Thursday, 30 January 2014

You're never alone with Tineola by Maria McCann

When I spotted the first one, I didn't realise its significance.  Tineola Bisselliella is small, dull, and shuns light, so it isn't particularly visible, which is more than can be said for the destruction its grubs wreak on garments and furnishings.  Since I keep my clothes on an open rail in the room where I sleep, I wasn't happy about blasting them with poisons. I opted for conservative treatment: constantly turning the clothes on the rail and holding them in front of the window since the grubs drop away if exposed to daylight.

As I shook out each garment, I recalled Chaucer's Wife of Bath bragging that her lovely scarlet clothing suffered no moth damage because she was forever out and about in it.  When I first met with Dame Alice I was a teenager studying for A-levels and read her statement as a sly joke, equating adultery with good housewifery.  Now I know that wearing clothes outdoors, instead of folding them away in a chest, would indeed have kept down the moths, as would cold weather.  Our centrally heated houses with warm dark wardrobes are Moth Paradise: one reason I knew nothing about clothes moths back in 1972 was that we lacked the central heating and double glazing that extend their breeding season.  I find myself wondering how well mediaeval people understood why frequently worn clothes got fewer moth holes in them.  Did they notice the grubs falling away?  They were undoubtedly interested in finding solutions for such problems: the medical encyclopaedia Hortatus Sanitatis includes illustrations showing bed bugs and a woman combing lice out of a young man's (or boy's?) hair. 

Some terrifyingly large bed bugs and lice

In fact grooming routines go back beyond the middle ages, ancient history or even prehistory.  They are our inheritance from our primate ancestors.  Clean, Virginia Smith's wonderful 'history of personal hygiene and purity', shows how the animal behaviour knows as COBS (care of body surfaces) is the origin not only of such human grooming as parasite removal but also of much more sophisticated procedures such as cleaning wounds and massaging painful limbs.   

Monkey doctor and cat patient

Back to my moths.  It wasn't until I was reading in bed and a moth swooped out from the bedclothes that my skin began to crawl ― all right, it's a cliché, but an appropriate one.  In the modern world, we conceive of 'personal space' as a certain volume of air containing our own (clean, insect-free) body and garments.  Yet for centuries most of our ancestors had virtually no personal space in our sense.  Even royalty, who had more living room than most, had to share it with such democratic intruders as the clothes moth, the flea, the louse and the bed bug.   These were so much a part of everyday life that John Donne's  'The Flea' takes it for granted that his mistress will laugh rather than be insulted at the suggestion that both poet and mistress are flea-bitten.    But I am a child of the twentieth century, a post-Victorian.  What I felt was anxiety (suppose the moths never went away?  The internet is full of horror stories about people having to move house) and a flicker of irrational shame.

A woman tormented by fleas

Perhaps it was the presence of bugs that enabled Donne to think of fleas as comparative light-weights.  Even royalty had the occasional brush with the bed bug: two rival firms claimed to be bug-destroyers to George III.   Queen Victoria also had an official bug-catcher, the attractively named Mr Tiffin, who claimed to have found a bug in the bed of Princess Charlotte.  Bugs give off a foul odour (this at least warns people of their presence)  and the bites they inflict are agonizingly itchy.  Worst of all, they can walk upside-down, which means they can ambush you.  The British Museum warned in 1949: 'There are well authenticated records of people isolating their beds by means of saucers of paraffin placed under the legs so that the bugs could not climb up, and retiring to rest with a pleasant feeling of having foiled their enemies, only to be disturbed later in the night by bugs dropping from the ceiling.' [1]  It's not surprising, then, that 'lousy' is one of our older derogatory terms, dating back to the fourteenth century. 

An unrelenting battle against these pests formed the background to most human lives.  Like the plague, a disease carried by rat fleas, insect infestations peaked and dwindled according to the season but never quite went away.  At various periods women laboured to control infestations by sweeping out soiled rushes, beating fabrics and 'shifting' linen as frequently as their resources allowed.  Society developed polite strategies.  Boys were taught to sweep off their hats as a sign of respect while taking care to conceal the interior of the hat, where lice might be lurking (but what happened if the nits were clearly visible on your hair?).  Our ancestors' predilections for hats, bonnets and caps make sense in terms of cold houses, fear of 'chills', notions of modesty (in the case of women's hair) and a dislike of tanned faces.  Headgear might also serve, however, as a barrier against lice.  Despite the horror stories about nests of wildlife in high hair (not necessarily apocryphal ― see below) the extremely high styles were only popular for a comparatively brief period during the eighteenth century.  In contrast,  it's been suggested that the eighteenth-century male habit of wearing a wig over a shaven head might be an effective strategy against lice, especially if both head and wig were scrupulously cared for. 

Bottle for hair or wig powder 

In a different context, decorative cutting and peeling of fruits rendered them more attractive and advertised the culinary expertise of the household but was also a way, in an age before pesticides, of checking that nothing nasty was concealed beneath the skin and ensuring no guest would find 'the only thing worse than a worm', namely half a worm.     

How did it feel to know that creatures lurked everywhere, often in intimate contact with one's body or even inside it?  Weevils in the flour and the cheese, woodworm in the wainscot, cockroaches beneath the rug, rats and mice in the loft and the kitchen, silverfish in the cupboards, fleas in clothing and furnishings, bugs in beds, spiders everywhere.  Herbs were used to discourage or expel worms within the gut, but what of those worms which were thought to cause toothache?  How maddening to go about in the belief that worms were steadily boring into one's teeth.  The dividing line between self and world was fragile and permeable.    

