Saturday 8 September 2018

'A Plague of Mosquitoes on Your House' by Karen Maitland

'Mosquitoes liked the Costume' from Bill Nyer's 
History of the United States, 1894
One of the unexpected consequences of the summer’s heatwave this year was the huge reduction in Lapland’s mosquito population. A great relief for humans, since their mosquitoes have a reputation of being some of the most numerous and vicious in the world, but not so good for the birds, amphibians, fish and dragonflies which depend upon them.

But the heatwave seemed to have the reverse effect in England, because sitting with my office door open to try to get some relief from the heat, I was bitten numerous times by gnats and mosquitoes breeding in the water-butts and pond outside.

The news about Lapland reminded me of an old folktale I heard as a child which involved mosquitoes. Throughout Medieval Europe, Lapland was both admired for having the most skillful silversmiths and feared for having the most dangerous warlocks or sorcerers. The story goes that a Lapland sorcerer had the ambition of marrying his son to the daughter of one of the great kings of Europe. But his son, a peaceful herder, wanted to wed an ordinary girl who could do practical things like milk the reindeer. The sorcerer refused to listen. He changed himself into an owl, flew over the sea and abducted the beautiful princess, but she indignantly refused to consent to the marriage. So, he starved her to force her into submission. But the boy thwarted his father by smuggling reindeer milk to the princess.
Lapland Owl, also known as the Great Grey Owl or
the Spectral Owl.
Photo: Steve Wilson

Discovering she was still defiant, the sorcerer imprisoned the princess in a cave, but before sealing the entrance, he let in a great swarm of Lapland mosquitoes, thinking that after she'd been tormented by hundreds of bites she would soon become biddable. But the boy managed to smuggle some turpentine to the princess. She rubbed it on her skin and it prevented the mosquitoes from biting her, so she emerged, unscathed, to face the sorcerer’s third and most deadly ordeal.

Thinking about this tale, reminded me that while we are very aware of the insects that bred in medieval homes such as moths, weevils, lice and fleas, we sometimes overlook the mosquito problem. The numerous open sewers and puddles of stagnant water lying in city streets, the many ponds, ditches and undrained marshlands in the country were ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which must have driven people mad in the summer months. Of course, there were many more natural predators around then. Ponds were usually well stocked with fish that fed on the larvae, and birds and dragonflies devoured the adults. There were also several periods of cold, wet summers which limited insect numbers, but there were also years of hot weather too. 

Culex Mosquito female
Photo: Alan R. Walker

And right up until the 19th century, mosquitoes in England and Europe didn’t merely cause annoyance with their itchy bites, the marshlands were rife with malaria, known variously as the Ague, Marsh Fever or by Shakespeare’s time ‘quotidian tertian’, a fever which recurs in a cycle, which caused poor old Falstaff to shake and burn in Henry V. The links between mosquitoes and malaria were not understood until the 1880’s and in the Middle Ages and Tudor periods, the fever was generally ascribed to either drinking foul water or more commonly, breathing the bad air from cesspits or the miasmas of the marshes. Many people living in the marshlands in Norfolk and Suffolk became addicted to the juice and seeds of the white marsh poppy, which they used to try to alleviate the symptoms.

1905 illustration from a book of American Folktales
But even though they did not fully realise the danger, imagine squatting over a hole above a cesspit or ditch in which clouds of mosquitoes were swarming, looking for a nice bare rump to bore into. So, what could they do? The strewing herbs on the floors and bunches of herbs hung in windows would have helped to ward off some. Rubbing the skin with ransoms (wild garlic) and salves made from pine resin was said to stop the creatures biting. Stringing horse hair across windows and beds was supposed to discourage them, though it isn’t entirely clear whether this created a physical barrier or it was ‘magical’ power of the horsehair itself, which was often woven into protective amulets. Hanging pots or sponges filled with sharp vinegar over your head and feet in bed was said to keep the insects at bay, and you could also use vinegar infused with herbs such as lavender, rosemary, rue, mint and wormwood. These herbs were often planted near windows and doors to act as mosquito deterrents and when dried, were burned on hearth fires or braziers to drive them away.
1646, Apothecary smoking his pipe
Artist: Adriaen van Ostade

The fact that cottages would have been constantly ‘fumigated’ by the smoke from cooking fires and tallow candles would have helped to deter mosquitoes from entering. In this respect, poorer people probably had the advantage. Being forced to burn bones, animal dung, and greener wood on open fires which produced a lot of smoke and stink, probably served them better in warding off insects than the wealthier people who could afford to burn dry seasoned wood and had chimneys to draw the smoke away. But once strong tobacco began to be imported, people swiftly discovered that smoking a pipeful was a good way of protecting themselves from gnats and mosquitoes. One of reasons, it became so popular.

As for me, next summer, I might be resorting to the good old turpentine. Unless you have a favourite deterrent?

1 comment:

Susan Price said...

Fascinating, as ever.
When I visited the 'black house' in Lewis, there was a peat fire burning. They kept it burning all year. The guide, who was one of the last people to live in a black house, told me that so long as she worked in the black house, and her skin was coated in peat smoke, she was never troubled by the midges.