Sigurd’s Herbs

Pest Control In The Middle Ages

A pest is a creature that causes in convenience, discomfort, or damage to humans and their goods, because of this we have always tried to find ways to rid ourselves of these ever-present creatures. Throughout history this quest has led to a huge range of pest destroying traps and concoctions, some of these proved quite effective, others…well, they show that human imagination is an age-old attribute.

These are the bane of anyone trying to store anything even remotely edible and methods for their control are quite common throughout history. In the 14th century manuscript ‘Le Menagier de Paris’ the author suggests several ways to kill them:

'By having a good supply of cats, second by rat traps and mouse traps; third by traps made of small planks propped up on sticks, which good servants make; fourth, by making cakes of fried cheese and powdered aconite and putting these in their holes where they have nothing to drink; fifth if you cant keep them from finding something to drink, it is well to cut little pieces of spurge [related to poinsettia] and, then if they drink they will soon swell up and die; sixth take one ounce of aconite, two ounces of good arsenic ,a quarter of a pound of pork fat , a pound of wheat flour , and four eggs . Make a bread of this, cook it in the oven, cut it in strips, and fasten it down with a nail.’

While some of these methods are gruesome, they are probably no worse than many of the commercially available poisons of today.

Most often, birds were an agricultural pest, and small children were frequently given the task of scaring birds off the crops while older children would attack birds with slingshots and stones. The ubiquitous scarecrow didn’t appear until the 16th century in Europe, originally it consisted of a dead bird hanging from a post in the middle of the field.

My absolute favourite pest repelling method has to be from Thomas Hills ‘The Gardeners Labyrinth’ where it says:

“Neither the weasel or the Squirrel, will after tasting garlic, presume to bite any fowls”.

Hill suggests sprinkling the birds with garlic each night to prevent attacks by these creatures. For me this conjures up images of hollow oak trees stacked with acorns and chickens. Rotten crayfish are also suggested as an effective means to repel some pests. Many of these methods are not really worth trying, sure some of them contain poisons that work but arsenic isn’t something most people would want to try. Scarecrows still work although I would suggest a more modern type minus the dead bird. The use of ash to stop slugs and snails eating plants is one of the ‘Le Menagier de Paris’s’ suggestions that works, the ashes are uncomfortable for the snail to cross so they turn around and go back.

Menagier de Paris. A medieval; housekeeping in the 14th century: Tanya Bayard. Harper Perennial 1992.
Hill Thomas, The gardeners Labyrinth 1590 Edited by Mabey Richard Oxford University Press 1987. ISBN 019 217763 x
Huxley Anthony, An Illustrated history of Gardening, Paddington Press 1978ISBN 0333 35149 5