Walter Ryff on Honey

The companion piece to the sugar refining chapter from Walter Ryff’s Confect Büchlein:

Apiarius, 1534 courtesy of wikimedia commons

Of honey, how it is best recognised, prepared, purified or scummed, boiled properly and mixed with many things according to the apothecaries’ recipes.

Among the many wondrous creations and ample gifts of God which He has given us through His generosity, goodness, and fatherly will, the nature and way of the bees is not the least. Though they are very tiny animals, easily overlooked worms and flies (Würmlin und Mucken), they nonetheless give great profit to humans through honey and wax which serves for many necessity, but above all for medicine by which men are kept in good health, the sick are strengthened and enlivened, and their illnesses driven out. For that these small animals work a great and amazing miracle of God by collecting and assembling such sweetness of honey that falls to the herbs and fine-smelling flowers from heavenly dew is clearly evident.

Honey is of a warm and dry complexion in the second degree. The best kind, which is most suitable for using in medicine, is known thus: Namely that it is of strongly sweet scent, but slightly sharp and biting in flavour, not too thick in substance, nicely golden yellow in colour, transparent, clear and pure, and sticky and fatty to the touch. Honey purifies well due to the abovementioned sharpness within and without the body. It thus makes the belly go to stool and drives out and expels the urine mightily.

Honey is useful and good beyond all measure to elderly people who are of cold nature. That is why Democritus the great philosopher, when asked how humans should keep themselves and what things they should use if they wished to live many years in peace, replied: They should anoint the body with warming oil from the outside and with honey from within. But to those who are of hot complexion, honey is of no use. Rather it is harmful, for by the general rule of physicians it is known to change into gall or sharp, choleric moisture. Where honey if boiled by itself with no additions, it is even sharper, purges and nourishes the body more strongly, and is also more potent for external use to clean and fill out deep damage. Note further that springtime honey is the best, and following it summertime honey. Wintertime honey is least useful and most easily turned into choleric moisture and gall inside the body, especially in people who have hot stomachs. Honey removes all uncleanness and pollution from the body, keeps all things fresh and guards them from destruction. That is why it was the custom among the ancients in many places to embalm the bodies of the deceased with it. Similarly it is customary in our day to preserve small game of many kinds (mancherley Wildfang) fresh with honey, and many fruit, as is described in a separate part of this book or the Teutschen Apotecken. The Ancients also used honey, by certain experience, against miscarriages. If you take honey after having overindulged in wine, it will not allow it to rise up to harm the head and brain. Honey also restores lost appetite and desire for food in those who lost it due to an excess of phlegmatic moisture and damaging flows. Honey cuts through viscous phlegm and causes it to be expelled.

Also note a particular form of harm that humans encounter from honey, namely that all dishes prepared with it become hard to digest. Where it is not well digested, it causes a stopping of the liver and the spleen. Those who overuse honey also give rise to mange, lesions, and damage to the skin.


Note here that honey must always be scummed before it is used in any form of medicine or preservation. Do it thus: Take the honey which you selected by the abovementioned qualities, place it in a clean vessel, a copper pot or pan or the like, add half the quantity of water and let it boil well together over a coal fire or bright flames of dry wood that does not smell. Scum it continually until the water boils away. Strain this scummed and purified honey through a white woolen cloth and keep it for your use.

Note that they have fine white honey in several places. It can be used profitably in many of the following recipes as you will find explained sufficiently there.

There is not much to be added here. It is useful to know what the contemporary idea of good quality honey is, though we can rightly doubt this was always available. The purifying process is interesting, as is the fact that it was apparently done in large quantities for storage. I definitely look forward to finding out how Ryff envisions preserving game and fruit in honey and hope he actually describes this where he says he does.

Walter Ryff, a somewhat enigmatic figure, was a medical professional and incredibly prolific author in the mid-16th century. Many of his works on areas ranging from dietetics to obstetrics to architecture were very successful despite repeated accusations of plagiarism. His Confect Buch, dedicated to sweet confections both medicinal and culinary, was repreinted several times posthumously.

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