Pest-Control-art - 5/16/97
"Medieval Household Pest Control" by Helisenne de Gue-Pierreux.
An article describing advice given by medieval authors on how to deal with household pets such as: fleas, nits, lice, mosquitos, gnats, flies, moths, rats, mice, cockroaches, weevils, ants and bees.
This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.
This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.
The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make no claims as to the accuracy of the information given by the individual authors.
Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these messages. The copyright status of these messages is unclear at this time. If information is published from these messages, please give credit to the originator(s).
Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 20:33:32 -0700
From: bshuwarg at lausd.k12.ca.us
To: sca-arts at raven.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Medieval Pest Control (Long)
This was on another list. Perhaps some of you will find it interesting.
Helisenne de Gue-Pierreux
MEDIEVAL HOUSEHOLD PEST CONTROL
In our modern sanitary environment, it's easy to forget that the medieval
householder was engaged in a constant war against the encroachment of
various vermin. The tiny invaders were given a helping hand by the rather
unsanitary practice of covering the floor with layers of rushes. Given below
are some of the suggestions that contemporary accounts made for dealing
SAFETY WARNING! Some of the herbs listed are VERY poisonous!!!
Collecting endangered herbs is now illegal and not to be encouraged.
Another thing to consider....Pest control was usually done by
underlings rather than their literate employers. This means that there is not
much in the way of written sources regarding vermin control. Some of the
sources that I have used are from well before our period, however, earlier
authors' work was copied down by scribes who often added their own
suggestions, eg. the Palladius quotes are taken from an English MS of the
early 15thC. However, I think that the information must still have been
considered as worth writing down by people in the later middle ages.
I have tried to include only the herbs mentioned by him
that would have been available in the l5thC (ie. no New World, Sub-Sahara
African or Far East Asian plants). A final thought: all of the below are
complicated ways of dealing with pests; I'm sure that squashing them is also
a perfectly authentic activity!
Fleas are blood-drinkers, but are fairly fussy eaters, each species
deliberately having their own preferred species to live on, however, they are
wholly averse to taking a bite from anything they can land onto. Fleas seem
to have been a common problem at the time, a problem exacerbated because
no matter how clean people were, animals always provided a reservoir for
fresh infection; even today, you are more likely to be bitten by a "cat flea"
or "dog flea" than you are a "human flea". Once established in a house,
fleas can be a difficult pest to remove as an adult can live up to 18 months
between feeds. Unsurprisingly, fleas were a major problem, as this text
from a late 14thC English manual of French/English conversation makes
clear: 'William, undress and wash your legs, and then dry them with a
cloth, and rub them well for love of the fleas, that they may not leap on your
legs, for there is a peck of them lying in the dust under the rushes...Hi the
fleas bite me so! and do me great harm, for I have scratched my shoulders
till the blood flows'.
In concurrence, the Goodman of Paris (GoP, 1393) tells his wife
that one of the ways to 'bewitch and bewitch again' her 'husband to be' is to
make sure that his bed is free of fleas during the summer. He comes up
with various methods of dealing with these 'familiar beasts to men' : firstly
he recommends the placing of flea-traps around the affected room:
If the room be strewn with alder leaves, the fleas will be caught thereon ';
I have heard tell that if you have at night one or two trenchers slimed with
glue or turpentine and set about the room, with a lighted candle in the midst
of each trencher, they will become stuck there'.
The GoP thoughtfully (in a different part of his book) tells us how to make
glue: 'it behoves you peel holly when it is at the sap (which is commonly
from the month of May up to August) and then boil the bark in water until
the topmost layer separate; then peel it off, and when it is peeled, wrap up
that which remains in elder leaves or other large leaves, and set it in some
cool place, as in a cellar, or within the earth, or in a cold dung heap for the
space of nine days or more, until it is decayed. And the n behoveth it to
pound it like brayed cabbage and to make it up into cakes like woad, and
then go wash the cakes one after another, and break them up like wax; and
let them not be too much washed in the first water, nor in too hard a water.
and after you may break it up all together and knead it in running water and
put it in a pot and keep it well covered'. The great advantage of this glue is
that it can be made whilst insect infestations are at their worst, ie. during the summer.
