honey hunter (or a wheelwright, according to some), a good, simple and just man. His wife, Repicha, had just given him a son, so he killed a hog and fermented a barrel of mead for a pagan naming ceremony. […] There was at that time a great crowd in Krushvitsa and there was a shortage of food, so they went to Piast to buy some, but he would give away for free the pork and the mead he had prepared for the naming to anyone who came; and he had so much that they were all unable to drink all of the mead or eat all of the meat.|
|— Marcin Bielski: Kronika polska, Kraków: Jakub Sibeneycher, 1597, p. 44, own translation
"Piast the Wheelwright" would eventually prevail over "Piast the Honey Hunter" in popular imagination, but during the royal election of 1669, the reference to Piast's apiary wouldn't have risen an eyebrow (even though an apiary is not the same thing as a wild-bee nest). A misconception that is still quite alive, though, is that ancient Slavs drank mead, or honey wine, on an everyday basis. In fact, mead has always been a luxury beverage, available only to the affluent and reserved for special occasions. It was beer, as in the original Piast story, that was the everyday thirst-quencher of the common folk.
A What-if Side Note
Two years after losing the Polish royal election, the Grand Condé suffered an even greater loss – his court chef, the famous François Vatel, committed suicide. It was on the third day of a great banquet, which Condé was giving to King Louis XIV at the castle of Chantilly. It was a Friday, a lean day, and the transport of fish was running late; for Vatel, who was responsible for managing the whole operation, it was a dishonour which only falling on his sword (three times!) could wash away.
Who knows, maybe if Condé had become king of Poland, then Vatel would have lived longer? Maybe he would have made his career at the Polish royal court and the invention he is traditionally credited for – sweetened whipped cream – would have been known as crème Varsovie rather than crème Chantilly? Perhaps he would have met Stanisław Czerniecki (pronounced stah-NEE-swahf churn-YET-skee), whom historian Karol Estreicher has dubbed "the Polish Vatel"? Czerniecki, author of the first cookbook printed in Polish, had served Prince Michael Wiśniowiecki for some time, before getting a job as the head chef to the Princes Lubomirski. The political rivalry between the Grand Condé and Prince Michael is one thing, but imagine how much more fascinating a culinary duel between Vatel and Czerniecki would have been!
History took a different course, though. It was Michael who got the job as king of Poland, but not for long. He happened to be one of those Polish monarchs who loved to eat and drink well (and in copious amounts). Kochowski wrote that Michael was "unrestrained in his consumption, […] he drunk much more beer than wine, with salt, sugar and ginger." It was even said that when he got one thousand "Chinese apples" (oranges) as a gift from the city of Danzig (Gdańsk), he sampled one, he liked it, so he had another one, then another, because why not, and suddenly it turned out that he had devoured the whole thousand by himself. No wonder the king died from peptic ulcers at the age of 33.
After Michael's death, the Grand Condé tried his luck at a Polish royal election once more – and again with no luck. This time, Louis XIV preferred to endorse the loyal advocate of French interests in Poland and yet another great gourmet – John Sobieski.
A Bee-jeweled Crown
We've still got the diamond-bee puzzle to figure out. You know, the diamond bee said to have decorated the crown of Polish kings "to remind them that all virtues are to be found in the bee-state." Somehow, this peculiar ornament isn't mentioned by any expert on Polish crown jewels. Of course, they only wrote about those Polish crowns that have survived to our times (not many) or that were listed in official inventories of the royal treasure vault. So could it be that one of the Polish monarchs had a private crown, not listed in the inventories, that was adorned with a diamond bee?
Here, too, we can trace the sources back to Bessler's German-language History of Beekeeping:
|In the crown which graced the heads of Polish kings there is a diamond bee. It is supposed to remind the rulers that all virtues are to be found in a healthy and vigorous bee state.|
|— Bessler, op. cit., p. 218, own translation
But are there any Polish sources that mention the insect-shaped crown element? Not many, but here's an excerpt from an article sent in from an anonymous "apiarist from the Eastern Borderlands" to the interwar magazine The Polish Beekeeper. It mentions both Piast the Wheelwright-cum-Beekeeper and the diamond bee:
|Our Polish annalists speak of Piast the Wheelwright, his apiary and his hospitality, while historian J. Lelewel writes in his book Bees and Polish Honey Hunting that in the Polish crown there was once a diamond bee from the times of our first beekeeping king, as a symbol of the Polish nation.|
|— Pasiecznik z Kresów: Nieco z dziejów bartnictwa w Polsce, in: Pszczelarz polski, sad i pasieka: niezależny ilustrowany miesięcznik, vol. 1, Warszawa: Józef Przyłuski, 1930, p. 45 ff., own translation
Now, that's a pretty good lead! Joachim Lelewel (pronounced leh-LEH-vehl), a respectable 19th-century historian, did, in fact, author a book entitled Bees and Honey Hunting. So let's see what exactly he wrote there about the diamond bee:
|— Joachim Lelewel: Pszczoły i bartnictwo, in: Polska: Dzieje i rzeczy jej, vol. IV, Poznań: J.K. Żupański, 1856, p. 517, own translation
What Lelewel focused on were taxes and fines historically paid in honey and wax, as well as the history of Polish apiculture-related legislation. Which is, arguably, a rather big deal, as even today an act of law as important as the Polish Civil Code contains a separate article about chasing a runaway bee swarm. But Lelewel didn't write a single word about any bee-shaped jewels. Why, then, did the anonymous beekeeper reference Lelewel when writing about the diamond bee? For this, I believe, we've got to go back to Bessler again. In Bessler's book, the story of a royal election settled by bees and the bee-shaped jewel in the crown is followed by a list of Polish apicultural literature. And the first work on that list is no other than Lelewel's book! My hunch is that the anonymous Borderland beekeeper found the information about the diamond bee in Bessler's book and thought (wrongly) that it was taken from the first source listed in the bibliography. Only this means that we've made a full circle and we still don't know where the hell Bessler got that diamond bee from.
