Welcome to the story of rats

Wolves, cats, horses and, now, rats. Are they objects of disgust, vectors of the plague, or useful aids in cleaning up trash?? After the city rat and the country rat, here is the rat of history!

In 1984, in a landmark book (Animals have a storySeuil), Robert Delort invited historical research to be extended to animals, their evolution, their roles and their interactions with human societies, and the way in which their presence contributed to shaping the latter.

Lions, horses and bees

the hour of a story in pieces, these new projects have attracted researchers, while remaining for a long time on the fringes of dominant academic trends. Reappropriated and reformulated by environmental history, they allowed animals to find a place in a less monographic and more integrative history, capable of resonating with contemporary questions on the domination of living things, the separation between nature and culture and, more directly, on the disappearance of biodiversity.

More recently, the animal studiesimported from the American continent and some of whose works have placed the animal point of view at the center, have aroused real enthusiasm, without hiding real epistemic difficulties, starting with the absence of direct sources emanating from the animals themselves.

These historiographical moments, with porous and overlapping borders, have produced original results, but in the great gallery of species, some have carved out, one could say, the lion's share. This is the case, for example, of large wild mammals (wolf, elephant, whale, etc.), terrestrial or marine, which fascinate.

The prize goes to the species which offer the most interactions with human communities, first and foremost the horse and, more generally, all farmed animals which provide products within the framework of domestication-exploitation. This is also the case for pets or certain emblematic insects, mosquitoes and bees, which, for different reasons, have interested environmental historians.

A cultural history perspective

It is in this context, and surprisingly that commensal rodents have only been the subject of rare studies (even though they have been in daily contact with human communities for several centuries), that Olivier Thomas, journalist at the magazine The storydelivers a history of rats.

The Plague, plate 1
H. Violle

This multi-century and mainly Parisian fresco, which is more linked to the projects opened by Robert Delort than to the issues of environmental history or animal studiestakes advantage of new research instruments, in particular full-text search tools on Gallica or Retronews, to take advantage of a corpus that no historian of the previous generation could have created.

The documents come mainly from two types of printed sources: the press and official documents. These new and unpublished materials make possible an animal monograph of rats which the author makes accessible thanks to a narrative which combines the chronology of major themes on the relations between this rodent and urban societies.

Reading the work easily convinces us of the ambivalent character of the rodent, and undoubtedly explains the insufficient historiography of its subject. Certainly, through its proximity to men, the rat is an old obsession, object of rejection and fear, because it is present most of the time in dark places or unsanitary premises, associated with poverty and moral condemnation.

From a perspective of cultural history or representations, and to deploy the palette of stigma, it would have been interesting to see mention of some derogatory terms, for example ratonnadespunitive and brutal expeditions carried out against the Maghrebs, themselves described as raccoons (or little rat) by a racist segment of the population.

THE brown rats

The author reminds us that going against the grain, the image of the rat can also be more positive. Indeed, it can be quite easily domesticated, which creates attachment, or even used as a fair or fighting animal for shows.; it is also ideal for laboratory experiments.

Finally, everyone knows their role in recycling and ecosystem services, cleaning up market waste, overflowing trash cans, and trash thrown in the street. To the point that several associations for the defense of rats and research on this animal have emerged, and in July 2022, an elected Parisian animalist, Douchka Markovic, recalled that the Paris rat should be called the brown mouse, a way of using a word that was not negatively connoted and at the same time provoking mockery and controversy. The rat craze was also rekindled in 2007 by the international success of the animated film Ratatouille.

Olivier Thomas therefore makes a necessary clarification: the rodent of Western cities is not the black rat which transmits the plague bacillus, but rather the Norway rat (or gray rat), which is entered Paris around 1750, supplanting and causing the black rat to disappear quite quickly and, at the same time, the sources of propagation of the plague in the West.

Certainly, this gray rat can carry trichinosis, a parasitic disease transmitted by ingestion of meat from pigs which themselves have eaten rats. But this disease is ultimately not very widespread in France. In 1894-1999, progress in bacteriology definitively absolved the brown rat of the spread of the plague, highlighting the responsibility of the black rat flea.

