Paintings of Nit-Pickers

In the 17th Century, few Europeans lived without lice. As I mentioned in The Book of Deadly Animals, body lice can spread devastating diseases: 
One of the worst disease outbreaks in history was the epidemic typhus that erupted in the trenches during World War I. It begins to torment its victims with a high fever and a headache, proceeds to respiratory symptoms and a rash on the chest, and often goes as far as delirium and death. It killed three million people in Eastern Europe from 1914 to 1915. In fact, this disease has erupted in the wake of wars and natural disasters since the 15th century. By decimating armies, it has determined the outcomes of battles and entire wars, prompting some writers to call the body louse the most important animal in history.
A surprising number of paintings show lovers picking lice from each other, or mothers delousing their children. I'll concentrate on paintings of the latter category. The head lice the mothers are after don't share the body louse's habit of spreading disease; they're merely annoyances.

Quirijn van Brekelenkam: Woman Combing Her Child's Hair for Lice

Pieter de Hooch: Mother Delousing Her Child

Gerhard Ter Borch: Mother Ridding Her Child of Lice

Gerhard Ter Borch (again): The Family of the Stone-Grinder (notice what the mom's doing).

Bartolome Esteban Murillo: The Toilette

Gerhard Ter Borch, one more time. Just for variety, this time it's a kid ridding his dog of fleas, not lice.
(The Flea-Catcher) 

But back to the dangerous kind. Below is the poem I mentioned in The Book of Deadly Animals, an eyewitness account of soldiers hassled by lice in the trenches. Isaac Rosenberg was later killed in action at age 27.  

Louse Hunting

By Isaac Rosenberg

Nudes—stark and glistening,
Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces
And raging limbs
Whirl over the floor on fire.
For a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat, with oaths
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.
And soon the shirt was aflare
Over the candle he’d lit while we lay.

Then we all sprang up and stript
To hunt the verminous brood.
Soon like a demons’ pantomime
The place was raging.
See the silhouettes agape,
See the gibbering shadows
Mixed with the battled arms on the wall.
See gargantuan hooked fingers
Pluck in supreme flesh
To smutch supreme littleness.
See the merry limbs in hot Highland fling
Because some wizard vermin
Charmed from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music

Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.


  1. My favourite one is "The Toilette" by Murillo.
    As regards lice, in one of my favourite (Italian) comics: Zagor, in a story published in 2010, the hero fights against giant lice.
    If I remember correctly, there are no movies with giant lice.

    1. They might make for an interesting movie, considering their looks!

  2. From an Italian book about puzzle composing:
    "As told by Aristotle, some fishermen of the isle of Io a day told to Homer: ""What we have taken, we throw; what we have not taken, we hold". Homer was the most wise among men, but he did not understand and died for the discouragement of not having solved the hermetic aporia of fishermen. [...] It wasn't an aporia, it was a riddle that did not speak of fish caught but lice: fishermen were delouse themselves and obviously took on themselves only parasites that could not catch.

    1. Interesting. Were fishermen especially louse-ridden, I wonder?

  3. I don't think they were more louse-ridden than peasants, soldiers, shepherds etc.
    The hygienic conditions at that time were very poor, especially in the above-mentioned categories.


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