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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.


NOTE: See also these files: pets-msg, mice-msg, ferrets-msg, dogs-msg, cats-msg,  bees-msg, livestock-msg, herbs-msg, p-herbals-msg.





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.


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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).


Thank you,

    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





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

with pests.

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

venomous beasts'


        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'.



        Fleas were not the only blood-suckers to afflict the population,

the Leechbook had suggested a number of cures 'for nits in the head': [1]

Make lye of wild nept (bryony) and therewith wash your head, & it will

destroy them; [2]  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; [3]

Take seawater or else brine, and wash your head, and that shall destroy

them; [4] Take the juice of a herb that is called blight, and annoint your

head with it, and both lice and nits shall fall away.; [5] 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'.



        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'.



        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

or bledde


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 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

Le Strange


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org