Despite everything, sporadic episodes of plague at the turn of the 1900s caused a war on rats, whatever they were, all over the world. French health authorities are on the front line by coordinating scientific research, thanks to their network of Pasteur Institutes, and major international conferences. If the French authorities claim to make Paris the capital of the struggle, in reality other European countries are achieving greater success than Paris.

Death to rats!

The work shows that coexistence between men and rats has always been tumultuous. Although the brown mouse is not classified as a harmful animal (only likely to cause damage, population regulation measures must therefore be proportionate and without acts of cruelty), it can be the subject of eradication campaigns.

The Plague, plate 5
H. Violle

History is intertwined: for example, during the closure of the Montfaucon road in 1849, to prevent them from spreading to the surrounding area (700 people were employed to kill 250,000 rats), or on a global level after the return of the plague in Asia the end of XIXe century, because the presence of rats in ships risked blocking international trade.

When the plague reappeared again in Europe after 1917, more than a million rats were killed in Paris in 1920-1922. Again in 2016, the municipality of Paris decided on a vast eradication plan which cost more than a million and a half euros, given the apparent increase in the rat population.

At the same time, a chronic struggle was organized during the XIXe century, by poisoning techniques, first with arsenic, then phosphorus paste, two substances which ended up being banned due to their toxicity and accidents on humans and domestic animals.

Replaced by less harmful substances, but never harmless, or other processes (asphyxiation, explosive shock, electrocution, etc.), this daily struggle provokes the appearance of specialized professions, the rat poison seller, then rodent control companies. (for example Frg or Aurouze). As for the gutters, they would have killed between 200,000 and 300,000 rats per year in the second half of the XIXe century, while individuals were required to carry out a daily watch to destroy rats.

The question is strongly anchored in political rhetoric: the defensive (or preventive) method, which consists of depriving rats of access to food and any habitable shelter, has been much less favored than its warlike side. In addition to managing garbage in airtight containers (this is the origin of the regulations of the Poubelle prefect in 1884), structural measures could have led the islands to fundamentally rethink housing.

The example of San Francisco, rebuilt after the destruction of the 1906 earthquake, shows that anti-rat construction methods can be very effective. Banishing stone, cob and wood, which rats can gnaw, in favor of concrete, could undoubtedly only be done gradually in Paris, and the emphasis was placed more on pedagogy, individual gestures and communication than on large-scale construction plans.

Kings of tastes

The history of rats is strongly connected to that of the city and urbanization since the end of the XVIIIe century. Contrary to a widespread idea, cities have not made living things disappear from their urban fabric, but on the contrary it has been able to create favorable niches for certain species.; here, the gray rat takes advantage of the smallest corners of the city and the food of men to swarm.

Its Parisian population, for two hundred years, has varied between one and three million individuals. It must be said that the species is particularly fertile, a female being able to give birth to five to six litters per year of eight to ten young. Despite prophylactic measures, the rat remains present in cities and it is, as the introduction to the work indicates, a strong indicator of lifestyles in contemporary urban societies.

The rat therefore contributes to the making of the city and its activities: this invasive species invades housing where it digs galleries, markets, slaughterhouses, roads (waste dumps), rag depots and hospitals. In factories, it eats belts, ropes and wires. Chased out of public space, she takes refuge in XXe century in old homes, basements and underground galleries, making it the queen of tastes.

It contributes to the shaping of the urban environment, especially in XIXe century, when the materials and the functioning of the city's metabolism were conducive to coexistence. So, from around 1820 to 1890, the rat was a resource, a recycled material for the chemical industry, for the saponification of tallow, the recovery of fat and materials for fertilizer, the tanning of hides, sent to Grenoble for the food industry. glovemaking. They could even be used as food, thus during the siege of 1870-1871.

Rats number between 2 and 5 million individuals in Paris today, and the coexistence of the species with humans has not finished being studied, especially since the question is highly politicized, as evidenced by the recurring debates at the Council of Paris on the theme. cleanliness.

Today, the issues raised by animal movements, the desire for the return of nature to the city, the ecosystem benefits of certain species or even the prohibition of toxic products during rodent control campaigns constitute a more favorable context for brown rats. Are we moving towards peaceful coexistence? This work, which places this debate in a long and documented history, allows us both to put the current presence of rats into perspective and to show the necessary regulation outside of any Englishness.