|From Robert Hooke's Micrographia, 1665
My friend has fleas. Of course I mean that her puppy has fleas, because that’s what you catch at puppy-school, but they seem to be generously dispersed and multiplying about the house and it looks like a bit of a nightmare to me, endless washing and vacuuming, shaking of bedding, testing of proprietary brands of flea-zapper, not to mention all the jokes… By now it is the tail end of fleas that she is suffering from; the worst is over now that cold weather’s on its way and the halcyon days of prime flea-time are numbered…
|G M Crespi, 'Searcher for Fleas', 1720s
Fleas in the past were a habitual problem for any householder. The Goodman of Paris, in 1393 when advising his new wife on the chief ways to keep a husband content (I should quickly say that my friend’s spouse took a day off work to assist with flea-warfare) suggested, ‘I beseech you thus to bewitch your husband … have a care in winter he have a good fire and smokeless and let him rest well and be well covered between your breasts. And in summer take heed that there be no fleas in your chamber, nor in your bed, the which you may do in six ways. If the room be strewn with alder leaves, the fleas will be caught thereon. If you have at night one or two trenchers [of bread] slimed with glue or turpentine and set about the room, with a lighted candle in the midst of each trencher, they will come and be stuck thereto…’
|Hyssop (copyright Valerie Hill)
Strewing herbs, from the Middle Ages until the 18th century, played a large and efficacious role in control of fleas and other vermin, mixed in with the rushes, reeds or straw that would have covered every earth or flagstone floor as a thick layer, in rich or poor households alike. Periodically the floors were swept clean of these rushes and herbs, which were then burned, ridding the household of many of the fleas and larvae that would have collected there. I don’t need to remind anyone in the North of England about rush bearing, which was a formal celebration of this ritual.
Thomas Tusser (1524-1580) listing twenty-one strewing herbs altogether in his instructional poem Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandry; includes costmary, cowslips, daisies, germander and winter savory.
‘While wormwood hath seed, get a handful or twain,
To save against March, to make flea to refrain:
Where chamber is sweeped, and wormwood is strown,
No flea, for his life, dare abide to be known.’
|Fleabane (copyright Valerie Hill)
I imagine your strewing herb of choice would have been largely dictated by what you could get locally, or the type of environment you lived in. Those on sandy, well-drained soils might grow hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis); if you were in a marshy or clayish area then fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica) would be handier to go out and pick by the wayside, or watermint (Mentha aquatica).
The Niewe Herball of 1578 says ‘Of Fleawurt, or Flebane … some hold, that if this hearbe whiles it is yet greene, be strowed in the house, that Fleas will not come not ingender where it is layd.’
Mint, with its volatile oils and sharply cooling aromatic pungency was also excellent against mice, which detest the smell and will not touch food that has either fresh or dried mint laid around it. Pennyroyal or pudding grass (Mentha pulegium) was brought to market by poor women to sell for a variety of uses, including specifically against fleas, and its effectiveness is clear, being used like this since antiquity. This is the Pulegium of the Romans, named by Pliny (pulex being Latin for flea). John Pechey in 1694 says of pennyroyal; ‘The fresh Herb wrap’t in a Cloth, and laid in a Bed, drives away Fleas; but it must be renewed once a week.’
|Lady's bedstraw (copyright Valerie Hill)
The scent of other herbs lasts much longer than a week; foliage of the bedstraw family, such as Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum, also known as fleaweed), and woodruff (Asperula oderata) contain asperuloside which produces coumarin; the leaves when freshly gathered have little scent at all, but when dried give out a sweet smell of newly-mown hay that can last for years.
|Sweet woodruff (copyright Valerie Hill)
Fleas do not, apparently, like coumarin at all, which is also in the pretty melilot (Melilotus altissima) another strewing herb. Mrs Grieve tells us that, in June, on St Barnabas day, bunches of box, woodruff, lavender and roses were traditionally put inside churches; fleas were clearly a problem in the house of God too. There are so many other kinds of potent, aromatic herbs used for strewing that I haven’t time to go into here, but a fleeting mention is due for meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), well-known for being the favourite strewing herb of Queen Elizabeth the first.
|Georges de la Tour, 'Woman Catching Fleas', 1630s
It would seem though, from these genre paintings, that sometimes direct action was the only way, and the only way to really kill a flea by hand is to crack it (sorry) between the nails. During an infestation this would have been rather laborious. With animals occupying human living quarters, cats and dogs running in and out, (rabbits hanging before skinning could have come into the kitchen crawling with fleas), and so on, I wonder whether every poor household struggled with fleas all of the time, especially in the warmer months.
|Gerard ter Borch, 'Boy Ridding his Dog of Fleas', c1665
Even the toughest flea needs certain conditions to flourish; adequate warmth and humidity, plus delicious warm-blooded morsels (us, puppies) to feast on. Lucky, then, for my beleaguered friend up the hill, that the dark nights are drawing in now, and regular frosts should see off any laggardly critters. The bad news is that flea larvae can successfully over-winter in the house, to wake up in the warmth and vigour of the spring (another reason to burn your strewing herbs before the year is out).
But I’ll leave you with one last image that shows how very intricate and time-consuming one’s flea-revenge could be…