It may sound extraordinary, but until recently the shrew had a most fearsome reputation. The creature’s bite was likened to that of a spider – araneus in Latin. Both Aristotle and Pliny wrote of its venomous nature, and this belief continued down the centuries, gaining momentum as time went by.
The general feeling was summed up neatly by the Reverend Topsell in his seventeenth-century History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents: ‘It is a ravening beast, feigning itself gentle and tame, but, being touched, it biteth deep, and poisoneth deadly. It beareth a cruel minde, desiring to hurt anything, neither is there any creature that it loveth, or it loveth him, because it is feared of all.’
Not that an actual bite was considered necessary for the shrew to do its evil work. Elyot in 1538 wrote: ‘Mus Araneus, a kynde of myse called a shrew, whyche yf it goo ouer a beastes backe, he shall be lame in the chyne’. ‘Chyne’ here means ‘spine’, so it would have been a calamity if it were true, which, of course, it was not. Horses were considered particularly vulnerable, but it was not just dumb beasts that were at risk.
Although there is much to be feared in the modern world, one threat at least is no longer a burden, and anyone attending the doctor’s surgery complaining of being ‘shrewstruck’ would not be received sympathetically. This fictitious condition was the result of having a shrew ‘goo ouer’ some part of your body, causing pain and even paralysis. Fortunately such imaginary ailments respond well to imaginary remedies.
Gilbert White in The Natural History of Selborne reported the destruction by a pious vicar of a much-venerated ash tree. The tree – a ‘shrew ash’ – was relied upon as a cure by the village people, who pleaded in vain for its survival. To make such a tree, a hole was drilled into the trunk, then a live (and very unlucky) shrew was placed into the hole and incarcerated there with a wooden plug, to the accompaniment of appropriately dramatic incantations (sadly lost to history). The branches were then available to be ‘applied’ as a cure, although precisely what this entailed is not recorded. With so many fine details forgotten, should you ever imagine that you have been ‘shrewstruck’, you will be in no position to imagine that you are cured.