Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Swarms of flies, and a holy exterminator

My images are of stained glass now in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Shrewsbury. The panels, purchased by the Reverend William Gorsuch Rowland in the second quarter of the 19th century, were originally in the Altenberger Dom (North Rhine, Westphalia). When the Abbey was suppressed in the secularisation of Germany in 1803, the windows were removed, and available for purchase by the Reverend.

The panels depict the life and some of the miracles of St Bernard of Clairvaux. St Bernard, especially during the headlong rush to catastrophe that the Second Crusade he so fervently promoted proved to be, had many miracles associated with him. We do not have here the lactation of St Bernard, when breast milk from a statue of the virgin flew into his eye and cured him of an eye infection, but what is presumably one of the lesser of the reputed 840 miracles, the miracle of the flies.

On July 11th 1121, St Bernard had gone to dedicate a new Abbey for his Cistercian Order at Foigny. It proved to be infested with flies, so the saint excommunicated the flies. and they were dead by the next morning.

Here, the saint pronounces his malediction. I love the stupefied Medieval faces. Equally good is the face of the chap tasked with sweeping out the bodies of the flies. An angel with a holy feather duster seems to have helped, but is letting the peasant chap get on with the dirty work:

Swarms of flies were of course taken as portents, like unusual atmospheric effects, landslides, lightning strikes, etc. Nobody would be so rude as to say to the Saint that these ephemeroptera usually died within hours.

EEBO provides this Royalist ballad of 1647. A swarm of flies in Bodmin is seen as a preludes to the plagues of Egypt that will be visited by the Lord upon the nation
Strange and true Newes of an Ocean of Flies dropping out of a Cloud, upon the Towne of Bodnam in Cornwall.

To the Tune of Cheevy Chase.
When Kings have lost their Reignes and Power, 
Then Clouds upon us judgements showre. 

Some talke of battailes in the aire, 
And Comets in the skies, 
But now wee·ll tell a tale more rare, 
Of great and monstrous flies. 

In Cornwall this strange sight was seen, 
At Bodman Towne by name, 
Which will be justified still 
By a Lawyer of great fame. 

At mid-day· when the skie was cleare, 
A thick cloud did arise, 
Which failing downe upon the earth, 
Dissolved into flies. 

The hell-bred Cloud did look so big, 
So black and did so loure, 
It could not rest untill her Panch 
Those flies all out did poure. 

They in such mighty numbers fell 
Upon the green grasse ground, 
And did so cover all the earth, 
That nought else could be found. 

Their numbers did increase so fast, 
Almost a whole houres space, 
That they a foot and more were seen, 
To cover all that place. 

No grasse, nor flowers for the time, 
Were seen for to appeare, 
The like was not in England knowne, 
God knowes this many a yeare. 

Their bodys green, their wings were white 
As it appeares most true, 
By Letters sent from Bodnam Towne, 
By those we never knew. 

These flies as soon as they were borne 
Fell dead upon the ground; 
And to say truth· they lay so thick, 
The like was never found. 

Which made the people all to muse, 
To see that gastly sight, 
Which did continue on the ground 
All that whole day and night. 

The second Part,
To the same Tune. 

So when the Lord was pleas'd to frowne, 
And shew his powerfull hand 
He rained Frogs and Lice upon 
All the Aegyptian land. 

All which was for their sinnes so great, 
So wicked, fowle and dire, 
They did deserve the judgement just 
Of Brimstone and of fire. 

And yet they never did rebell 
Against their King and Crowne· 
Nor had such vices in their streets 
As hath our London Towne, 

Who hath maintain'd this bloudy warre 
Against a Cause so just; 
And have destroyed their gracious Prince 
For to maintaine their lust. 

Wherefore repent you Citizens, 
And take you warning all· 
Lest that the Heavens in discontent 
In Thunder on you fall. 

In Lice and Locusts Wormes and Frogs, 
In Raine in Haile and Stormes· 
In Lightning Plague and Pestilence, 
In Poxes and in Hornes. 

