In 1645, Henry Overton and Benjamin Allen of Popes-head Alley, London (now a narrow side-street more or less indistinct from Bank underground station’s megalithic sprawl), published:
A true and exact relation of the severall informations, examinations, and confessions of the late witches, arraigned and executed in the county of Essex. Who were arraigned and condemned at the late sessions, holden at Chelmesford before the Right Honorable Robert, Earle of Warwicke, and severall of his Majesties justices of peace, the 29 of July, 1645. Wherein the severall murthers, and devillish witchcrafts, committed on the bodies of men, women, and children, and divers cattell, are fully discovered.
Seventeenth century pamphleteers waste very little time.
Among the prodigies described in A true relation, dubiously patchworked from the testimony of the brewers, widows and churchmen of Essex who claimed witness to them, is the case of the Rawboods, husband and wife, related second-hand by one Richard Caley of Thorpe, their neighbour. He tells of an Easter Sunday, and Goody Rawbood ‘sitting on a block after dinner with another neighbour a little before it was time to go to church’, when she found herself ‘on the sudden so filled with lice, that they might have been swept off her cloaths with a stick’. Caley got closer. These lice, he affirms, were ‘long, and lean, and not like other lice.’
Two women sit together on Easter Sunday, at their ease. You can practically smell the simnel cake. And then this spontaneous swarm, more menacing for its seeming to come not from without, but from within the unfortunate Goody Rawbood. She is ‘filled with lice’ by the maleficium of her unseen persecutors eliding her body with nature itself – nature nasty, nature dirty, nature whose steady encroachment must be constantly guarded against.
The incident is far from the most condemnatory attributed to the Essex witches in A true relation. They are seen to maim and murder with abandon elsewhere in the pamphlet. It is even obliquely funny – that vaudeville flourish of ‘swept off her cloaths with a stick’ suggests to me that Richard Caley thought it was. But it taps into a fear no less potent for its mundanity: the fear of infestation, and the dimensions of this fear are social. It accounts for the strange position fleas and lice occupy in Western culture.
After Thomas Becket’s murder, a chronicler describes how ‘vermin’ rose from the Archbishop’s body – which was clothed in a mantle, a surplice, a lambswool coat, three further woollen coats, the black, hooded robe of a Benedictine monk, a shirt, and a hair-shirt (in that order) – as it grew cold, ‘and boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron’. The onlookers, it is reported ‘burst into alternate weeping and laughing’. Weeping, yes. But why were they laughing? To see the freshly martyred body shed its earthly freight so literally? Or because they were thinking how much he, the soon-a-saint, must have itched, itched all the time, as they did?
I often had head lice as a child. Outbreaks circulated around my primary school – where my mother was a teacher – on a seasonal basis, mapping the incidental and unconsidered intimacies of childhood. There were noxious shampoos and treatments, but my mum’s preferred remedy was the nit comb. Credit-card sized, hard plastic in fluorescent yellow, so you could see it was working. Narrow inch-long teeth. It hurt when it went close to the scalp, which, of course, it had to.
Saturday morning or Sunday night a bath would be filled, my head dipped and hair coated in conditioner, then Mum would sit on the lip of the tub and comb and comb, pulling faces, flicking clots of Pantene freckled with their little bodies into the sink. This would continue until the comb was coming away clean, the water turning lukewarm and milky around my calves. I remember asking Mum to show me, when she got a big one, when she got lots of little ones. I remember her asking why, and answering that if I could see how gross it was for myself I’d be more careful about not getting them next time, more guarded in my affections. But it was also one of those fascination things. The very large ones, I could see their six splayed, clawed legs, the stripe of deep red down the centre of the body, the filament of my own blood.
Then I would go back to school on Monday and rest my head on my friend Shirin’s shoulder during assembly and it would all begin again. Some were not so patient as my mother. Two girls, sisters, arrived at school with their heads shaved to the bone.
With all due respect, lice and fleas have changed the world more than you ever have, or will, reader. They are part of the unwitting ensemble cast of human history, like Alexander the Great’s Bucephalus, or Karl Lagerfeld’s Choupette. This is because they are now understood to be ‘vectors of disease’, making other bodies’ business your own. But even before this was properly understood, their reputation wasn’t great.
