How vermin went from being part of everyone's life to a mark of disease, filth, and lower status.
For most of our time on this planet, vermin were considered humanity's common inheritance. Fleas, lice, bedbugs, and rats were universal scourges, as pervasive as hunger or cold, at home in both palaces and hovels. But with the spread of microscopic close-ups of these creatures, the beginnings of sanitary standards, and the rising belief that cleanliness equalled class, vermin began to provide a way to scratch a different itch: the need to feel superior, and to justify the exploitation of those pronounced ethnically – and entomologically – inferior.
In Getting Under Our Skin, Lisa T. Sarasohn tells the fascinating story of how vermin came to signify the individuals and classes that society impugns and ostracizes. How did these creatures go from annoyance to social stigma? And how did people think verminous become considered almost a species of vermin themselves? Focusing on Great Britain and North America, Sarasohn explains how the label "vermin" makes dehumanization and violence possible. She describes how Cromwellians in Ireland and US cavalry on the American frontier both justified slaughter by warning "Nits grow into lice". Nazis not only labelled Jews as vermin, they used insecticides in the gas chambers to kill them during the Holocaust.
Concentrating on the insects living in our bodies, clothes, and beds, Sarasohn also looks at rats and their social impact. Besides their powerful symbolic status in all cultures, rats' endurance challenges all human pretensions. From eighteenth-century London merchants anointing their carved bedsteads with roasted cat to repel bedbugs to modern-day hedge fund managers hoping neighbours won't notice exterminators in their penthouses, the studies in this book reveal that vermin continue to fuel our prejudices and threaten our status. Getting Under Our Skin will appeal to cultural historians, naturalists, and to anyone who has ever scratched – and then gazed in horror.
Introduction: Getting Under Our Skins: Vermin in History
1. "That Nauseous Venomous Insect": Bed Bugs in Early Modern Britain
2. Bed Bugs Creeping Through Modern Times
3. Praying Lice: Creeping into Religion, Science and Sexuality
4. Lousy Societies: Infesting the Lower Classes and Foreigners
5. THe Perils of Lice in the Modern World
6. The Flea in Humanity's Ear
7. Modern Fleas: Literal and Linguistic Weapons
8. Attacking Rodents: Rats in Early Modern Times
9. The Two Cultures of Rats: 1800-2020
Conclusion: The Power of Vermin
Lisa T. Sarasohn is professor emerita of history at Oregon State University. She is the author of Gassendi's Ethics: Freedom in a Mechanistic Universe and The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy during the Scientific Revolution.