Early Modern Nitpicking

By Lisa Smith

Robert Burns was inspired to write an ode “To a Louse” (1786) when he observed a cheeky louse running over a woman’s bonnet during a church service.

Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly.

Robert Hooke, Micrographia or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665). Image of a louse under a microscope.

The ode reflects on the social meanings of lice, a great leveler that might affect beggars and beauties alike. And once those “ugly, creepin, blastit wonners” arrive, they are dashed difficult to destroy–as Laurence Totelin made clear earlier this month. Like Laurence, I was inspired to investigate the treatment of early modern lice after the crowlin ferlies dared to take up residence on my family. The lived experience of suffering from lice today has many parallels with our early modern counterparts: the social stigma of living with vermin, the desperate methods of trying to kill them, and the physical intimacy of catching and removing them.

After catching lice, my little one described feeling ashamed and dirty, despite the lice spreading like wildfire through the entire class and our reassurances that it was normal. An internalised message of dirtiness is potent indeed—and it is an old message, as Lisa Sarasohn discusses. The Bible, for example, indicates that lice were among the ten plagues sent by God to punish the Egyptians for not letting the Israelites go. The metaphor of lice was also often used in early modern society to describe any group that threatened the social order or to represent internal moral degeneration. Lousy people were akin to the vermin who inhabited their bodies.

Of course, as Karen Raber points out, lice sometimes had positive meanings. In the Renaissance, suffering from lice could be an aid to religious contemplation, offering a chance to reflect on social status and vanity, or a form of penance. By the seventeenth century, however, lice were associated with a moral failing. If cleanliness was next to godliness, the presence of lice suggested that one was neither clean nor godly.

Medical explanations for lice also emphasised a connection with dirt. Lice, which could infest the head or the pubic region, were seen as transmissable through sexual intimacy (Sarasohn); they were filthy critters in more ways than one! Early modern medicine drew on ideas from Antiquity (Fornociari et al.). Aristotle, for example, considered lice to be creatures spontaneously generated from decaying matter on animals, while Galen explained that lice were created through warmth and excess humidity below the skin. By the late eighteenth century, moreover, army physicians increasingly understood that there was a connection between typhus and lice (Willingham).

Early modern remedies were based on humoral theory or methods of suffocation, poisoning, and containment. All six lice treatments in The Vermin Killer (1680) included ingredients such as hog lard, butter, smashed apple, olive oil, or wax; these would have suffocated or immobilised the lice. Vinegar and salt water, with their drying qualities, also appeared, as did the poisonous sandarac (sulphide of arsenic) and quicksilver (29-31). The twelve remedies in The Compleat English and French Vermin-Killer (1710) were similar, but also introduced a common herb for treating lice: stavesacre (also known as lousewort or Delphinium staphisagria). This could be put into hair powder or mixed with other ingredients. The 1710 edition also recommended containment, whether by ensuring that the patient wore a cap during treatment or had a hair cut (20-22). By 1777, the fourteen remedies of The Complete Vermin-Killer (1777) remained the same. But the new presence of a recipe that included oil of mustard suggests that humoral explanations for lice still underpinned treatments (5). Culpeper, for example, indicated that mustard was good for resisting poison and drawing out bad humors.

In looking for early modern remedies, I was surprised to find so few (digitally searchable) manuscript recipe books in the Wellcome Library or the Folger Shakespeare Library that had lice treatments. Perhaps this is explained by the wide range of published remedies, which were included in books such as Nicholas Culpeper’s The English Physician or The Vermin Killer—both reprinted many times in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The manuscript remedies reflect both the familiar, domestic location of treatments and the growing use of global commodities—sometimes in the same book. There are two lice-related recipes in Elizabeth Jacob’s “Physicall and chyrurgicall receipts” (c. 1654-1685). One “To Quite your selfe of Lice” recommends taking a piece of linen cloth, used by a goldsmith to wipe an object during gilding, then placing it under one’s arm pits and neck. Jacob explained the logic: the goldsmiths used quicksilver in the gilding process, which was a very effective lice killer (143). Quite clearly, this was a thrifty remedy that recycled a trade-related material rather than purchasing new ingredients from the apothecary. Significantly, it also suggests that this was an urban household with easy access to the tools of goldsmithing.