Galileo was probably the first person to see into a flea’s face. While modifying the compound telescope that would situate humanity in a universe that frankly didn’t care for it very much, he fucked around and invented a compound microscope as well. ‘I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration’, he wrote, ‘among which the flea is quite horrible’.
And there is another contradiction inherent in the literature of ectoparasitosis: the smallness, the apparent triviality of the flea or the louse. The terror of nature on a large scale is apt for dramatisation – the storms, the earthquakes, the floods – the terror of nature on the microscopic level is more difficult to convey. More often than not, the poet of the flea takes recourse to some degree of irony. I think that if the flea is the symbol of anything, it is the symbol of irony.
Maggie O’Farrell’s speculative Hamnet, which narrates the fragmentation of Shakespeare’s family after the death of his only son by plague, this irony is handled with great tenderness. The novel’s most striking chapter narrates the journey of a family of monkey-fleas from Alexandria to Stratford, spreading sickness but proximal always to affection, to the human need for love that prompts a sad cabin boy ‘to pick up his favourite of the ship’s cats, an animal mostly white but with a striped tail, and nuzzle it against his neck’, to the routine human sociability that allows the fleas to spread from a messenger bound for the Midlands to ‘a woman who gives him a quart of milk, a child who comes to pat his horse, a young man at a roadside tavern.’ And eventually, to Hamnet Shakespeare, who wastes, who dies, whose family collide around the absence he left behind. Hamnet becomes Hamlet.
The flea relies on our need for one another. There, O’Farrell’s tender irony: the flea is delivered by affection, the infected flea carries the object of affection away.
By the time I was nine or ten years old, the de-lousing process had become either too frequent or too uncomfortable to tolerate on behalf of my entomophilia, and one afternoon I locked myself in the bathroom and cried and told my mum that I wouldn’t let her do it anymore. If it meant I had head lice for the rest of my life, so – my thinking went – be it.
My mum stood on the other side of the door and tried to coax me out. She explained to me the selfishness of knowing you have lice and making no effort to remedy things. I would give them to my friends, I would give them to my little sister, I would give them to her, she would give them to her own students. This appeal to my civic responsibility didn’t work, of course, because I was nine years old.
So instead, she asked if I knew where the expression ‘feeling lousy’ came from. She told me that in the past, when people got head lice, they simply lived with them, as I was proposing to – and that slowly, as the lice multiplied and spread through their clothes, from their heads to the rest of their bodies, so much blood would be drained cumulatively through these tiny, singly insignificant bites that over time it made the host sluggish, pale, weak. Hence, lousy.
Of course, a good part of this was hyperbole, and I’m not sure of its accuracy, from an entomological standpoint. But it did make me open the door. It also stayed with me. In part because it was horrible, but also because it was the first time I remember thinking about history, and the people who history is made up from, with any sort of physical immediacy. As embodied things, having blood that could be lost and skin that could itch and feelings and moods that arose from the state of these physical bodies.
If you were educated in the UK, you probably guessed we wouldn’t go too much further without meeting John Donne, whose 1633 poem The Flea remains as wonderfully perverse in its central conceit as it must have four-hundred years ago, and in which these ideas of intimacy and irony are reified, ‘cloistered. . . in living walls of jet’. My favourite addition to the exalted genre of the Please-Fuck-Me poem, whose speaker bids his lover to fully consider the implications of their shared parasite: ‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this, / How little that which thou deniest me is; / It sucked me first, and now sucks thee, / And in this flea our two bloods mingled be . . .’
Donne goes to town with the pseudo-erotic potential of the flea – the sucking, biting, the mingling of bodily fluids, but also sanctifies the insect as the ‘marriage bed, marriage temple’, wherein the longed-for union with the object of his affection is finally realised. Sort of.
His lover, however, is having none of it. She crushes the flea: ‘Cruel and sudden, hast thou since / Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?’ Donne’s speaker capitalises on her cruelty to make his last metaphysical contortion: ‘Just so much honour, when thou yield’s to me / Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.’
It’s an oh, please, moment – but, against broad critical consensus, I think Donne’s speaker sort of has a point here. Why do we, as humans, orient ourselves toward the heavens through frameworks of honour and virtue, when the simple fact of the flea demonstrates our inescapable bonds to the earth, our essentially animal nature? This is a question Donne returns to again and again. It was a question central to human history from the Reformation to the Industrial Revolution and beyond. The flea is doubt, proximal as the skin, disabusing us of any notion of our sanctity, our specialness – setting us back down among the animals Adam named.
