The Flea: One’s Constant Companion

I’m not being funny. Fleas had a notoriously important impact on life in the 17th-century (hello, Great Plague!) and many deaths stemmed from their parasitic habits. I remember at Paleis Het Loo in The Netherlands, the audio guide stated that fleas and lice were a problem for everyone, regardless of their place in society. I already knew this, but it was rather striking as we were in William III’s beautiful bedchamber when we heard it. We tend to imagine that rich people were free of parasites, but that simply wasn’t the case.

Robert Hooke’s drawing of a flea in his Micrographia

Since moving to the UK, I have had more than my fair share of flea trouble. My mother thinks it’s shameful that I would publicly talk about my experience with fleas, but I’m doing this in order to bring about an understanding of how it might have been in the past. Fleas or lice never featured in my life when I was growing up, though we occasionally found a flea on my dog, Daisy, they were easily killed by simply crushing between one’s fingernails. UK fleas, I came to learn, were an altogether more potent enemy.

BOTH, Andries Hunting by Candlelight 1630 Oil on canvas, 34,5 x 27 cm Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest, via WGA.

Shortly after Gavin and I became engaged in 2008, we received a furry little black visitor who decided she liked us so much more than her owner (long story) that she moved in with us. Now, we had a lovely flat in Balham, South London, which had a garden and was situated right next to Tooting Bec Common, a beautiful park area. Now, there were many foxes in the area, poor, mangy things always in need of food. These were, of course, riddled with fleas.

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Blackie, as we ended up calling the black cat, was (and is) the loveliest natured cat I have ever known, but she loved adventuring in the gardens and foliage for hours on end – rummaging in the same areas the foxes often used. Then she would return in the evenings for food and sleep. She preferred to sleep on my tummy every night, a practice which continues to this day. As you may have guessed, Blackie brought more than just herself into the house.

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Unfortunately, I was 23 with no previous experience of flea infestations, but I soon became an expert in the ways of the flea. I had been following my mother-in-law’s advice of saving money by simply using pound shop flea powder instead of the more costly flea prevention treatment, such as Frontline (which Blackie is now on!). I was to shortly discover that it was no bargain in the end.

We were soon infested.

It was hell.

CRESPI, Giuseppe Maria The Flea 1707-09 Oil on copper, 28 x 24 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, via WGA.

I first knew there was a problem when I started scratching parts of my body- mainly my ankles, thighs, and the small of my back seemed to attract them the most. Little tiny spots of acute itchiness. I just wanted to scratch and scratch, but then the tops would come off and it would ooze a little and scab over. Then I saw them…the fleas – little black specks that jumped everywhere – more quickly than one could catch them. There were also little black clumps on the bedding and on my nightgown – this I came to learn was detritus (flea excrement) and upon touching liquid, the clumps became bloody.

LA TOUR, Georges de Woman Catching Fleas 1630s Oil on canvas Musée Historique, Nancy, via WGA.

I used to think of myself as an expert insect-killer, especially after growing up in gnat-and-mosquito-laden Florida, but I was truly ill-prepared for battle with the mighty flea.

But as a Flea, though its fore feet are cut off, will yet live a long time, my way always was, when I endeavoured to get a view of the piercers, to cut off its head, left, when I had removed the piercers from their position close to the body, and separated them from each other, the Flea should draw them out of sight. – [1]

Not only do they seem to be extraordinarily fast in their jumps, I found it impossible to crush them between my fingernails as I remember my mother did when my dog Daisy had the rare flea. So, I bought a flea comb for Blackie ( which I call The Pink Comb of Death! and this is made of plastic with metal teeth. Whenever I find a flea with the comb, I immediately put the comb onto a wet baby wipe. This seems to stun them briefly, as they don’t like water, and as I mentioned earlier, if there are fleas, there will be detritus, and the bloody spots will appear on the wipe. Then, one must act quickly. I found that these fleas wouldn’t die between my nails, so I took the comb head and pressed firmly down on the flea until – POP – it made a sickening pop and died). You need to get rid of any eggs in order to prevent a whole new generation from springing to life and sucking you dry!

These eggs of the Flea are no larger when viewed by the naked eye, than small grains of sand… [1]

CRESPI, Giuseppe Maria Searcher for Fleas 1720s Oil on canvas, 55 x 41 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris, via WGA.

