There is a remarkable passage in a sermon John Donne preached before the king in Whitehall in 1627. Donne reiterates the need for an openness to the word of God, to an ear that is receptive to the Word. “Take head what you hear,” he recites again and again, “take heed what you hear.” Be open always to Christ, loquens Scriptura, the “living, speaking Scripture.”
And yet, while emphasizing the critical import of a perennial openness, Donne also preaches caution about WHAT enters the ear. Unlike the eyes or the mouth, we cannot close off our ears: “Our Savior Christ proposes it as some remedy against a mischief, That if the eye offend thee, thou mayst pull it out, and if thy hand or foot offend thee, thou mayst cut it off, and thou art safe from that offence. But he does not name or mention the ear: for, if the ear betray thee, though thou doe cut it off, yet thou art open to that way of treason still, still thou canst hear.” The ear is a profoundly vulnerable site of ingress.
To emphasize the vulnerability of hearing treason or libel, Donne brilliantly turns to the analogy of an earwig that crawls into the ear at night, when we are at our most vulnerable and open: “And certainly, there is no Lycanthropie so dangerous, not when men are changed into devouring wolves, as when these Earwigs are transformed into men.”
The power of Donne’s analogy lies in part in the long-held fear that earwigs take advantage of nighttime to crawl into people’s ears and, not to put too fine a point on it, eat their brains.
Of course, it wasn’t just earwigs that were feared—people were also nervous about fleas and lice. But the earwig held pride of place in this fear because of the specificity of its name (though the idea that earwigs might crawl into a sleeping person’s ear is false). That fear was widespread and continues to this day (see below for video of Taylor Swift sort-of-pretending to be afraid of earwigs crawling in her ear for an example of how persistent this idea remains):
While there are many recipes for obstructions in the ear, in Anne Corlyon’s recipe book, we find a treatment specifically for earworms:
A Medicine to drawe an Earwigge out of the Eare
Take a sweet Aple and rest it in the fyer until it be half roasted, then take of the softest of it, and spreade it very thick upon a lynnen cloth, and lay it so your eare is hot as you can suffer it, and lye upon the same syde, and when you do feel it stir, you must lye very still until it be come to the Aple, and then you must very sodainely pluck it away lest the Earewigge retorne into your heade againe. And if you thinkcke there be any extra laye a new one to your ear.
Presumably the earwig will be tempted by the sweet roasted apple and the warmth of the linen cloth and venture out of the ear canal, where he will be “sodainely” snatched away.
The use of smells to treat bodily ills was widespread, and in Mrs. Corlyon’s recipes for treating issues in the ear, smells and heat seem to be critical elements. On the same page as the earwig treatment, there are three recipes for “the singing in the Eares.” The first calls for baking a loaf of bread and spicing it with nutmeg, then placing it “as hotte as you may suffer it” next to the ear. The second such recipe advises boiling a quart of sack, spicing it, and pouring a little bit in the ear canal. And the third advises cutting off the top of an onion and filling it with mithridate (an unspecified poison antidote), salad oil, and aquavitae, then roasting the onion, wrapping it in a cloth, and holding it next to the sufferer’s ear.
Not all earwig recipes relied on heat and smell, however. Over at the blog Early Modern Medicine, Jennifer Evans has an example of an earwig recipe that uses no heat at all, but instead calls for poisoning the earwig with a combination of wormwood, rue, and southernwood.
Whether the literal bug or the figurative metaphor of a man who implants treason or heresy by crawling into the listener’s ear, earwigs clearly pointed to an early modern anxiety about vulnerability and interiority. If only a little bit of roasted apple placed on the ear could draw out all such anxieties!