Poisonous Little Beasts

Last week, we had the announcement that the bacteria Yersinia pestis (i.e. modern plague) had been found in several seventeenth-century skeletons discovered during the Crossrail excavation at Liverpool Street. I have written before about the many people caught up in the devastating  outbreak of plague in London and Lara Thorpe has already summarized the recent findings rather well so I will not rake over them again here. (If you would like to read more, I hear there is an excellent new book out exploring the Great Plague).

What I will say, more generally, is that one of the biggest mysteries when studying the Great Plague is that there is not a single mention of the hundreds of dead rats that must surely have been strewn across the streets of London if flea-born Yersinia pestis had been the primary cause of the mass mortality of 1665. To address this ‘conundrum’ we of course need to think about the contemporaneous sources we use – would dead rats have been unusual/important enough to record?  Several years after the plague, the Earl of Rochester very casually refers to the many rats living in his Oxfordshire manor. It is one offhand comment within a substantial cache of correspondence, but without it we would never know about them.

This got me thinking about other creatures living during the Restoration period to have clawed (sorry) their way into posterity through the tiniest of archival references. Using Samuel Pepys’s Diary (because this is not a thorough survey and it is the easiest way), here are a few of my favourites:

Mice and Man

mice-picFor the majority of his diary-writing years, we know that Samuel Pepys resided at a premises on Seething Lane. What you may not know is that he shared his home with many many mice. The unwelcome house companions made themselves known shortly after Pepys and his wife moved in. On Monday 31 December 1660, Pepys writes how his servant Wayneman Birch had been given a cat from the Earl of Sandwich’s household to take back to their house – ‘we’, as Pepys explained, ‘being much troubled with mice’. Less than a month later, Pepys bought two mousetraps from his cousin Thomas Pepys, a turner based at St Paul’s Churchyard. Then, in August 1662, Pepys was writing in his study during the evening when ‘a mouse ran over my table’. He trapped the mouse on a shelf (yes, I’m struggling with that one too) so that he could deal with it the next day. A few years later, January 1665, Pepys was worried that his house was going to be looted and while lying in bed imagined that ‘every running mouse [was] really a thief’.

The King’s Dogs

King Charles II, with his dogs, receiving the first pineapple to be cultivated in England

In 1660, before Charles II had even touched dry land, his dogs were already causing a fracas (a word now irreparably fused to Jeremy Clarkson’s infamous hissy fit). Journeying to Dover, Pepys was in the same boat as one of the king’s pet dogs. He recorded how the dog did ‘shit the boat’, which made the diarist and his companions laugh heartily. It also prompted Pepys to muse that ‘a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are’. Well said.

Pretty soon after establishing himself at Whitehall, Charles II found that he was one dog short. His favourite had been stolen.  In 1660, the Mercurius Publicus featured the following advertisement:

‘We must call upon you again for a Black Dog between a greyhound and a spaniel, no white about him, onely a streak on his brest, and his tayl a little bobbed. It is His Majesties own Dog, and doubtless was stoln, for the dog was not born nor bred in England, and would never forsake His master. Whoesoever findes him may acquaint any at Whitehal for the Dog was better known at Court, than those who stole him. Will they never leave robbing his Majesty! Must he not keep a Dog? This dog’s place (though better than some imagine) is the only place which nobody offers to beg.’

Unfortunately, the problem of royal dognapping continued and many of the King’s favourite canines were stolen.

Monkey Business

The Earl of Rochester with his pet monkey

Early in Pepys’s diary there is a tantalising, albeit rather odd, reference to a monkey. His wife Elisabeth kept several pets, including a dog which Pepys had once threatened to ‘fling . . . out of window’ if it continued to shit in their house. In 1661, there is a hint that the Pepysian menagerie may have also included a monkey. Writing on 18 January of that year, Pepys declared: ‘At home found all well, but the monkey loose, which did anger me, and so I did strike her till she was almost dead, that they might make her fast again, which did still trouble me more’. There do not appear to be any other references to this poor creature in the diary.

The Great Cat Murderer

Another snippet of animal life illuminated by Pepys concerns a creature that I am going to name Dog Corleone. In 1661, the physician Dr John Williams found that he had a problem with cats preying upon his pigeons. To deter the feline predators, Williams acquired a pet dog. So thorough was the dog in exterminating cats that it even buried the poor things after killing them. With, as Williams explained to Pepys one day in mid-September, ‘so much care that they shall be quite covered; that if but the tip of the tail hangs out he will take up the cat again, and dig the hole deeper.’ Williams estimated that his blood-thirsty hound had killed over 100 cats.

(One of my favourite cat references in the diary comes during the Great Fire of London. Writing on Wednesday 5 September 1666, Pepys described seeing ‘a poor cat taken out of a hole in the chimney, joyning to the wall of the Exchange; with, the hair all burned off the body, and yet alive’.)

Now, back to plague. When writing 1666, I made a point of leaving a lengthy footnote relating to the latest plague research. I am no biologist, but I find the idea that the disease was transferred through both human lice and rodent fleas convincing. I am also of the school of thought that the disease transmuted into pneumonic plague. That said, I truly believe there is more research to come and await the peer-reviewed paper on these new discoveries eagerly.


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