The louse decides

Head-louse engraving (1842)

I recently came across a curious louse-related anecdote. It seems that in the “Middle Ages”, the election of the local burgomaster in Hurdenburg, Sweden, was governed by the wanderings of a louse. Candidates for this mayor-type position sat down and rested their beards on a table. A louse was released into the centre of the table and the owner of the beard first honoured by the louse’s occupancy, was elected.

But I’m left wondering about this. It all seems just a little odd (and for an entomologist to say this, it really must be VERY ODD INDEED). My main concern is that this ‘fact’ arose from a second-hand report in a book published in 1865. It has been parroted, almost word-for-word, ever since. With the ease of cutting and pasting on the internet, it has spread to such an extent that this is now the only fact known about the town or city of Hurdenburg.

I don’t even know where Hurdenburg is. It does not exist on modern maps, and none of the numerous louse-led internet or book articles offer any explanation. It may be Hedberg,in the Arvidsjaur Kommun, near Norrbottens. Wherever, it’s too similar-sounding to headberg, surely. Or maybe that’s how the place got its name!?

And what could possibly be the rationale behind such a bizarre protocol? Was the elder with the longest beard (probably the oldest person there) reasoned to have the greatest experience and lore? Did he keep the louse during his stint in office?

I can see there is still a lot more research to do before I can accept this ridiculous piece of history.


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