A 15thC English Leechbook (collection of medical recipes)
suggests the following "traps": 'For fleas and lice to slay them, take
horsemint and strew it in your house, and it will slay them' or 'Take the
juice of rue and anoint your body with it' or 'Take gorse and boil it in water,
and sprinkle that water about the house, and they will die. Palladius (5thC)
recommended bring fleas to a sticky end on surfaces which were often
sprinkled with oil dregs. John Gerard's Herball makes the following claims
for: Fleabane (Erigeron sp.) 'burned where flies, gnats, fleas or any other
venomous things are, doth drive them away' Fleawort (Plaintains or
Plantago sp.) 'some hold that the herb strewn in the chamber where many
fleas be, will drive them away, for which cause it took the name Flea
wort: but I think it is rather because the seed does resemble a flea so
much, that it is hard to discerne the one from the other'; Willow herb
(Primilaceae or Lysimachia sp.), 'it is reported that the fume or smoke of
the herbe burned doth drive away fleas and gnats and all manner of
Ibn-el-Beithar, a 13thC Spanish Moslem writer, recommended
macerating a cucurbit (Citrullus colycynthus) or oleander (Nerium oleander)
in water and spraying the liquid around to get rid of fleas. If all of the
above herbs proved ineffective, the GoP also had some hints for "direct-
When the coverlets, furs or dresses wherein there are fleas, are
folded and shut tightly up, as in a chest tightly corded with straps, or in bag
well tied up and pressed, or otherwise put and pressed so that the aforesaid
fleas be without light and air and kept imprisoned, then will they perish
forthwith and die...... The other way that I have tried [to catch fleas] and 'tis true: take a rough cloth and spread it about your room and over your bed,
and all the fleas that shall hop on it will be caught, so that you may carry
them away with the cloth wherever you will.. I have seen blankets [of white
wool] set on the straw and on the bed, and when the black fleas hopped on,
they were the sooner found upon the white and killed.'
This latter way of dealing with fleas seems to be corroborated by
the duties of the Chamberlain in John Russell's 15thC Book of Nurture (as
Russell meant the book to be used to teach male servants it's clear that
outside, of the GoP's house, pest control is not just a female activity):
'Return in haste to your lord's chamber, strip the clothes off the bed and
cast them aside and beat the feather-bed, but not so as to waste any
feathers, and see that the blankets and sheets be clean'.
NITS and LICE
Fleas were not the only blood-suckers to afflict the population,
the Leechbook had suggested a number of cures 'for nits in the head': 
Make lye of wild nept (bryony) and therewith wash your head, & it will
destroy them;  Take quicklime or piment [spiced wine], amd make
powder of them, and mix the powder with vinegar and annoint the head with
it. And this destroys them without falling of hair or any other harm; 
Take seawater or else brine, and wash your head, and that shall destroy
them;  Take the juice of a herb that is called blight, and annoint your
head with it, and both lice and nits shall fall away.;  Take a broad list
[strip of cloth] the length of a girdle, and annoint the one side with fresh
grease mingled with quick-silver, and spread on it the powder of lichen and
press on it with your finger so that it sticks firmly to it, and then fold it
together, and sew together the sides; and then wind it in a linen cloth; and
sew it together, and wear it henceforth; and the lice & nits shall die. This
has been well proved. In 'Styrre Hyt Well', a collection of 15th century
manuscripts found in Samuel Pepys' library, one recipe claims that 'to slay
lice or nits. Take the herb broom and crush it and anoint them with juice
and it will slay them'. Hortus Sanitus, a Venetian book from 1511 shows
lice being brushed out of a man's hair. John Gerard's Herball claims that:
cotton-weed or cudweed (Graphalium or Filago sp.), 'boiled in strong lees
cleans the hair from nits and lice'. Palladius claimed that staveacre and
cumin ground in wine and the juice of sour lupin would do the trick. To
intercept gnats on their way to a human host, Palladius used oil dregs or
soot from the fire in your room. Interestingly (in the light of the
Leechbook's advice), he claimed that washing sheep in seawater would clear
them of biting insects and allow their fleece to grow, though he never made
the same claim for the riddance of human pests. Another way to slay fleas
was the use of watered cucumber seed, ground cumin, lupine or 'psilotre'
(probably psilothre or psiloter - Bryonia diocia) 'cast on the ground'.
