“Whenever there has been talk of exterminating rats, others, who were not rats, have been exterminated.” – Gunter Grass
Rats suffer a lot of indignities. Persecution by cats. Forced maze running. Experimental conditioning. Gene splicing. Cosmetic testing with a summer color pallete when everyone knows they are an autumn. It’s almost more than any self-respecting vermin can take. From poisons to pipers to poems, mankind has invested a lot of effort in the attempted eradication of the humble Rattus genus, but rats were here before us, and rats will be here long after we’re gone, no matter how badly we screw up the ecosystem. Case in point, when we started exploding nuclear bombs on the western Pacific atoll of Engebi, and more or less wiping out all flora and fauna, scientists who inspected the island several years later confirmed that everything from the soil to the plants to the local marine life were still dangerously radioactive and ready to give up the ghost, if they survived at all. Except the rats, who seemed to be thriving. “Not maimed or genetically deformed creatures, but robust rodents so in tune with their environment that their life spans were longer than average” (Hendrickson, 1983, p1). Over the millennia, we’ve tried reasoning with the rat. We’ve tried subsidizing the genocidal aggression of cats. We’ve even tried reading them poetry. Shakespeare pointed this out when As You Like It’s Rosalind noted, “I was never so be-rhymed since, Pythagoras’ time, that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember”, mentioning the traditional Celtic method of rat control that involved reciting rat-friendly poems to entice the furry fiends to find other homes. As rats have routinely ignored our protestations, over time we have on occasion resorted to the dubious alternatives of notarized letters to legal (and ecclesiastical) prosecution. The rats invariably refuse to cut a deal.
As many of our attempts to eradicate the rat over the years have met with abject failure, at least in medieval France, Ireland, Scotland, and England we have attempted to drive them to suicide by forcing them to endure bad poetry. A popular charm from Scotland believed to be helpful in evicting rodents from a home was, “Ratton and mouse/Lea’ the puir woman’s house/Gang awa’ owre by to ‘e mill/And there ane and a’ ye’u get your fill”. Quite predictably, the literary aesthetics of rats are not particularly well-developed, and thus this incantation was not known to be overly effective. As we often do when things don’t go our way, humans turned to the courts, at least in 16th Century France. 16th Century Burgundy was having a bit of a problem with rats wreaking havoc on the local cash crop of barley. Judicial proceedings were initiated, but unfortunately, then as now, there is always a lawyer willing to take up the cause of the rats. Enter Bartholomew Chassenee.
It is said that Bartholomew Chassenee, a distinguished French jurist of the sixteenth century (born at Issy-l’Eveque in 1480), made his reputation at the bar as counsel for some rats, which had been put on trial before the ecclesiastical court of Autun on the charge of having feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed the barley-crop of that province. On complaint formally presented by the magistracy, the official or bishop’s vicar, who exercised jurisdiction in such cases, cited the culprits to appear on a certain day and appointed Chassende to defend them. In view of the bad repute and notorious guilt of his clients, Chassenee was forced to employ all sorts of legal shifts and chicane, dilatory pleas and other technical objections, hoping thereby to find some loophole in the meshes of the law, through which the accused might escape, or at least to defer and mitigate the sentence of the judge. He urged, in the first place, that inasmuch as the defendants were dispersed over a large tract of country and dwelt in numerous villages, a single summons was insufficient to notify them all; he succeeded, therefore, in obtaining a second citation, to be published from the pulpits of all the parishes inhabited by the said rats. At the expiration of the considerable time which elapsed before this order could be carried into effect and the proclamation be duly made, he excused the default or non-appearance of his clients on the ground of the length and difficulty of the journey and the serious perils which attended it, owing to the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats, who watched all their movements, and, with fell intent, lay in wait for them at every corner and passage. On this point Chassenee addressed the court at some length, in order to show that if a person be cited to appear at a place, to which he cannot come with safety, he may exercise the right of appeal and refuse to obey the writ, even though such appeal be expressly precluded in the summons. The point was argued as seriously as though it were a question of family feud between Capulet and Montague in Verona or Colonna and Orsini in Rome (Evans, 1906, p18-19).
It would seem that not even the weight of the judiciary could be brought to bear on rats, as numerous legal precedents were set that precluded their appearance in court. We lost hope of ever truly ridding ourselves of the rat, as he has clearly outwitted and outmaneuvered us over the years. The sad truth is that we were forced, even in early 19th Century New England to address plaintive missives to them requesting their departure, and suggesting specific lodgings they might consider for more luxurious accommodations, and failing that made empty threats that the rats simply mocked, as they have for thousands of years.
In New England, as well as in other parts of the United States, it is still believed, by certain persons, that if a house is infested with rats, these can be exiled by the simple process of writing them a letter, in which they are recommended to depart, and make their abode in another locality. The letter should indicate precisely the habitation to which they are assigned, and the road to be taken, and should contain such representations of the advantages of the change as may be supposed to affect the intelligence of the animal in question. This method of freeing a house from its domestic pests is well known, but is commonly regarded as a jest. As in most such cases, however, what is supposed to be mere humor is, in fact, the survival of a perfectly serious and very ancient usage. This custom, still existing in retired places, is illustrated by the following document, the genuineness of which may be relied on. The country house of a gentleman, whose permanent home in Boston, being infested by rats, the owner proposed to use poison; but the care-taker, who was in charge of the empty house, represented that there was a better way, namely, to address an epistle to the creatures; he prepared a letter, of which the following is a reproduction: “Maine, October 31,1888. Messrs. Rats and Co., — Having taken quite a deep interest in your welfare in regard to your winter quarters I thought I would drop you a few lines which might be of some considerable benefit to you in the future seeing that you have pitched your winter quarters at the summer residence of No. 1 Seaview Street, I wish to inform you that you will be very much disturbed during cold winter months as I am expecting to be at work through all parts of the house, shall take down ceilings, take up floors, and clean out every substance that would serve to make you comfortable, likewise there will be nothing left for you to feed on, as I shall remove every eatable substance; so you had better take up your abode elsewhere. I will here refer you to the farm of No. 6 Incubator Street, where you will find a splendid cellar well filled with vegetations of (all) kinds besides a shed leading to a barn, with a good supply of grain, where you can live snug and happy. Shall do you no harm if you heed to my advice; but if not, shall employ ‘Rough on Rats’” (Newell, 1892, p22-23).
Yet rats remain steadfast despite outright warfare, the application of the occult, appeals to the legal system, and the last resort, asking nicely. They know our threats are impotent. They eat almost anything, have extraordinary birth rates, and gnaw through concrete and steel sheeting. They sneer at us from subway tracks and sewers, rifling through our garbage (filing incriminating materials for later use, if we attempt to use the courts against them ever again). We are powerless before the rat, and one day he may use our own techniques against us. Heed the words of Dimitris Mita who warned, “The flute of the Pied Piper of Hamelin has never left us and it is essential that we train our ear to detect its false notes because in our case the flute is being played by the rats”.
Hendrickson, Robert. More Cunning than Man: A Complete History of the Rat and its Role in Human Civilization. New York: Kensington Press, 1983.
Newell, William Wells. “Conjuring Rats”. American Folklore Society. Journal of American Folklore v5. Washington: American Folklore Society, 1892.
Evans, E. P. 1831-1917. The Criminal Prosecution And Capital Punishment of Animals. New York: Dutton, 1906.