Calais Chronicle: A Great Swarm of Bees


I happend to be reading F J Levy’s Tudor Historical Thought, because I want whatever computer tries to predict my reading habits over in the university library to explode already. Levy writes a bit about how the tradition of chronicling had declined in the 15th and 16th centuries, with records that were kept turning to more conversational or chatty or simply oddball items, rather than things of historic import. He quoted one, no doubt because he knew it’d amuse the reader too, though he also pointed out the chronicler didn’t attempt to interpret it as a portent of anything, even though it’d seem to be rich with potential meaning:

1509, the 24. of Awgust, the 1. of Henry the Eighth, ther came a grete swarme of bees, and light on the bole undar the wetharcoke of S. Nicholas steple in Caleys, at xi. of the cloke, and at tyll iij. in the aftarnone.

I suppose I’m more inclined to chuckle at this because I have a circle of friends who find a sudden interjection of bees into the conversation to be funny. A sudden surprise can provoke a laugh — that’s part of what makes shock humor exist at all — and I must agree the word “bees” has a bit of a smile to it, a bit of childhood glee, at least when you’re not afraid the referent is coming after you. At some point it becomes a kind of in-joke: one laughs at “bees” because one is expected to laugh at “bees”, and it’d be rude to do otherwise.

Of course, one laughs at jokes because that’s the correct thing to do in response to a joke; so, if familiarity and friendship and fatigue have turned the word “bees” into something you laugh at, has that sufficed to create a joke?

I’m also curious whether the chronicler meant that the ball was unusually lighted, or whether he meant the bees alighted on the ball.