MOSQUITOS and GNATS
More thirsty insects which required advice from the GoP: 'I have
seen in diverse chambers, that when one had gone to bed they were full of
mosquitoes,which at the smoke of the breath came to sit on the faces of
those that slept, and stung them so hard, that they were forced to get up and
light a fire of hay, in order to make a smoke so that they were forced to fly
away or die, and this may be done by day if they be suspected, and likewise
he that has a mosquito net may protect himself with it'. The Roman writer
Pliny (1stC AD) suggested the burning of galbanum resin derived from the
fennel plant. Galbanum, when mixed with sulphur was also recommended
by Palladius as was fresh oil dregs, an oil dregs/ox gall mixture, a oil/ivy
mixture, chamber soot or burnt waterleeches!. John Gerard thought that
burnt fleabane or willow herb would drive off gnats, as would wormwood
The medieval town environment was frequently none too sanitary
(particularly the streets), and would have provided an ideal breeding ground
for flies. The GoP comes to the rescue with some traps though:
'If you have a chamber or a passage where there is a great resort of flies,
take little sprigs of fern and tie them to threads like to tassels, and hang
them up and all the flies will settle on them at eventide; then take down the
tassels and throw them out'.
Shut up your chamber closely in the evening, but let there be a little opening
in the wall towards the east, and a s soon as the dawn breaks, all the flies
will go forth through this opening, and let it then be stopped up'.
Take a bowl of milk and a hare's gall and mix them one with another and
then set two or three of these bowls in places where the flies gather and all
that taste them will die.. otherwise have a linen rag tied at the bottom of a
pot with an opening in the neck, and set that pot in the place that the flies
gather and smear it within with honey, or apples, or pears; when it is full of
flies set a trencher over the mouth and shake it'.
Take raw red onions and shred them and set it where the flies gather and all
that taste them will die'.
These last two traps are similar to a "traditional" English remedy,
which uses the fly agaric toadstool soaked in milk. John Gerard burned
willow herb or fleabane to rid himself of flies. Ibn-el-Beithar
recommended lacing meat with monkshood (very poisonous) or making a
spray from the juice of oleander. More from the GoP:
Have little twigs covered with glue on a basin of water'. This procedure
requires a little elaboration on the technique outlined above for making
glue: 'And he who would make glue for water, let him warm a little oil and
therein melt his glue; and then lime his line'.
Have a string hanging soaked in honey, and the flies will come and settle on
it and in the evening let them be taken in a bag'.
Direct action might be required on the part of the GoP though:
Have whisks [little flat shovels rather like today's fly-swats] wherewith to
slay them by hand...Have your windows shut full tight with oiled or other
cloth, or with parchment or something else, so tightly that no fly may enter,
and let the flies that be within be slain with the whisk or otherwise as
above, and no others will come in'. The GoP develops the "prevention is
better than cure" policy hinted at in the above passage in another piece of
advice: Finally it seems that flies will not stop in a room where there are
no standing tables, forms, dressers or other things where they can set tle and
rest, for if they have nothing but straight walls on which to settle and cling,
they will not settle, nor will they in a shady or damp place. Therefore it
seems that if the room is well watered and well closed and shut up, and if
nothing is left lying on the floor, no fly will settle there.'
What's probably more likely is that flies will not stop in a room
where untidy humans haven't been carelessly leaving bits of food lying
around! The GoP also had a remedy for dealing with flies that afflict
livestock too: Note that flies will never swarm on a horse that is greased
with butter or with old salt grease. Not every means of getting rid of flies
was used though: Caxton (reassuringly) lists flies as being 'beestes' unfit for
human consumption in a French-English vocabulary.
Moths were a common enough problem in the Middle Ages,
Lawrence Andrewe in the 15th Century wrote: 'The Motte breeds among
clothes until they have bitten it into pieces and it is a maniable worm, and
yet it hides itse lf in the cloth so that it can scantly be seen and it breeds
gladly in clothes that have been in an evil air, or in a rain or m ist, and so
laid up without hanging in the sun or other sweet air after'. Similar advice
was given by the GoP: 'in order to preserve your fur coverlets it is apt often
to air them, in order to prevent the damage which moths may do to them;
and because such vermin gather when the cold weather of autumn and
winter grows milder and are born in the summer, at such time you'd be
advised to set out furs and stuffs in the sun in fair and dry weather; and if
there comes a dark and damp mist that clings to you r dresses and you fold
them in such condition, that mist folded and wrapped up in your dresses will
shelter and breed worse vermin than before. Whereas choose a fine, dry
day and as soon as you see heavier weather coming, before that it reachs
you cause your dresses to be hung up under cover and shaken to get rid of
most of the dust, then cleaned by beating them with dry rods '.