At night, I would place a candle in the middle of a bowl full of water and this thankfully kept them off of me during the night and into the bowl (they’re attracted to the light and heat of the flame and then fall into the water and drown) – there would be several drowned flea corpses in the water by morning. I started to go slightly mad because I was covered in itchy spots and constantly looking for jumping fleas. I boil washed all our clothing, I vacuumed, I ironed, I used insecticide. I took Blackie to the vet, she was put on a proper treatment for fleas and that was that.

After all the combing, treatment, scratching, and general flea unpleasantness, Blackie had to have intense rest & relaxation!

After all the combing, treatment, scratching, and general flea unpleasantness, Blackie had to have intense rest & relaxation!

By the end of our trouble, I fully understood the desire some 17th-century scientists, such as van Leeuwenhoek had, to better understand the indomitable flea. Flea bites would have been a common, if not daily, occurrence. In his excellent Micrographia, Robert Hooke described fleas, among other things, in great detail.

 It has a small proboscis, or probe, NNO, that seems to consist of a tube, N, and a tongue or sucker, O, which I have perceiv’d him to slip in and out. Besides these, it has also two chaps or biters, P P, which are somewhat like those of an Ant , but I could not perceive them tooth’d 5 these were shap’d very like the blades of a pair of round top’d Scizers, and were opened and shut just after the same manner 5 with these Instruments does this little busie Creature bite and pierce the skin , and suck out the blood of an Animal, leaving the skin inflamed with a small round red spot. [2]

What would be good to remember is this: it was relatively EASY for me to get rid of the infestation once Blackie had been treated, but these chemicals did not exist in the 17th-century. Also, the vacuum cleaner hadn’t been invented – and regular vacuuming is very helpful for keeping fleas at bay.

So, how did people try to stop flea infestations in the 17th-century? Van Leeuwenhoek goes on to say:

We may conclude that, if in places where Fleas abound, the floors or pavements be well wetted with water, the maggots may be destroyed, and consequently the places cleared of Fleas.

From my experience, I did see that fleas don’t like water – so this was quite a feasible theory from van Leeuwenhoek. Nevertheless, the fact remains that most people during the 17th-century had to deal with parasites such as fleas on a regular basis!

 

TERBORCH, Gerard Boy Ridding his Dog of Fleas c. 1665 Oil on canvas, 34,4 x 27,1 cm Alte Pinakothek, Munich, via WGA.

Whilst they became a major irritation, there was something admirable in the flea’s resilience. I then remembered the first line from the chapter in which Hooke describes the flea:

The strength and beauty of this small creature, had it no other relation at all to man, would deserve a description. [2]

GIOVANNI DA SAN GIOVANNI Venus Combing Cupid’s Hair c. 1630 Oil on canvas, 229 x 173 cm Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence, via Web Gallery of Art.

I give you now the poem by John Donne, entitled, ‘The Flea’:

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
And cloister’d in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck’d from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
‘Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

…I think Donne pulled off the unlikely romanticising of the flea, especially the ‘It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be’ bit!

In conclusion, my bad personal experience with fleas made me understand an aspect of seventeenth-century life that I wouldn’t otherwise have fully appreciated. As a consequence of this, my writing – even historical fiction – has had and will continue to include the lice, the stench, and the fleas that were so commonly part of life in the seventeenth-century.

NÚÑEZ DE VILLAVICENCIO, Pedro Boy Looking for Fleas on a Dog 1650s Oil on canvas, 61 x 48 cm The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, via WGA.

Sources used:

[1] ‘The select works of Antony van Leeuwenhoek: containing his microscopical discoveries in many of the works of nature.’
[2] ‘Micrographia: or, some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. With observations and inquiries thereupon’ by Robert Hooke.

P.S. (Oh, and to the woman who gave me a 1-star on Amazon because my book had a lice removal scene – tough, that was standard practice, baby! You need only look at the many flea and lice removal paintings, some of which I’ve included in this post!)

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Hear ye! 2 thoughts — so far — on “The Flea: One’s Constant Companion”:

  1. Sarah Perry-Correia

    That’s why Louis XIV and his first cousin Charles II had shaved heads and wigs. It kept the fleas and lice down. Though everyone had fleas but having lice was considered . . .icky. What I find truly bizarre was the notion of keeping one or two fleas from your beloved’s body in a small container on a necklace like a locket so their blood would never be far from you. . . .EWWW

    Reply
    1. Andrea Zuvich (The 17th Century Lady) Post author

      Charming, truly charming, Sarah! Bleh. My how things have changed! The funny thing about wigs is that they too could contain lice. Pepys was quite irritated when he found there were nits in his wig! I’ve never had experience with lice – and I hope it says that way! :p

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