While looking for any other references to a diamond bee, I found something slightly different – a bee on the diamond dress of Our Lady of Częstochowa (pronounced chen-staw-HAW-vah). Also known as the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Częstochowa is Poland's most sacred Catholic icon. For centuries it has been decorated with so-called "dresses", or specially-cut metal screens covered with bejeweled cloth. The two oldest of such screens that have been preserved to our times are known as the ruby and the diamond dresses. The jewels that are sewn onto them are votive offerings gathered over the centuries at the Pauline monastery of Częstochowa, where the painting is kept. Many of these jewels are actually quite secular personal accessories that had been worn by kings, queens and aristocrats before they donated them to the Black Madonna. They come in many different shapes and sizes, including a few butterflies and one honey bee.
Even though the diamond dress is dominated by, you guessed it, diamonds, the bee itself is made of other gemstones. As far as I've been able to tell, the thorax is made of a square-cut emerald, while the abdomen is an elongated pearl with segmental grooves carved into it. It seems to be a kind of a sewn-on brooch made in Poland in the 17th or 18th century. Before it was given to the monastery, could it have bedecked a royal crown? Unlikely. Could it grace some other part of royal vestments? More likely. Many of the ornaments found on Our Lady's dresses are known to come from kingly gifts. No one seems to know for sure, but perhaps the emerald-and-pearl bee was an offering made by one of Polish kings or queens?
If you'd like to give it a closer look, then you've got a unique occasion to do so only until 4 August. For the first time in history, the diamond dress has left the confines of the monastery and you can admire it at the "To Rule And To Dazzle" exhibition at the Royal Castle of Warsaw.
- Relacja Ibrahim ibn Jakuba z podróży do krajów słowiańskich w przekazie al-Bekriego, tłum. Tadeusz Kowalski; in: Monumenta Poloniae Historica, seria II, vol. I, Kraków: 1946, p. 50
- Anonim tak zwany Gall: Kronika polska, tłum. Roman Grodecki, 1975
- Nie tylko miód: Wartość ekonomiczna zapylania upraw rolniczych w Polsce w roku 2015, Warszawa: Fundacja Greenpeace Polska, 2016, p. 9–12
- Hilda M. Ransome: The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore, Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2004 , p. 174
- Zygmunt Gloger: Encyklopedia staropolska, vol. I, Warszawa: 1900, p. 121
- Wespazjan Kochowski: Roczników Polski klimakter IV obejmujący dzieje Polski pod panowaniem króla Michała, tłum. August Mosbach, red. Jan Nepomucen Bobrowicz, Lipsk: Księgarnia Zagraniczna, 1853, p. XIII, own translation
- Narcisse-Achille de Salvandy: Dzieje panowania Michała Wiszniowieckiego Króla Polskiego, Wielkiego X. Litewskiego itd., tłum. X.G., Lwów: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1849, p. 71
- Hanna Widacka: Choroba i śmierć króla Michała, in: Silva Rerum, Warszawa: Muzeum Pałacu Króla Jana III w Wilanowie
- Ransome, op. cit., p. 174
- Michał Rożek: Polskie koronacje i korony, Kraków: Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1987
- Jerzy Lileyko: Regalia polskie, Warszawa: Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1987
- Ustawa z dnia 23 kwietnia 1964 r. – Kodeks cywilny, Dz.U. 1964 nr 16 poz. 93, art. 182
- Ewa Smulikowska: Ozdoby obrazu Matki Boskiej Częstochowskiej jako zespół zabytkowy, in: Juliusz Starzyński: Rocznik Historii Sztuki, vol. X, Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich – Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk, 1974, p. 217
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