The Bee’s Madrigal

The strange story of Charles Butler: vicar, music theorist, and bee-keeper.

Illustration to The Feminine Monarchie by Charles Butler.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

It’s fair to say that the role of the music theorist is not one overly celebrated in history. It was deep in a book that I first came across the name of Charles Butler, author of The Principles Of Musik, a well regarded treatise in 17th-century England. My curiosity about him was piqued by two factors: his array of interests outside music, most unusually in bee-keeping, and the fact that he spent the largest part of his life in and around the town where I was born – Basingstoke.

Butler was a clergyman and sometime school-master by profession, and the places where he worked can still be seen today. But besides his religious duties, he was also a writer of immense erudition. As a young man he spent several years studying in Oxford, where he gained a Master of Arts degree. University records show he came from Buckinghamshire, and his listed age suggests he was born around 1560.

Whatever drew him south to Hampshire, in 1593 Butler became the rector at Nately Scures, a parish to the east of Basingstoke. Its tiny Norman church of St. Swithun is a real gem that is delightfully well preserved, and was already four centuries old when Butler arrived.

St. Swithun’s church in Nately Scures.

That Butler was interested in more than his parish role is shown by the publication of his first book around this time – a Latin translation of a work on the teachings of Petrus Ramus. Ramus was a French humanist and Protestant convert who had been killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, but his scholastic ideas on rhetoric and logic became very influential after his death.

It must have been encouraging that, after a slow start, Butler’s book seems to have sold very well. Two years after his appointment to Nately, he also took on a position teaching local boys at the Holy Ghost School in Basingstoke. You can find the ruins of the Holy Ghost Chapel in a cemetery behind the railway station, now incongruously framed by the office blocks and apartment buildings of the town centre to the south.

The ruins of the 13th-century Holy Ghost Chapel, to which Butler’s school was attached, are on the left. On the right is what remains of the 16th-century Chapel Of The Holy Trinity.

But in 1600 Butler resigned both roles to become vicar at Wootton St. Lawrence, a small village up in the downs to the west of town. It was here, tucked far away from any major centre of learning, that he lived and worked for the remaining 47 years of his life, and wrote both his music treatise and his bee-keeping study, The Feminine Monarchie.

Although we principally think of music as an art form today, Penelope Gouk has shown that in the intellectual life of 17th-century England, music could mediate between the understanding of mathematics, the sciences and arts, and what is loosely termed ‘natural magic’ – the demonstration of marvellous natural effects.

So at this time, it would have been entirely natural for an educated man like Butler to discourse on music alongside rhetoric, logic, classical texts and theology. What makes him stand out is that he used patient observation to codify the highly practical craft of bee-keeping. And The Feminine Monarchie is what he is chiefly remembered for today.

But it is through Butler’s role as a clergyman that we can perhaps best understand his fascination with bees and music. His writing on both topics is grounded in a strong sense of religious morality. It is not hard to see how a bee colony and a musical composition can both serve as models for a good society – each are made of parts that work together in harmony. Furthermore, in the hierarchy of the hive, the geometry of the honey-comb, and the mathematical ratios of consonant intervals, bees and music can reveal a divine order in nature.

The church in Wootton St. Lawrence.

Butler was certainly not shy about his admiration for these insects. A frontispiece illustration to The Feminine Monarchie shows a honeycomb with the motto Solertia et Labore (skill and industry). In the preface, he writes:

The worke and fruit of the little Bee is so great and wonderfull, so comely for order and beauty, so excellent for Art and wisdome, & so full of pleasure and profit; that the contemplation thereof may well beseeme an ingenious nature.

The book also bears a dedicatory poem by George Wither. Wither was a prolific writer and satirist who led a colourful life, including imprisonment for libel. He also belonged to the same Wither family who owned the Manydown estate in Butler’s parish of Wootton. As it happens, the ancient Manydown Manor would later be frequented by Hampshire’s much more famous literary figure, Jane Austen.

Manydown Manor in 1833, by George Frederick Prosser. Shared under Creative Commons.

However, The Feminine Monarchie does contain one explicit connection to music. Leafing through the pages of a bee-keeping manual today, you would probably not expect to come across four-part choral notation. But this is exactly what Butler gives us. Melissomelos, or The Bee’s Madrigal, is an endearingly eccentric composition, and not only because its lyrics extoll the virtues of bees, in characteristically erudite terms – it also includes a musical imitation of a real sound that a queen bee makes, known as ‘piping’. I suppose you might call it ento-musicology.

The opening verse proceeds as follows:

As of all states the Monarchie is best,
So of all Monarchies that Feminine,
Of famous Amazons excels the rest,
That on this earthie Sphaere haue euer bin,
Whose little hearts in weaker sex (so great a field)
No powers of the mightest Males can make to yield:
They liuing aye, most sober and most chaste,
Their paine-got goods in pleasure scorne to waste.

Besides The Feminine Monarchie, Butler also authored a book on the arguments relating to marriage between cousins – seemingly prompted by his own son William marrying a cousin in 1624. An English Grammar followed in 1633, and here Butler used a new system of orthography, of his own devising. He developed this idea further in the Principles Of Musik, published when he was an impressive 76 years old.