In 1665, London’s Royal Society published Robert Hooke’s Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses. With Observations and Inquiries Thereupon. The book, wonderfully illustrated, was of huge scientific significance (it includes the first use of ‘cell’ as a biological term). The sheer size of the plates depicting insects, however, suggests to me that the great Hooke – ‘who is the most, and promises the least, of any man in the world that ever I saw’, as he was delightfully described by Samuel Pepys – was not above appealing to shock value. The illustrated louse, clinging delicately to a shaft of human hair, folds out to four times the size of the folio itself, its right legs extended almost in yearning, its body covered in fine hair of its own. The flea is beautifully armoured in shiny, overlapping plates of chitin, with a cold, round eye, legs drawn up in a suggestion of the kinetic power that can drive that obtuse-looking body to one hundred and fifty times its own height through the air.
It is hard to imagine what effect these images would have had on Hooke’s early readers, coming face to face with that flea, that louse. Pepys himself was up until two in the morning with his copy. They look like monsters. The louse is a swollen behemoth. The flea has the sleek menace of an alien battleship. But they weren’t monsters or aliens. His readers would’ve known, would’ve thought, I think, as they read by candlelight – there’s probably one on my body, this very moment. Probably dozens.
In 1818, William Blake met the astrologer John Varley. Varley knew that Blake had experienced visions – of angels, of ghosts, of John Milton quite a lot, adorably – all his life, and it intrigued the young mystic. The two men became friends, and often met at Varley’s house late at night, where they would attempt to summon the spirits of historical and mythological figures with the idea that Blake would draw them. During one seance, Blake was visited by the ghost of a flea, ‘in such a figure’ wrote Varley, ‘as he never anticipated in an insect.’
The flea spoke to Blake, offering an account of its own creation:
‘It was first intended . . . to make me as big as a bullock; but then when it was considered from my construction, so armed – and so powerful withal, that in proportion to my bulk, (mischievous as I now am) that I should have been a too mighty destroyer; it was determined to make me – no bigger than I am.’
The flea, which had a ‘face worthy of a murderer’, told Blake that all fleas were inhabited by the spirits of men who were ‘by nature bloodthirsty to excess’.
Blake painted this ghost-flea – a stalking, demoniacal thing that leers between theatre curtains, a swollen mesomorph, its tongue curling with vaudeville relish as it peers down into a pail of blood.
Blake’s Ghost is another exercise in magnification. Seventy-eight years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula was to shape European folk legend into a diablerie of Victorian body-horror, what Blake had painted was, essentially, a vampire (the Ghost’s resemblance to Max Schreck’s 1922 Nosferatu seem too striking to be accidental). The vampire is the parasite embodied in his grandest form, and he troubles the boundaries between the categories that most profoundly shape our experience of the world: human and animal, life and death, laughter and screams.
The last time I got head lice I was in secondary school, about thirteen years old. Other people must have as well, though no one was prepared to admit it outright. A scratch of the head in history class was enough to secure your obloquy as Patient Zero. So we tried very hard not to scratch. It was an awkward situation. On the one hand, no one, by their own admission, had lice. On the other, the collective mania for discovering who had introduced them was total. We did not scratch. We itched.
I was old enough to take care of things myself, so I bought a poisonous shampoo with reassuringly-medicalised packaging on my way home from school, and sat watching The Simpsons while I applied it with thin plastic gloves, like with peroxide. It worked very well.
There is a book in here somewhere that I will never write. The flea and the louse are dead now, more or less, because we have mastered them (the vampire is on its way out, too – you heard it here first). Dead metaphor. I expect that for most, our total victory over the parasite will not be a matter of equivocal feeling, and neither, would I argue, it ought be. Nobody likes typhus, after all. But as I hope I have demonstrated, our infestations have, historically, put us in our place, furnishing us with incontrovertible evidence of our links with the non-human world. And perhaps there is something serious lost in losing those.
The flea and louse are more significant parts of our collective history than the bright, adipose arms of genealogy forums or the hagiography of ancestors. It is snowing in London and my cat is sitting at the window, watching. I think of my lice awash, bereft in suds as the bathtub drains. I think of the fleas dormant in the crusted grass, and it makes my skin crawl. It will never not. They are waiting.
The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore is out now with Granta Books.
Image detail from Hooke’s Micrographia.