"Chemical warfare" was also the order of the day. Lawrence
Andrewe advises that 'The herbs that are bitter and strongly smelling are
good to lay among such clothes, as the bay leaves, cypress wood.' 'Styrre
Hyt Well' says that 'to prevent damage by moths to clothes, take wormwood
and rue and boil them in water and brush your clothes with the same water'.
The GoP suggested adding strong scents to clothes (but in this case it is not
clear whether this is to deter moths or just to make clothes smell nice): 'The
roses of Provence are the best for putting in dresses, but they must be dried
and sifted through a sieve at mid-August so that the worms fall through the
holes of the sieve, and after that spread it over the dresses'. John Gerard
thought that the leaves and branches of cottonweed (or cudweed), golden
mothwort (or cudweed) sweet trefoile, rosemary, wormwood and sea
wormwood, 'being laid [separately] in warderobes and presses keepeth
apparell from moths'. He also recommended sweet willow 'whole shrub
fruit and all', shavings of wood and the resin from the cypress tree.
Palladius said that the best cure for 'prasocorides' [moths] was to wrap a
sheep's stomach for two days around the place that the moths were
breeding; after that time you could expect that 'there shall you find them
heaped slain there'.
RATS and MICE
Medieval streets were usually strewn with household waste and
the ordure of animals despite the attempts of civic authorities to combat
such refuse (too large a subject to go into here). Such an environment was
an ideal breeding ground for rodents, and these were a constant menace to
provisions if they could establish themselves in a household:
No sir, please God, for I make bold that you shall be well and comfortably
lodged here [for there are no fleas nor bugs, nor other vermin], save that
there is a great peck of rats and mice - Manual of French/English
conversation, late 14thC
Medieval rats were black rats. These have since been driven to
extinction in Britain by their larger, more aggressive cousins the brown rat.
Black rats have more of an affinity for living in homes than the browns, and
less of a liking for sewers. It has been estimated that each medieval home
had 2-3 black rats each supporting 4-5 fleas; black rat fleas are far less
fussy about their choice of host than the strain of flea which lives on brown
rats. It is easy to see why the Black Death spread so rapidly!
The Roman writer Pliny (who was held as a great authority on the
animal kingdom during the Middle Ages) wrote that mice reproduced
quicker than any other animal. The GoP gives advice in case 'rats are
harming your corn, bacon, cheese and other provisions'.
Fortunately, the natural enemies of rodents could be employed, for
example the GoP claims he controlled the vermin by 'by having a good
array of cats. Such was the reputation of felines as hunters that during the
14-18th centuries, cat corpses with a dead mouse stuffed intheir mouth
were sometimes built into the foundations of English houses as it was
thought that this would deter other rodents from entering the premises.
Human "professionals" could also be employed, the GoP recommending the
hiring of 'ratcatchers and mousecatchers'. So what techniques could people
use? Why, 'by traps made of little planks upon sticks' (GoP) of course!
These brought rodents to a grisly end; a sight which might upset people of a
delicate disposition, such as the Prioress in The Canterbury Tales Prologue:
She wolde wepe, if that she sawe a mous caught in a trappe, if it were deed
There is an illustration of a mousetrap in the right wing of
Ingelbrecht's Annunciation Triptych by the Master of
Flemalle c. 1425-1430
The GoP does not tell us directly what bait he'd use in a trap, but
the ingredients in described in the following poisoned bait (without the
toxic aconite) would seem to be suitable: 'Take an ounce of aconite , two
ounces of fine arsenic, a quarter [of a pound] of pig's fat, a pound of fine
wheaten [white] meal and four eggs, and out of these make bread and cook
it in the oven and cut it into strips and nail them down with a nail'. Another
poison that the GoP laid down included: 'cakes of paste and powdered
aconite, setting these near to their holes where they have naught to drink'.
Failing that, follow this advice: 'If you cannot keep them from finding water
to drink, it is good to cut up little pieces of sponge, and then if they swallow
these and drink afterwards, they will swell up and die'.
Poisons were also popular amongst other writers. John Gerard
recommended the use of the the root of hellebore 'in the weight of two
pence' which 'kills mice and rats, being made up with honey and wheat
flour'. Palladius used black hellebore mixed with fat, bread, cheese or flour.
Other options included the juice of bruised wild cucumber ('coloquynt')
which 'slays the mice as diverse men have said'. A less complicated trap
was to pour thick oil into a pan on which the rodent would be caught at
night; Palladius claimed that the 'dregs may slay more than do your cats'.