Nowadays we understand that even the cleanest bodies are colonised, though not quite in the same way as our ancestors did.  We are used to the idea of yeasts in the body, of 'good bugs' in yoghurt.  It seems that the distinctive scent of human fingertips is created by microorganisms which colonise the sweat glands there; when I first discovered this, I felt queasy but there was no reflex of conditioned shame. Similarly, the man who wrote to the London Magazine in 1768 about seeing the coiffeur 'open his aunt's head' (dismantle her elaborate pomaded hairstyle, after she had worn it for over two months) seems to have found the vermin within repellent but not particularly shameful.  Nor did the hairdresser appear at all embarrassed.  'When the comb was applied to the natural hair, I observed swarms of animalculas running about in the utmost consternation and in different directions, upon which I put my chair a little further from the table and asked the operator whether that numerous swarm did not from time to time send out colonies to other parts of the body? He assured me that it could not; for that the quantity of powder and pomatum formed a glutinous matter, which like lime twigs to birds, caught and clogged the little natives and prevented their migration.'[2] 

Personally I'd find it easier to confess to petty theft than to 'swarms of animalculas' in my hair.  But then, I'm from a generation for whom verminous infestations carried a powerful stigma but were a very real possibility.  Until 1962 I lived in what was considered a slum, a Victorian terrace long since demolished.  The combination of urban and industrial grime with the conviction that 'cleanliness is next to godliness' meant that a dirty house was shameful (women would ostentatiously scrub their front steps) yet the houses were difficult to keep clear of vermin.  Rats were the biggest fear.  To discourage them, tins that had held fish or meat were burned in the fire to remove all food traces and only then put in the bin.  As far as I'm aware we didn't have rats, but we did have mice and cockroaches.  My father worried in case I put my fingers into the mouse traps.  My mother (who would be horrified if she knew I was writing this) came downstairs each morning, stepped onto the carpet and shuddered as a crackle informed her that she had just crushed a cockroach.  She saw these insects as a badge of shame and bitterly resented the woman next door who (she believed) was causing the infestation by lack of cleanliness.  'Then they come in here!' she moaned.  For all I know, the woman next door cherished a similar resentment against my mother.  The defining emotions were shame and disgust.  One of the worst things you could say about anyone was that their house 'had to be fumigated' (uttered in a shocked whisper).  It was like saying they were damned.

Nowadays people call Rentokil without embarrassment,  seeing infestation as a force of nature rather than a sign of depravity.  I'm glad that pointless shame is a thing of the past and I agree that while Donne could turn a flea bite to a weapon of seduction,  a body spotted with itchy blotches would be death to eroticism for a modern reader.  Yet I like to see the presence of lice, fleas and worse in historical fiction, along with the human responses to them.  They were, after all, like the poor: always with us.

[1] Quoted in McLaughlin, T.  Coprophilia
[2] McLaughlin, pp 113-114


michelle lovric said...

Thank you for a wonderful post. I envy the way you seem to have accommodated the whole infestation thing with equanimity. I have just been reading about how the Irish would rhyme rats to death (or at least out of their houses). I tried to use a Turkish rat curse in my house once - you address all four walls where the rat might lurking and ask it to cease and desist its depredations. There was a wonderfully named patent poison - 'Rough on Rats' - that apparently did the work of many curses. The advertisements can be seen on line and are rather hilarious, if sometimes a little racist.

Joan Lennon said...

Fascinating and horrible in equal measure - thank you for posting! (she said, scratching furtively ...)

Maria McCann said...

I itched all the time I was writing it! Something odd seems to have happened to my footnotes, perhaps an infestation.... Michelle, I love the idea of talking the rats into doing the gentlemanly thing. It's like those stories of mediaeval clergy formally judging and damning beetles.

Kit said...

This post strikes such a chord. We've just been dealing with a cat flea infestation and been bitten to an unattractive state of spottiness. Feels like we are constantly cleaning and hanging things out in the sunshine to air. No sense of shame, just much itchiness.

Leslie Wilson said...

A fascinating piece. Our dog used to have fleas, in spite of all products used to get rid of them, but they have vanished as she got older - I guess, just as nits are supposed to prefer younger heads. Of course, the reason the nits didn't migrate to the body from the head is that they are specialised for head-hair, just as crabs prefer - well, yes. Elizabeth of Bohemia remarked maliciously, subsequent to the Austrian Empire having expelled her from Bohemia, that the new Emperor would be 'lousie, for he hath no money to buy new clothes.' So clearly the only way to truly get rid of the infestation was to bin your old wardrobe - the insect contribution to fashion!
On the topic of cockroaches, they were endemic in Hong Kong when we lived there. I remember switching on the light in the kitchen at night and seeing them scuttling away on every work surface. I used to disinfect every surface, and chopping boards, with Miltons before I prepared food, and flour, biscuits, cakes, etc all had to be kept in tins and other roach-proof containers. There was every conceivable breed of cockroach, but the most noticeable was the big 'German' cockroach, over an inch long, and red. I remember one, once, purposefully getting into the lift with me, but I poked it over the edge with my umbrella. It fell down several stories, but I am sure it survived. Another one came to live in the cupboard where we kept telephone directories, where it ate a quarter of the New Territories Yellow Pages. Getting the flat fumigated, and the use of Baygon, was just part of life.