More than any other garment, the flea fur helps us to understand just how different living conditions were in sixteenth-century Europe. People of the period did not bathe very often, and they rarely washed their clothes or bedsheets. The conditions were perfect for infestations of fleas, small bloodsucking insects that live on the bodies of warm-blooded animals like humans. Even the wealthiest people had to endure frequent bites from fleas. One of the ways that they combated the pests was with flea fur.
A flea fur was made from the pelt of a small furry animal like a mink, an ermine, or a ferret. It was worn about the neck in the hopes that the fleas would prefer the thick and smelly fur of the animal to the smooth and smelly skin of a human. Wealthy people added ornaments to their flea furs, including jeweled clasps and golden chains. It is unknown whether poor people wore shabbier flea furs made from the pelts of rats and other less desirable rodents or simply endured the flea bites.
Wilcox, R. Turner. The Mode in Furs: The History of Furred Costume of the World from the Earliest Times to the Present. New York: Scribner, 1951.
Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.