To modern eyes, this new orthography takes some adjustment. But that Butler should even take this step is a testament to his extraordinarily energetic mind. It is also an insight into a world of 17th-century publishing where the written language itself was still being contested, and in which the printer’s craft had become remarkably sophisticated. The Principles features reams of italicised Latin, occasional Greek and even Hebrew lettering, not to mention the many musical examples and a number of diagrams, such as the ‘dial-song’ below.

A ‘dial-song’ illustration from The Principles Of Musik. Butler’s orthography can be seen in features such as the struck-through ‘d’ for ‘th’.

This treatise covers a variety of topics such as the modes, notation, harmony and counterpoint, all the while drawing on a vast range of sources – classical, biblical, and contemporary. But the final part of the book takes a surprising step further than instruction. It makes a defence of music itself.

It is likely that Butler was moved to do this as a reaction to the rising tide of English Puritanism at the time, and its growing sentiment against any church music other than simple Psalm tunes sung by the congregation. That Butler also takes to defending ‘civil’ (secular) music suggests he may have feared that music itself was potentially under threat.

In a vicar’s eyes the primary use of music was, of course, to be in praise of God. But this man who so admired the industry of the bee still understood that a life of toil needed its comforts, and secular music was one of them:

Nature seemeth to bestow Musik upon us as a favour, for the easier enduring of our labours. This use did that Husbandman make of his Singing, at his woork abroad in the field […] and the Goodwife at home about hir huswifri. 

Butler notes the objection that civil music is a vanity, but counters that in any case, all human endeavours are vanities – and it is up to us to raise our children in ‘the nurture and admonition of the Lord’. Ever the classicist, he argues that to wholly prohibit music would be like ‘the angri Lacedaemonian who commanded the Vines of his Countri to bee grubbed up, becaus soom woolde be drunk with the fruit thereof’.

In his epilogue, Butler concludes that ‘all things rightly weighed, there is no sufficient cause, that Wee shoulde deprive our selvs of these permitted Comforts’, so long as we conduct ourselves ‘Soberly, Righteously, and Holily’. In essence, he adopted a position that Christian virtues can ensure that music does not lead us into sin.

The interior of St. Lawrence’s church.

In a 1972 Master’s thesis, John Derek Shute groups Butler alongside other literary clergyman of the 17th century, such as George Herbert and Robert Herrick. But in his careful observation of bees, Butler was also arguably an example of a parson-naturalist: those who saw the study of nature as a means of being closer to God. As George Wither put it in his poem for The Feminine Monarchie:

And Praise deserves this Author; who hath chose
So well his Times of Leisure to dispose;
And in that Recreation to delight,
Which honour God, and us advantage might […]
What Recreation better can befit
Our grave Divines; than (when the Holy writ
Is laid aside) in Gods great booke of Creatures
To reade his Wisdome, and their usefull Natures?

What’s more, Butler was in fact a direct ancestor of a celebrated parson-naturalist. Gilbert White, author of The Natural History And Antiquities Of Selborne, was the great-grandson of Butler’s daughter Elizabeth, and in his youth he attended the Holy Ghost School.

The third edition of The Feminine Monarchie was dedicated to the Queen Consort Henrietta, wife of Charles I. But as Charles’ troubled reign descended into Civil War, battles raged uncomfortably close to home, at Alresford and Basing House. At one point Parliamentarian troops were even stationed at Manydown.

The Basingstoke area as shown in a 1646 map of Hampshire by Joan Blaeu.

Butler died a very old man in 1647, and in those war-torn final years he might have thought fondly of the feminine monarch who reigned more peacefully through his Oxford days and the first four decades of his life: Elizabeth I.

Manydown Manor was sadly pulled down in the 1960s, but Butler’s church at Wootton St. Lawrence still stands, and I would recommend that anyone in the area takes the time to visit. Unlike Nately Scures, which suffers from the roar of a main road, Wootton has retained the serenity of the downs, and this beautiful building has an atmosphere of wonderful stillness as soon as you step through the doorway. A lovely stained glass window was put in place in honour of Butler after the coronation of Elizabeth II. At the dedication service in 1954, an Oxford choir came to sing The Bee’s Madrigal.

Charles Butler’s stained glass window, St. Lawrence’s church.

Butler is a mere footnote in music history. He is an inspirational figure for his curiosity and intellect, but I think we can also be inspired by his defence of music’s value against religious fundamentalism. Because in Britain today, music education is vulnerable to an economic fundamentalism – a political culture that places the highest esteem around the creation of profit. Its sham morality is ‘competitiveness’, through which the value of the arts and the natural world are often relegated to secondary importance.

This same search for endless economic growth has helped to create the most dangerous problem of our age – the unfolding climate crisis – and has even contributed to a worrying decline in populations of Butler’s beloved bees, a key pollinating species. So in a sense, we should all be amateur naturalists. We should all concern ourselves with how our lives interact with the natural systems upon which we depend.

Furthermore, any vision for a better future will also find an important place for music. Because to learn music – whether through the Western notated system or any other tradition – enriches our lives immeasurably. Its performance gives comfort, strengthens relationships, and allows us to communicate deep human feeling. And like a kind of ‘natural magic’, it can be summoned from the very air itself.

So while you won’t find many statues to music theorists, in a church window in the tiny village of Wootton, you can see the image of an obscure scholar who is worth remembering. You don’t need to share Charles Butler’s religious convictions, nor his fascination with bees, to appreciate the value of many parts working together in harmony.

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