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The Collation

Early modern head lice remedies; or, dealing with pediculosis, Renaissance-style

With assistance by Beth DeBold

This post is dedicated to all those parents and caregivers who have gotten the dreaded phone call while at work: “your child has lice.” You have to drop everything and retrieve your child from school, promising not to return until all traces of nits and bugs have been eradicated. And then the fun begins: two weeks of nightly combing sessions to make sure they NEVER come back, even though you know they will (my tools of choice are a ribbed comb called the “LiceMeister” and an electric zapper called the “Robicomb”).

Yep, that’s a woodcut of a woman resignedly dealing with yet another lice infestation, in Hortus Sanitatis (third edition, Strasbourg, not after October 21, 1497). Folger INC H417 copy 1 Massey, leaf E6 recto. Click image to view in Luna.

But enough about my problems. Lice have been familiar companions to humans for a long time, and a recent search of a group of early modern English receipt book transcriptions (thank you Assistant Curator Beth DeBold!) turned up a number of early modern remedies to kill these pesky bugs. Thanks to our crowd of volunteers at Shakespeare’s World, a dedicated group of Folger docents, the indefatigable students and professors of the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), and the assiduous labor of Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) paleographer and vetter Sarah Powell, we are starting to be able to search the texts of some of our 90+ early modern English receipt books. We plan to release a corpus of these transcriptions as text files shortly, in advance of fully tagging them for publication.

What follows are some of your options if you were an early modern caregiver or parent overwhelmed by your child’s constant head scratching. First up, from a circa 1600 compilation of medical remedies, is a drink consisting of cheese whey and a little vinegar. Imbibed on “certain days,” it will cause all the lice to die, and “there will breed no more about you” (Folger MS V.a.140, fol. 4r). This recipe follows one for baldness, which involves rubbing a concoction made of the powder of an incinerated hedgehog and bear’s grease all over your head. Perhaps this is a good time to mention that you should not try these solutions at home.

“For to kill lyce,” from Folger MS V.a.140, fol. 3r. Click image to view the full opening in Luna.

for to kill lyce
Take the whaye that remayneth of cheese making
and put to it a little vinaigre, and Drinke of it
certayne Dayes : and all the lyce will Dye, and ther
will breede no more a boute yow.

Another remedy crops up nine leaves later in the same receipt book (V.a.140, fol. 13v), just in case the first one didn’t work. This one is for adult lice and nits (which are lice that haven’t yet hatched, for those of you uninitiated in the ways of lice infestation), and is a bit more advanced: Take some powdered scrapings from a red deer’s antlers (hartshorn); drink it and strew the powder on the head. The drinking of the powder stops the breeding, and the powder massage kills them on contact.

“To kill lise, and nittes in the heade,” from Folger MS V.a.140, fol. 13r. Click image to view the full opening in Luna.

To kill lise, and nittes in the
Take the pouder or scrapinge of Hartes horne, &
make the pacient to Drinke of it, and ther will no lise
nor nittes breede in his head, but if yow strowe the sayde
pouder vpon his heade, all the lise & nittes will die.

The ca. 1675 compiler of Folger MS V.a.21 has a totally different remedy. This recipe calls for a pennyworth of sneezing powder and a pennyworth of ginger beaten together and mixed into a little melted sweet butter. “Anoint” your child’s head with this mixture and it will “destroy” those lice. If the sneezing powder in question was similar to Hannah Woolley’s (Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight, 1675, p. 198)—a nose-wash of cloves, ginger, calamint, and white wine followed by a chaser-sniff of pyrethrum powder (chrysanthemums)—it just might work, since pyrethrum is a known insecticide.

“To destroy Lice,” from Folger MS V.a.21, p. 253. Click image to view full opening in Luna.

to destroy Lice
Take a pennieworth of Sneezing powder & as much
ginger & beate them both to small powder then
take a little sweet Butter & melt it & put in
& put in the affore said powders & put in the foresaid powders
& anoint the head therewith & it will destroy the

One more possibility comes from Folger MS V.b.363, p. 38, a receipt book compiled between circa 1679 and circa 1694. According to this compiler, simply beat the seeds of large wild angelica (which grows in meadows and by water-sides and is picked around Lammas time; that is, around harvest time in August) and sprinkle it in their heads. The lice in your loved ones’ heads will be killed “presently.”

“To kill lice in their heads presently,” from Folger MS V.b.363, p. 37. Click image to view full opening.

To Kill lice in their heads presently
beat a little of the seeds of large Wild Angelicoe (that grows
in Meadows or by Water sides) and sprincle it in their heads &
the seed is fit to be gathered about Lammas. the smell of the
plant & leaves are like angelica the stalk inclinging towards
a pale peach colour probatum.

Finally, I leave you with a haunting description of a louse from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (second ed., 1667):

This is a Creature so officious, that ’twill be known to every one at one time or other, so busie, and so impudent, that it will be intruding it self in every ones company, and so proud and aspiring withall, that it fears not to trample on the best, and affects nothing so much as a Crown; feeds and lives very high, and that makes it so saucy, as to pull any one by the ears that comes in its way, and will never be quiet till it has drawn blood: it is troubled at nothing so much as at a man that scratches his head, as knowing that man is plotting and contriving some mischief against it, and that makes it oftentime sculk into some meaner and lower place, and run behind a mans back, though it go very much against the hair; which ill conditions of it having made it better known then trusted, would exempt me from making any further description of it, did not my faithful Mercury, my Microscope, bring me other information of it.

Robert Hooke’s depiction of a louse seen under magnification, in Micrographia (London, 1667). Folger 140- 490f, folding insertion 1 after page 212: Schematic xxxv. Click image to see it in its full glory.

My head is starting to itch!

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