DEADLY COMPANION: LOUSE INFESTATION AT SEVENTEENTH CENTURY EMLAGH, COUNTY KERRY

Posted on June 12, 2017

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The burial of a young girl was found at Emlagh townland, near Dingle, County Kerry (Shee and O’Kelly, 1966). This girl was a bog body, whose hair, skin, and clothes were preserved naturally within a peat bog. Her clothing was a distinctly medieval style gown. Clothing design was probably slow to evolve in this part of Ireland. She also had a small bag which contained a comb and a little ball. The anaerobic conditions of the bog combined with highly acidic water and low temperature, preserved the corpse, as well as the skin.

One of two lice from Emlagh Co Kerry C power 1985 001

Figure 1. LOUSE NUMBER 1. MAGNIFIED.

During the 1980’s, when I was working in the Department of Archaeology, University College, Cork, I had been informed that the comb was to be cleaned. I asked if I could examine this item, prior to the clean, for any evidence of parasites. I found two fragments of body lice. It was not possible to determine whether these represented one louse, or parts of two lice.

Louse is the common name which covers numerous wingless biting or sucking insects of the order Anoplura, on various animals, including humans. This includes Pediculus humanis captis (human head louse), Pediculus humanus corporus (human body louse), pthirus pubis (human crab/pubic louse).

 

An adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed, has 6 legs (each with claws), and is tan to greyish-white. Female lice are usually bigger than males and can lay up to eight nits, or eggs, per day. The eggs are cemented to the base of the hair shaft nearest the skin; they take about one week to hatch. Several times a day the louse feeds, and resides close to the skin to maintain its body temperature. When off the host, and without a blood meal, the louse will die within one to two days. Adult lice can live up to thirty days on a human body. Body lice are spread through direct contact with a person who has body lice or through contact with the clothing or bedding that have been in contact with an infested person.

Recent genetic studies have shown that the human pubic louse originated from gorilla lice more than three million years ago. This suggests that both gorillas and humans lived in close proximity at some time in the past. This may have happened when both species used the same habitat, not necessarily at the same time. Between 80,000 and 170,000 years ago, clothing lice diverged from head lice. This is probably when humans began wearing clothing.

Lice were common in the past and associated with filth and overcrowding. This parasite is also a carrier of typhus. In times of particular hardship, such as famine and war, lice and hence typhus (Richettssia prowazek) were rife. Typhus was one of the greatest killers in human history. With the introduction of insecticides (DDT, Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), in particular insecticidal shampoo, the louse was controlled. However in recent times, the louse has become resistant to these insecticides. Today the head louse is a common problem in schools. Infestations affect all social and economic levels.

Did this girl die from typhus? It is not possible to determine this. However, it cannot be ruled out either. Typhus was a commonly occurring disease in Irish history. William Petty, in his survey (of 1872) estimated that 618,000 people died in Ireland, forty per cent of the country’s pre-war population. Of about one third of those who died, war-related disease, such as typhus was responsible. A death from typhus began with an agonising headache, fever, and a rash, followed by delirium. Typhus in Greek means “smoky” or “hazy.” In the final stage gangrene would sometimes take place.

 

2 THE LOUSE FROM EMLAGH COUNTY KERRY CATRYN POWER 001

Plate 2. LOUSE 2 MAGNIFIED.

A louse associated with the dog, is the intermediate host of the tapeworm. Robert Burn wrote a poem in 1785 ‘To a Louse’, about a louse on the bonnet of a local
beauty, while she sits in church. She proudly thinks the congregation is looking at her because of her appearance, with her fine lace bonnet, rather than the reality of an unhygienic vermin on her person.

 

‘TO A LOUSE’ BY ROBERT BYRNE
Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.
Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her –
Sae fine a lady?
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.
Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whaur horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.
Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight;
Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
Till ye’ve got on it –
The verra tapmost, tow’rin height
O’ Miss’ bonnet.
My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ grey as ony groset:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t,
Wad dress your droddum.
I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?
O Jenny, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin:
Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

 
REFERENCE
Shee, E.A. & O’Kelly, M.J. 1966. A clothed burial from Emlagh, near Dingle, Co. Kerry.
71, 81–91, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society.

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