The palimpsest, and broken hive.


While other Millions were employ’d

To see their Handy-works destroy’d…


When he first composed his Fable of the Bees in 1705, Bernard Mandeville had centuries of precedent to harvest. Indeed, book IV (1-285) of Virgil’s Georgics consists of an extended meditation on bees. In dactylic hexameters, he discussed the best places for their apiary (away from pastures with flowers squashed by flocks of sheep, lizards, Bee-eaters and chimney swallows, far from yew trees and the smoke of roasted red land-crabs), epic and fanciful battles between swarms, their social hierarchy, and the proper ways to safely gather honey. And he mentioned Aristaeus, mythical inventor of beekeeping, who found his bees dead and their honeycombs broken after the death of Eurydice (who had tripped over a serpent in the deep grass of a river-bank as she fled from his approach). Fate had destroyed his hive of bees.

Above is Csg 1394, from the Benedictine Abbey in St. Gall, Switzerland; this is the right-hand section of p.39. Look below the late 12th-century script, and you should see the rusticated sepia-colored capitals of an edition of Virgil’s Georgics, probably produced in Northern Italy in the late Fifth century, which fades into the scraped oblivion of the palimpsest the manuscript became. The top line has a fairly obvious capital AR, from narrabat inanem/Vulcani Martisque dolos et dulcia furta. Just below is the LCIA from dulcia. (Georgics 4.345-46). Can you see them, below the spiky rubricated canticle? Of course, the text of Virgil is most stable, and the manuscripts of the Georgics are numerous compared to other Roman authors. But still, we hesitate and think.