Palladius also recommended blocking up the mouse holes with daffodils:
'They gnaw it out, but dead down shall they fall'. Nature, in the form of
disease, could also be asked to lend a hand: if oak ashes were cast around
the mouse-holes then a disease called 'the scabbe' could be expected to soon
arise and kill the unfortunate rodents. Another plan was to make 'a smoke
and stink' to drive off the rodents, suitable ingredients being hartshorn,
goat's hooves, lily roots or galbanum.
COCKROACHES and WEEVILS
Cockroaches and weevils seem to find grain, flour and other
organic matter absolutely irresistable. As the staple food of humans was
also cereals, the two populations were bound to come into conflict. Ibn-el-
Beither recommended Planetre (Platanus sp.) to deal with cockroaches.
Pliny recommended dressing seeds with the ashes of a cat or weasel or
steeping the seed in ox-gall. He also related how a toad fixed by one of its
longer legs at the door would frighten weevils away. He also recommended
storing the grain in airtight containers or in a pit, especially if the grain was covered in gypsum or chalk; this is a particularly effective solution as the
granular material will ruin the insects' carapaces if they don't suffocate first. Vinegar, salty fish or an unbaked brick soaked in water were also claimed
by Pliny as weevil deterrents, as was the "heliotrope plant" (though the
modern heliotrope is of New World origin). Palladius claimed that the cure
for 'gurglions' [weevils] was coriander leaves placed on the floor and
changed often; dried 'coniza' (probably conyse or flea-bane - Conyza sp. or
Inula sp.) put under the grain was also deemed effective.
And on the subject of raiders of the larder, the GoP wrote that
'ants abound in a garden and if you cast sawdust of oaken planks upon their
heap, they will die or depart at the first rain that falls, for the sawdust
retains the moisture'. Pliny recommended painting bands around ants' nests.
The bands were to be made of either red earth and tar or oil dregs. He also
point out that ants could be attracted to dried fish and destroyed. Palladius
used vinegar and ashes mixed with red ochre whilst also claiming that burnt
cockle shells or a mixture of origano and brimstone would if 'cast upon
their hole...will make them flee'. Other measures of his included the
ubiquitous oil dregs and soot, placing an owls heart on their nest, or placing
chalk or the juice of 'rucul' (rocket) or 'syngrene' (horseleek) around the nest
More airborne pests that John Gerard dealt with using 'Fusseballs',
a type of mushroom, which 'being set on fire kill or smother bees'
Unfortunately I've not come across anything on wasps. However, the little blighters will quite happily drown themselves in a jar containing a mixture of honey and water - a method which I think would not look out of place next to some of the fly-trap designs outlined above.
Where infestations of pests became an epidemic, Mother Church
sometimes invoked divine intervention to deal with the problem. Some
examples from the late medieval period include: in 1479
Cockchafers indicted before the ecclesiastical court at Lausanne and
condemned to banishment; in 1485 High Vicar of Valence comanded
caterpillars to appear before him, gave them a defence counsel and finally
condemned them to leave the area; in 1488 High Vicar of Autun
commanded the weevils in neighbouring parishes to stop their attacks on
crops and grain and excommunicated them.
Stupid medievals eh? It's more accurate to say that they were
trying to find a way of curing something that they could observe without
understanding why it was actually happening. Many pests go through a
boom-bust cycle, the population increasing in size during one year and
being markedly less the next year as their food runs out or the number of
predators catches up. Once a plague of pests had reached bad enough
proportions to warrant ecclesiastical attention, the epidemic was already on
the wane. The intervention of the priests, and hence God too, seemed to
have paid off. Nor was it just the medievals who performed such rites;
though the practice later declined, the last such excommunication of pests
took place as late as 1830 in Denmark.
1. The Goodman of Paris - M.E. Power; 2. The Constant Pest
- George Ordish; 3. Herbal, or the History of Plants - John Gerard; 4. A
Leechbook or Collection of Medical Recipes of the Fifteenth Century -
Warren Dawson; 6. Palladius on Husbandry - Rev. B. Lodge (Early
English Text Society); 7. Early English Meals and Manners - Frederick J.
Furnivall (E.E.T.S.); 8. Dialogues in French and English - William Caxton
(ed. H. Bradley, E.E.T.S.); 9. "Manual of French Conversation" in Revue
Critique - Paul Meyer; 10. Styrre Hyt Well - Samuel Pepys with a
foreword by Delia Smith; 11. A History of Herbal Plants (1977) - Richard