Now if these Plagues you will prevent, 
Which will your corne destroy, 
See that you presently repent, 
And sing Vive le Roy. 

God grant us Peace, which will not be 
Unlesse our gracious King 
Enjoy his rights and dignities, 
His Queen and every thing. 

God send Sir Thomas Fairfax right, 
And send us our Areares, 
And bring the King to Towne againe 
Sans jealousies and feares. 

In Henry Jessey's 1660 pamphlet, The Lords loud call to England: being a true relation of some late, various, and wonderful judgments, or handy-works of God, by earthquake, lightening, whirlewind, great multitudes of toads and flyes, both hatchling toads and flies act of direct rebukes from heaven on a lord of the manor who allowed die-hard Puritans to be abused:

A Company of Christians going to a meeting, and at their private meeting at Fairford in Glocestershire, which is about four miles on this side Cirencester, (called Ciceter) on the 24. of Iune 1660. Being the first day of the week, they were much abused by some of that Town, in a rude manner.

The Lord of the Manor there stood looking on, and did not in the least suppress the rude multitude, but appeared rather to countenance them.

In the Evening of that same 24 day, there was seen coming up from the Mill-lane great multitudes of small Toads, they that saw them said, that there might have been taken up many Cowls full of them. And as they were going they divided themselves into two bodies. First, one Body, or Division of them, went to the Lord of the Mannors house, (which was about one Acers Length, from the place where they were first seen) They come up through his Orchard, and went under Illegible word Gate into the inward court, and some did indeavour to pre|vent their coming into his house, but could not, though they killed many of them. They Illegible word into his Kithin, and Cellar: and the next morning there went an honest man to the house, about business, and did see the servants looking on them, and took notice of them, that they lay thick on the ground, and being smal, judged they were many thousands of them.
And Secondly, The other Body or Division of the Toads, went to a Iustice of the peace his house, a little way off; and went into his Barn, to his amazement, there being by providence also an honest man the next morning, who saw the Toads in great abundance, and heard the Iustice say, that it was a judgment upon them for suffering the boyes to abuse those honest men in the Town, and no man can tell whence these Toads came.

About a Fortnight after in the same Town, these Christians were again sorely abused, and the next Friday fortnight after, there appeared in the Lord of the Manors Orchard, a great swarme of Flyes, about the bigness of Caddus Flies, with long wings; they that saw them said they might have taken up baskets of them, and the same day also, an honest Christian man saw the Lord of the Mannors Garden covered with these Flies, in heaps like unto swarms of Bees

This single sheet newsletter of 1675 is content to treat a swarm as a prodigy

Here, the gentle-spirited microscopist Jan Swammerdam describes his experience of the nymph of the mayfly, and below that, its unique double moult, from subimago to imago:

"Concerning the Nature of this Creature, I pretend to little experience thereof, only I can assure you that among all the diverse sorts of Insects I have been acquainted with, I never met with one better natured and more harmless than this; for how often or how much soever it is touched or handled, it seemeth always to be well pleased; and left at rest, it immediately betaketh to its work of making its Cell. Only I have ob|served in the smallest sort, that when they are handled somewhat too hard, they bend their head toward their breast, and thereby make themselves as it were stiffer: Among all its actions, none is more strange than the motion of its Gills, of which it hath on each side of its body
Six, which are moved so orderly and continually trembling, that it is admirable.

Being in the year 1670. in the Village Slouton by Amsterdam in the month of June, where as I walked towards the Evening through the Fields, I met with such an infinite number of small Insects somewhat bigger than Gnats, which rested on my body, that I was even covered therewith. Every one of these while resting on my body shed a thin Film, which done they immediately repaired again to the waters, where they, like the greater Ephemeron sport above the Surface of the water. The Original of these Insects is not much unlike that of our Ephemeron, for that they also live in Ditches and Trenches of water, which also at their set times Change by shedding two Skins; the one in the water, the other on Land.

Ephemeri vita, or, The natural history and anatomy of the Ephemeron, a fly that lives but five hours written originally in Low-Dutch by Jo. Swammerdam ... 1681

We still report a good swarming: