Posted by: kljolly | September 5, 2014


Thinking of Aldred’s cat got me thinking of vermin, as in the rodent Panchiel caught in the ale cask.  That, and the ISAS 2015 Glasgow conference theme of everyday life inspired me this week to look into what kind of vermin troubled the Anglo-Saxons.  Previous work on medical texts and prayerbooks addressing afflictions of the human body, their animals, and their fields gave me a general sense of the kinds of critters that provoked a remedy or protective prayer:  worms, flying things, and rodents.

I spent the day trying to track down vocabulary for rodents and other small mammals, using a combination of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the Corpus of Old English texts, the Old English dictionaries, as well as Latin dictionaries, and even the UK Natural History Museum index (which gloriously has Welsh and Gaelic as well as English!) to figure out what critters might be there.

The main issue I struck was the relative rarity of OE ræt, with only one instance and that in a glossary translating Lat. raturus.  Is there another Old English word for rat, or was it included under another generic term for rodent, like mus?


black rat

Certainly the black rat (Rattus rattus, of plague fame) was in the British Isles by at least the third century C.E., based on archaeological findings, and perhaps earlier (credit the Romans).  Oliver Rackham (The Illustrated History of the Countryside, p. 23) notes that the brown Norwegian rat came later.  The black rat is slimmer and has a longer tail, so while it might seem long at 13-18 inches, more than half of that is tail.  It comes in various shades of black and brown with a lighter underside.  [Confession: I chose this cuter picture because I had a pet rat, of the white lab variety, when I was a child].

In modern (Linnaeus) taxonomy, rattus rattus is in order rodentia, family muridae.   In classical Latin (Lewis and Short), mus (pl. mures) can refer to either a mouse or a rat, as well as a sable, marten, or ermine.  The same may be true for Old English mus, a more commonly attested word in the Old English corpus.

OE mus shows up, along with wesle (weasel), in the penitentials as unclean contact for which penance must be done:  eating the communion bread, soiling the hands, or fallen (dead) into one’s drink.  Animal blood of various kinds, unwashed off, is offensive, although mouse blood does show up in a Leechbook  remedy (III.25) for warts, combined with dog piss.

I also investigated shrew, mole, and vole, as well as hedgehog.

Shrew is an Old English rooted word (scréawa), used to gloss mus araneus or musiranus (although in Linnaeus, the shrew is sorex araneus, order insectivora, family soricidae).  Curiously, scréawa has no counterparts in other Germanic languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although it could be related to a root word meaning “cut,” sceorfan. OE scirfe-mús glosses Lat. sorex.  So while modern taxonomy differentiates rodentia muridae from insectivora soricidae, the Anglo-Saxons probably saw the shrew, rat, and mouse as more closely related, if not interchangeable pests.



Vole (another rodentia muridae) is not attested in Old English that I can find, although tantalizingly the word does derive from Norwegian vollmus or Icelandic vallamus, according to the OED.  Unfortunately, the earliest instance of vole in English occurs in an 1804 history of the Orkneys.  Note, however, the generic use of mus with modifiers, suggesting that mus functioned as a generic category.  I am not sure when mouse became limited to just the varieties of rodentia muridae (common, field,  and other mice) we think of as different from a rat, shrew, or mole.

Mole (genus talpa, order insectivora, family talpidae): like vole, the word mole is not attested in Old English, although it is found in other Germanic languages [it perhaps shows up in some English place and person names (Moll-)].   Apparently the Anglo-Saxons did have another word for the critters, wand (wond) or wandeweorp, glossing Lat. talpa or palpo.  But that is all we know, unless you care to speculate ab0ut the meaning of wand (cf. ge-wand, ge-windan) and weorp (turning and tossing, digging up dirt?).

The danger of all this speculation, of course, is that the classical Latin terms found in our ancient and medieval sources combined with the modern taxonomy using said Latin give us the false impression that we are talking about the same animals then and now.  Add to that an Old English translation, often done by a glossator trying to find an English equivalent to a Latin term for an animal he thinks is the same thing…and you have a mess.

European hedgehog

European hedgehog

Last, but not least, what about the hedgehog, another insectivora?  Was it in Anglo-Saxon England?  What did they call it?  Hedgehog is not attested, alas, until 1450 and the alternative name urchin cannot be traced much earlier (OED).  If they had them, did they think they were cute or a pest, or both?

Which brings me back to the opening question, of what kinds of animals were deemed pests–nibbling on seeds, crops, foodstores, and the eucharist?  We think more of the destructive capacity of rodentia than the insectivora (at least they eat other pests), but how did the Anglo-Saxons classify them?  By what they looked like or by what they did?

In a religious house, and undoubtedly elsewhere, they knew the teaching of Jesus:  “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where rust and moth destroy, and thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”  And I haven’t even gotten to the moths, gnats, fleas, spiders, and flying things (birds as well as insects) that annoy and destroy.



  1. Mice, both the house mouse and wood/field mice, can take a large toll on foodstuffs. They can also come in great numbers. Think of some of the mouse plagues in Australia. Squirrels can also take their toll and are basically tree rodents.

  2. I forgot about squirrels! I wonder what type were in Britain in the tenth century and whether there is an Old English word for them. I don’t recall seeing one.

    • Old English for squirrel is apparently acwern, a gloss of scirra or sciurus; or acqueorna, aquorna, acurna. Is it related to acorn (ac-cærn, æcern or oak-corn)? Were squirrels seen as acorn thieves? Pig forage includes acorns. Who would win, pig or squirrel?

  3. Really interested to read this, especially concerning the rarity of OE raet. It seems to be similarly uncommon in place-names. The only OE instance I can find is the adjectival raetten, “rat-infested” in Rettendon, Essex (aet Rettendune 1000 x 1002). Maybe as you suggest mus was used for the rat as well; it seems to be better evidenced in place-names, though none with unproblematic OE attestation so far as I can see.

    On hedgehogs, Bosworth Toller, Clark Hall and Sweet all cite OE igil, il for hedgehog as well as porcupine, urchin (cf. German igel). In the course of searching for this, I came across Sweet giving a ?related OE egle, egile, ‘dormouse’.

    • Thanks for the hedgehog names. As an old user of Bosworth and Toller in print, I forget that I can search the online version for modern English text in the entries.
      I particularly like the St. Sebastian description, full of arrows like a hedgehog!

  4. Shrew in modern Orcadian is ‘nebbed-mouse’.

    • Thanks! I was surprised but delighted to see that the UK Natural History Museum used three modern languages from the isles.

  5. I am hearing a lot about squirrels from folks, pro and con on their rodent status, but what about food? One reader sent this link to squirrel on Scottish menus:

  6. Why wouldn’t they have ate rodents? Dormice were a Roman delicacy, I think. I imagine they ate squirrel if they could trap them. Not so easy to get without a gun. I imagine they ate and skinned hares, just as they later did with rabbits. The black rat is a climber so it would not have been associated with sewers and filth. People’s attitudes toward eating squirrels and Norway rats is probably associated with where they normally live. I know people who eat squirrel.

    • Actually, my older copy of The Joy of Cooking has instructions for preparing squirrel, among other delicacies, like opossum.
      I guess what might set a squirrel apart from or be categorized with a rat or mouse as a pest is whether they got into food stores. Squirrels are quite clever at raiding bird feeders, not sure about invading grain storage. Does the type of squirrel matter–tree vs ground?

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