Wild Things: Rats in early modern life and Shakespeare’s plays

On Saturday, January 25, the Lunar New Year will mark the beginning of the Year of the Rat. According to legend, the Jade Emperor held a race for the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac to determine their order. The rat tricked the much faster ox into carrying him on his back. Then, just as the ox was about to clear the finish line, the rat jumped ahead, securing his place as the first animal of the zodiac. It’s no surprise, then, that people born in the Year of the Rat are said to be clever and resourceful, traits that early modern Europeans also saw in these endlessly fascinating, eternally troublesome little animals.

Text about rats and illustration of a rat
Edward Topsell. The historie of foure-footed beastes. 1607. p. 519. Folger STC 24123 Copy 2

In his 1607 book Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, our old friend Edward Topsell calls the rat the “great domesticall Mouse,” claiming that rats are like mice in being “evil, apt to steale, incideous, and deceitful” (traits that Hamlet may be thinking of when he stabs Polonoius behind the arras, crying, “A rat, a rat!”). The only notable difference in behavior between the two is that of degree: rats are “more noysome then the little Mouse, for they live by stealth, and feed upon the same meat that they feede upon, and therefore as they exceede in quantity, so they devoure more, and doe farre more harme” (519-520).

Topsell notes that rats and mice love human food, especially bread, corn and grain, and—as we still see in popular descriptions of rodents—cheese, and that they

dwell in houses of men, especially neare supping and dyning roomes, kitchins or larders . . . where any meat is stirring. And they make themselves places of aboade by gnawing with their teeth, if they finde not convenient lodginges prepared to their hand . . . and finding any cubbards, wood, or such like hard matter, to withstand his purpose, and hinder his passage, it ceaseth not to weary it selfe with gnawing, untill it obtaine the purpose. (505)

Illustration of Aesop's fable of the country mouse and the city mouse
In this depiction of Aesop’s fable of the city mouse and the country mouse, “The City Mouse invites her Country Guest, to tast the daintyes of a Citty feast.” But the country mouse is so disturbed by the frequent interruptions of the human inhabitants of the household that he loses his appetite. (Folger A703)

This interest in human food was a huge problem for early modern Europeans (just as it’s a problem for many city dwellers today!). Not only could rats and mice decimate food stores, they could also make people sick. Most famously, as we know today, rats spread the plague by transferring fleas that carried the disease to humans. Early modern Europeans didn’t know that, but they did know that rodents could make people sick in other ways. According to Topsell, “The eating of bread or other meate which is bitten by Mice doth encrease in men and children a certaine disease in their face . . . And in their flesh, at the rootes of the nails of their fingers certaine hard bunches” (508).

In her recent blog post about food scarcity in the early 1600s, Lauren Shook notes that in many of the English sermons addressing this issue, ministers point to the wastefulness of hoarding grain in granaries where rats and mice can eat it, instead of selling or giving it to the poor. In his fiery sermon The Curse of the Corne-horders (1631), Charles Fitz-Geffrey asks this very pointed question: “What then shall become of them who are kinder to Rats and Mice, than to their Christian brethren, being contented that vile vermine shall devoure that for nothing, which poore Christians cannot get of them for money?” (6) (See Shook’s post for one particularly graphic answer!)

Rats were also a problem for gardens. According to The Compleat English and French vermin-killer, an 18th-century extermination manual, rats and mice “are great Lovers of Artichokes, and will come to them in troops” (12). To prevent this, the author suggests wrapping wool around the plant’s roots. If that doesn’t work, hog’s dung or ashes from a burned fig tree should do the trick.

De cierlycke voorsyndinge aller tafel-gerechten. 1664. page 91 – artichoke. TX 885 C5 1664 Cage

Finally, rats and mice could destroy books. To prevent this, The Compleat English and French vermin-killer suggests that printers put an infusion of wormwood into their printing ink, promising that if they do so, rats and mice “will never eat the Letters” (12). Wormwood is a bitter herb, most famously used to make absinthe. Nursing women were also encouraged to use wormwood to help wean babies, which Juliet’s nurse alludes to in Romeo and Juliet. That may have worked (although we don’t suggest it). Whether wormwood helps to preserve books from rodent damage, however, is still an open question.

An example of damage from rats or mice
Rodents have eaten away the bottom edge of this document, an account of Sir William More’s holdings at Blackfriars neighborhood of London. (Folger L.b.454.)

Early modern Europeans used various means to combat these wily creatures. These included physical traps, as Shakespeare’s audiences would have been thinking of when Hamlet famously calls his stratagem to catch Claudius “The Mousetrap.” Poison (also called bane or ratsbane) was also a common method of killing rodents. Early in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Claudio—imprisoned for impregnating his fiancé before their legal marriage—compares the human inability to resist sin to a rat’s urge to eat poison:

Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that raven down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die. (1.2.125-127)

When it came to pests, however, early modern Europeans had more than just rats and mice to contend with. Many of the household manuals in the Folger collection offer suggestions for how to kill vermin, a category that could refer to a surprising number of species. The title alone of The Compleat English and French vermin-killer gets at this variety, promising readers a ready way to destroy bugs, lice, fleas, moles, adders, badgers, birds of all sorts, ducks, earwigs, flies, fish, foxes, frogs, gnats, mice, otters, pismires, pole-cats, rabbets, rats, snakes, scorpions, snails, spiders, toads, wants or moles, wasps, weasles, worms in houses, gardens, &c. Because of their proximity to humans, however, rats and mice were particularly intimate foes, described with both loathing and a surprising amount of imagination. Unlike many of the field animals listed in the vermin-killing manuals, rodents live in and around human homes; without us, they would not exist in the numbers they do. We provide them with food and shelter despite our best efforts, and they mirror our social lives in microcosm.

Book with instructions on how to kill rats
The Compleat English and French vermin-killer. Folger 230- 673q.

In a discourse on rat and mouse traps—many of which are terribly cruel, as they are intended to frighten away the other vermin—Topsell pauses to tell a story of rodent kindness:

so also is their loue to be commended one to another, for falling into a vessell of Water or other deepe thing . . . out of which they cannot ascend againe of themselves, they help one another, by letting downe their tailes, and if their tailes be to short, then they lengthen them by this meanes, they take one anothers taile in their mouth, and so hang two or 3 in length untill the Mouse which was fallen downe take hold on the neathermost, which being performed, they al of them draw her out . . . (507)

Stories such as these, in which rodents work together to escape human traps, abound in early modern texts. And even if the Barrel of Monkeys-esque scenario Topsell describes may seem far-fetched, the notion that rodents feel empathy is not. In 2011, neurobiologists from the University of Chicago published an experiment they had conducted in which rats worked to free trapped cage mates, even when there was a distracting pile of chocolate chips nearby. “And thus,” as Topsell says, “hath nature graunted that to them which is denyed to many men . . . namely to love, and to be wise both together (507).

Speaking of tasty treats, next month on Wild Things, we’ll look at an animal that was famously fond of apples and grapes (and had a good trick for carrying them home). Let us know your guesses in the comments!