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Getting Under Our Skin

The Cultural and Social History of Vermin

Lisa T. Sarasohn

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How vermin went from being part of everyone's life to a mark of disease, filth, and lower status.

For most of our time on this planet, vermin were considered humanity's common inheritance. Fleas, lice, bedbugs, and rats were universal scourges, as pervasive as hunger or cold, at home in both palaces and hovels. But with the spread of microscopic close-ups of these creatures, the beginnings of sanitary standards, and the rising belief that cleanliness equaled class, vermin began to provide a way to scratch a different itch: the need to feel superior, and to justify the exploitation of those…

How vermin went from being part of everyone's life to a mark of disease, filth, and lower status.

For most of our time on this planet, vermin were considered humanity's common inheritance. Fleas, lice, bedbugs, and rats were universal scourges, as pervasive as hunger or cold, at home in both palaces and hovels. But with the spread of microscopic close-ups of these creatures, the beginnings of sanitary standards, and the rising belief that cleanliness equaled class, vermin began to provide a way to scratch a different itch: the need to feel superior, and to justify the exploitation of those pronounced ethnically—and entomologically—inferior.

In Getting Under Our Skin, Lisa T. Sarasohn tells the fascinating story of how vermin came to signify the individuals and classes that society impugns and ostracizes. How did these creatures go from annoyance to social stigma? And how did people thought verminous become considered almost a species of vermin themselves? Focusing on Great Britain and North America, Sarasohn explains how the label "vermin" makes dehumanization and violence possible. She describes how Cromwellians in Ireland and US cavalry on the American frontier both justified slaughter by warning "Nits grow into lice." Nazis not only labeled Jews as vermin, they used insecticides in the gas chambers to kill them during the Holocaust.

Concentrating on the insects living in our bodies, clothes, and beds, Sarasohn also looks at rats and their social impact. Besides their powerful symbolic status in all cultures, rats' endurance challenges all human pretentions. From eighteenth-century London merchants anointing their carved bedsteads with roasted cat to repel bedbugs to modern-day hedge fund managers hoping neighbors won't notice exterminators in their penthouses, the studies in this book reveal that vermin continue to fuel our prejudices and threaten our status. Getting Under Our Skin will appeal to cultural historians, naturalists, and to anyone who has ever scratched—and then gazed in horror.

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Getting Under Our Skin

Lisa T. Sarasohn

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Reviews

Reviews

Getting Under Our Skin is a first: a long durée history of the creatures that have infested bodies and homes, provoking fear and disgust and haunting the imagination. Thoroughly researched and compellingly written, Lisa Sarasohn's book shows the very best of the new interspecies histories.

With a colorful cast of characters that includes the nasty critters that gnaw, bite, and torment us as well as the scientists and exterminators who waged war against them, this rich cultural history puts in perspective the body's vulnerability to invasion from outside threats, from the Black Death to COVID-19, and tells a new story of how we became modern.

A grand tour through hundreds of years of human interactions with vermin of all sorts, this cornucopia of history, science, literature, popular culture, and political satire will take you places you never thought of going.

At turns amusing and appalling, Sarasohn's engaging book warns us against the danger of equating cleanliness and godliness, and shows how describing people as bedbugs, fleas—and especially lice and rats—has had deplorable and horrific consequences.

About

Book Details

Publication Date
Status
Available
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
296
ISBN
9781421441382
Illustration Description
33 b&w illus.
Table of Contents

Introduction: Getting Under Our Skins: Vermin in History
1. "That Nauseous Venomous Insect": Bed Bugs in Early Modern Britain
2. Bed Bugs Creeping Through Modern Times
3. Praying Lice: Creeping into

Introduction: Getting Under Our Skins: Vermin in History
1. "That Nauseous Venomous Insect": Bed Bugs in Early Modern Britain
2. Bed Bugs Creeping Through Modern Times
3. Praying Lice: Creeping into Religion, Science and Sexuality
4. Lousy Societies: Infesting the Lower Classes and Foreigners
5. THe Perils of Lice in the Modern World
6. The Flea in Humanity's Ear
7. Modern Fleas: Literal and Linguistic Weapons
8. Attacking Rodents: Rats in Early Modern Times
9. The Two Cultures of Rats: 1800-2020
Conclusion: The Power of Vermin

Author Bio
Lisa T. Sarasohn
Featured Contributor

Lisa T. Sarasohn

Lisa T. Sarasohn is professor emerita of history at Oregon State University. She is the author of Gassendi's Ethics: Freedom in a Mechanistic Universe and The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy during the Scientific Revolution.