La classification des abeilles, de l’Antiquité au début de l’ère moderne


fr Anthropozoologica 55 (13) - Pages 187-198

Published on 11 September 2020

This article is a part of the thematic issue Appréhender les catégories zoologiques dans les sociétés du passé

The classification of bees, from Antiquity to the beginning of the modern era

This paper aims to analyse the history of the classification of bees, taking into consideration some important ancient, medieval and Renaissance texts. With regards to Antiquity, it will address specifically Aristotle’s Historia animalium, Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia and Virgil’s Georgica. In the Middle Ages Arabic sources added new material to the history of classification, such as Avicenna’s De animalibus. Medieval encyclopaedism represents a complex phenomenon that shows a progressive idea of direct observations together with the collection of many sources. In this paper, two medieval philosophers and encyclopaedists will be taken into consideration, Thomas of Cantimpré, and Albert the Great. The latter presents a progressive growth of classifying interest, dividing bees into nine species, some of which were in turn divided into further species. Lastly, the case of Federico Cesi’s Apiarium is particular. His work was written at the beginning of the 17th century and presents a unique methodology. Cesi develops a method that could be called pre-modern as it mixes ancient terminology with modern aims. While relying on a lot of ancient and medieval sources, including amongst others Pliny, Aristotle and Albert the Great, Cesi in fact tries to prove the statements of these authors through direct observation, which was promoted by the use of the microscope. In this way, he develops a precise taxonomic method in tabular form. The most significant aspect of Cesi’s research concerns, in fact, his taxonomic division. Although the use of the microscope leads to more detailed anatomical descriptions, his taxonomy is still based on morphological features and on the geographical origin of the insects. The division of the species into subspecies follows a dichotomic division: the mellifices apes could be classified in accord to several criteria; they could be civiles or solitariae, namely either live in a group or alone.


Bees, classification, insects, zoological categories, Antiquity, Middle Ages, Modern Times.

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