Courting Flea

For the Courtship Customs series...

I was reading a fascinating article in a 1998 National Geographic about the human ecosystem. That is: the ecosystem that thrives on the human surface.  It detailed our sometimes cozy relationship with bedbugs, head and body lice, follicle mites, scabies mites, dust mites, crab lice, fleas, as well as ticks, leeches, mosquitoes, various fungi from athlete’s foot to ringworm, and the fascinating botfly. It provided statistics such as that a square inch of exposed skin can host a hundred bacteria, while an armpit might have millions. I don’t recommend that you read it if you are susceptible to delusory parisitosis, which the article credits with causing both suicide and homicide.

There was, however, a paragraph about how, in the past, these creatures have represented intimacy to the point of being used in courtship:

European lovers of the 17th century sometimes wrote seduction poems about a girlfriend’s fleas. John Donne once petulantly complained that a flea, having bitten both girl and boy alike, “swells with one blood made of two/And alas this is more than we would do.”  A few gallant French lovers actually plucked a flea from their lady love and kept it as a pet in a tiny gold cage around their neck, where it could feed daily on their own blood. In Siberia, according to one story, an explorer was disconcerted to find that young women visiting his hut tossed lice at him; it turned out to be their way of expressing amorous intentions.

Clearly, this would not be a successful dating strategy today; for one thing, the human flea itself has almost vanished from modern homes. […]

Thank goodness for that! And aren’t you glad you don’t live in Siberia?

8 thoughts on “Courting Flea

  1. That poem has always given me the creeps. Certainly it has it’s comic/romantic/erotic element, but the imagery is just disturbing. Some things are best left out of the official canon of proper courtship behavior – or forgotten.

  2. I am about to vomit… that is the most disgusting thing I ever heard. I’m so glad we have progressed to more normal forms of courting like flowers and chocolates.

  3. Donne didn’t say he wanted the flea. He offered the image to suggest that the woman already had been violated to some extent through the bite, so she need not be standoffish and refuse his advances. That’s the argument there. Other seduction poems argue on another basis, but the point is always the same– you may as well give in.

  4. I don’t know. Tossing lice, would be a lot easier to detect than all the coy and subtle signals women send today. If they would throw things at me instead, then I might actually notice!

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