From Elizabeth Jacob (Wellcome MS 3009). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Jacob family must have been well-connected to global trade, too. Another “receipt to kill lice” used “Endicockle berys from the Apothecarys”, which were to be powdered and strewn in the head (fol. 56).

From Elizabeth Jacob (Wellcome MS 3009). Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Endicockle berries do not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary or in any books in the Historical Texts database. It was only when I looked up “fish berries,” mentioned in another remedy “For Scabs & lice in ye head” (Wellcome MS 635, 94), that I discovered they also went by the name Cocculus Indicus; endicockle, then, is a phonetic version of India Cockle berries. John Hill described the berry in A History of the Materia Medica (1751) noting that it was highly poisonous and came from Asia. It had been known for anti-lice properties in England since the late seventeenth century (504). The Jacob family benefited from their urban location in another way: an opportunity to learn about newly-imported global remedies.

John Hill, A History of the Materia Medica (1751) , p. 504.

The most effective remedy, both then and now, however, is the time-consuming process of combing and nitpicking; if catching lice is a mark of intimate relations, so too is this remedy. But it is not one found in a recipe book. The first time I discovered lice in my child’s hair, I combed and searched for over two hours. This was no mean feat with a wriggly small child. Subsequent combings have been shorter, but they take longer than a regular hair-brush. Often, she watches TV, but other times we chat.

Bartolomeo Pinelli, La famiglia dei pedochiosi. Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Early modern images of nitpicking suggest a similar intimacy—the family grooming each other that Pinelli depicts or Piloty’s old woman examining the child’s head. During a lice infestation, it is, quite literally, all hands on deck (as Pinelli shows). The casual intimacy in the images is striking; the child leans against the woman’s legs, the husband places his head in his wife’s lap. Lice removal might be time-consuming, but the physical intimacy brings a pleasure of its own.

An old woman picking fleas from a young boy’s hair. Lithograph by F. Piloty after B.E. Murillo. Image Credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Or is that intimacy animal-like? Dogs often appear in images of delousing, blurring the animal and human worlds; indeed, lice itself blurred the two worlds. The natural rambunctiousness of small children is also, perhaps, animal-like. Piloty’s young boy plays with the puppy and eats a chunk of bread; the smallest child in Pinelli’s picture is chained to the wall, straining against confinement. This reflects a reality: small children have little patience for the process of nitpicking and need to be entertained or constrained. But it also places the children and their families close to the animal world.

A nitpicking monkey — a handy labour-saving solution, though it brings the animal world even closer. Image Credit: Arthur Pond (eighteenth century), British Museum U,1.215.

The co-existence of lice and humans is intimate indeed—no wonder Burns’ louse was so bold. The experience of lice historically and today has many similarities. Sufferers still feel embarrassed, despite the commonness of the complaint, and we still try a range of remedies to poison or suffocate the vermin. Above all, the most effective method remains the same: physical removal of the crowlin ferlies. Family closeness is nice, but even nicer when the lice are gone.

Further Itchy Reading

Evans, Jennifer. “Feeling ‘Louzy’”. Early Modern Medicine, 24 September 2014 (https://earlymodernmedicine.com/creepy-crawlies/).

Fornaciari, Gino, et al. “The Use of Mercury against Pediculosis in the Renaissance: The Case of Ferdinand II of Aragon, King of Naples, 1467–96.” Medical History 55, 1 (2011): 109-115. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3037217/)

Raber, Karen. Animal Bodies, Renaissance Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Sarasohn, Lisa. “The Microscopist & Voyeur: Margaret Cavendish’s Critique of Experimental Philosopy,” pp. 77-100 in Sigrun Haude and Melinda Zook (eds) Challenging Orthodoxies: The Social and Cultural Worlds of Early Modern Women. Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2014.

Willingham, Emily. “Of Lice and Men: An Itchy History.” Scientific American, 14 February 2011 (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/of-lice-and-men-an-itchy-history/).

Wolfe, Heather. “Early Modern Head Lice Remedies.” The Collation, 15 May 2018 (https://collation.folger.edu/2018/05/early-modern-head-lice-remedies/) .


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