Saturday, September 23, 2006

Miraculous swarms of flies, 1675

I missed my favourite, large-size teacup this morning, and eventually found it upside down on my son's desk, imprisoning a wretched crane fly that had been blundering around in his room in the night.

They are currently swarming, not to any Biblical extent, but enough to keep popping up in the news:,,1876307,00.html

This took my thoughts to this, well, 'flyer' would be the appropriate term, of 1675, when London was hit by a genuinely prodigious swarm of insects: 'they seemed to be descending like Showers of Rain, to the great Wonder and Admiration of several Spectators, who for some considerable time stood to behold them as a great Prodigy'.

The main body seems to have drifted around London: 'this wonderful sight continued up and down from one Place to another till Night' ... 'These Insects fell down in such great Numbers in Southwark that in the Borough the Market people swept them off their Fruits, Meat, and other Commodities, by whole handfuls ... in the Gardens, at Sir John Oldcastle's near Islington, and the Long-Field, near Blooms-bury, the Flies fell down there in such swarms, that they swept them up by Pecks'.

The sheet unfortunately gives very little entomological detail: the flies, or their wings, were white, they made 'a great sort of Buzzing', the insects' wings were 'very long'. Perhaps the mention of the 'strange appearance' of the flies might refer to both their individual unfamiliarity as well as their numbers: 'the General Consternation they have put the Town in, has made the Prodigy the only Talk and Discourse of all People both in City, Town and Country.'

It doesn't sound much like a stray swarm of locusts, swept by some freak of the weather across Europe. The news sheet has no room for speculation, and is almost surprisingly un-apocalyptic, no obvious Biblical identification is made. Locusts would surely have prompted some remark about the size of the insect; these suggested rain and snow, and were swept up in handfuls. A 'Prodigy', but, by this date, nothing to suggest that heaven is sending a message, it is just one of those odd things that happen. These days, we would be in a pother about it as a sign of global warming, 'apocalypse-nouveau'.

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