Wednesday, 4 May 2005

Fleas & Hygiene in Anglo-Saxon Britain

In Anglo-Saxon England, around the year 1000 A.D., fleas were as much a problem as they had ever been. There were various suggestions on how to get rid of them, of which some of the most amusing were to lock the flea-ridden clothes of the person inside a chest or to put sheepskins around the infested bed. The fleas would hopefully jump onto the whitish sheepskin and thus allow the tormented person to squish them to death.

As with the Elizabethans, the anglo-Saxons didn't really believe in washing their bodies much. In fact, monks were said to have a maximum of five baths a year, and that was considered to be overdoing it. It appears that at least one commentator of the time may have cottoned on to something when he observed that the Danish habit of bathing and combing the hair every Saturday seemed to score the Danish men points with the women.

Of course, there was no concept of hygiene as we know it. A document of the time advises that if some food fell off your plate by accident, the best thing you could do was to pick it up, make the sign of the cross, season it well and pop it into your mouth. Clearly, the sign of the cross was the protection from anything you wished to be protected from...

A great book on how people lived then.


John Doom said...

Thank you. I love history, and your blog just became one of my favourites.

Alterior said...

You're very welcome! :-))))
It is so nice to know that there are people out there who love history as much as I do.


gettinggrip said...


Alterior said...

It is so nice to be able to share all these interesting bits of history with you all! :-))))


Ollie B said...

Alterior, here's one for you have any inkling as to how our forebears discovered the link between fleas and bubonic plague? Was it a gradual putting together of two and two (e.g emerging realisation that those who occupied cleaner environments not infested with rats were less affected by plague becoming widely accepted) or was it the discovery of one person or group? Either way, when was the vital link discovered and under what circumstances?

Alterior said...

Dear ollie b,

Unfortunately the connection between the plague and rat fleas was not made when it mattered, i.e. when there were epidemics. This was discovered in the 20th century.
There are some theories going round that those plague epidemics, may have indeed been a virus we do not know of nowadays, and not the bubonic plague.