Librarian’s Pick #2: The Feminine Monarchie

Over the course of Trinity Term 2020, the library staff at St. John's College will be taking you on a 'tour' of some of their favourites among our special collections. Every Monday, we will upload a new note on the item of the week. Read on to discover more about our chosen items...

Solertia et Labore : Charles Butler’s ‘The Feminine Monarchie’

– Leona Stewart, Project Library Assistant

Bee-keeping, or apiculture, has been an important enterprise for many thousands of years, with some early rock paintings illustrating its role in culture from as far back as 13,000 BC. Over time the material of man-made domed hives have developed from mud to porcelain to wicker, and then to the modern bee boxes that we would be familiar with today. The history of apiculture is a considerable one, and at St John’s College Library we hold an early printed book of one of the most significant works in bee-keeping from the 17th century: Charles Butler’s The feminine monarchie; or A treatise concerning bees.

Title page and frontispiece of 1623 edition

Charles Butler (1560-1647) was a well-known philologist, who at eight years old became a chorister at Magdalen College, Oxford, achieving a Master of Arts degree there several years later. Though his career path saw him become a Rector and then Schoolmaster, his interests were wide-ranging, and he published various writings on music and spelling reform. However, he is probably most well-known today for his literature on apiculture, being commended as “the father of English beekeeping”, and initially publishing The feminine monarchie in 1609.

With three editions, two translations to Latin, and one re-translation back to its initial English, this text presents a significant contribution to bee-keeping, providing detailed instruction on techniques used to maintain domed skep beehives made from wicker or straw. This text is also one of the first accounts of gendering bees correctly, as Butler popularised the idea that the workers in a colony are female, and the drones male.

In an interesting frontispiece, a diagram of a skep illustrates the geometric shape of the honey-comb within, which would be entirely created by bees, as traditional skeps have no man-made internal structure. The hierarchy of a bee colony is outlined in this frontispiece, from the princeps (ruler) at the top, to the inertes funci (drones) at the bottom. Bordered by the phrase ‘Solertia et Labore’ or ‘skill and industry’, Butler’s admiration for the creatures is made very clear, even before the text proper begins.

A busy frontispiece

The copy in our collection at St John’s College Library is the second edition, published in 1623. This volume is extended from the first edition with the inclusion of a musical notation in four parts. An unaccompanied vocal music composition known as Melissomelos: or the Bee Madrigal, this piece of music tries to capture the piping noise of an unmated queen bee. Laid out so that all four parts could be sang simultaneously, the lyrics of this madrigal celebrate the merits of bees and create a sense of fascination and reverence:


“As of all states the Monarchie is best,

So of all Monarchies that Feminine,

Of famous Amazons excels the rest,

That on this earthie Sphære haue euer bin.”

This piece has been performed and recorded, and can be heard online:


Butler, C. (1623). The Feminine Monarchie; or the History of Bees. London: John Haviland.

Heath, D. (2017). Busy Bees. Retrieved May 5th, 2020 from

Morse, R. & Hooper, T. (1985) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Beekeeping. E.P. Dutton, Inc.

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