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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Unfounded Fears

Chaetopelma olivaceum, Dror Feitelson Pikiwiki Israel [CC BY 2.5 (]

During our excavation seasons at Montfort we generally rent a house or apartment in the village of Mi’ilya, located conveniently close to the castle. Usually the “digs”, to use the appropriate term, are old and a bit run-down. They are almost always filled with the owner’s often cumbersome furniture, but by-and-large are reasonably comfortable. They are, however, on occasion and quite unknown to us, shared with unwanted guests who are not part of the excavation team. Coming into my room one night, to my alarm and revulsion I ran into one - large and of dark complexion, located near the ceiling. It was a huge black spider with legs about as thick as my arms and the ability to move across the wall at something approaching the speed of light. That was about the same speed with which I fled the room, only warily re-entering when I had taken some minutes to recover a sufficient degree of calm and levelheadedness. I probably would never have gone back into the room had there been any other option, but I had no choice. This was where I was sleeping. Indeed, I had been quite tranquilly sleeping here for several weeks, blissfully unaware that I was sharing the room an perhaps my bed with a creature that had more than the necessary number of legs and eyes. With the realization that there were numerous places for it and its family members to hide, such as in the dark space above a large wardrobe or on the underside of my mattress, I decided that I had better re-enter and kill it before it had the opportunity of making its escape, and perhaps start breeding. I did so, using a broom and in the process breaking the handle. I am not certain how I managed this as it was entirely done in a zombie-like state, but I spent the remaining nights of the season in restless sleep, in fear of what other creatures might be lurking under the mattress or behind the wardrobe, bent on revenge and waiting for the opportune moment.

Truth be told, the poor creature that I smashed to a pulp was a quite harmless Black Tarantula (Latin, Chaetopelma olivacium). If I was a cockroach, I might have had a real reason to fear it, but the Black Tarantula has the misfortune of looking far more dangerous than it actually is. Its bite is described as "unpleasant but not dangerous to humans". But imagination and fear of the unknown are powerful emotions. That is probably why in his description of the tarantulas encountered by the army of the Third Crusade near 'Atlit, the author of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi described them in terms more in line with my fears:

"As each night approached a sort of little vermin threatened them. They crawl in swarms along the ground giving the most horrible stabs and are popularly called 'tarantulas'. By day they did no harm; but as night came on they would make an assault armed with very irritating stings. Anyone they stung immediately swelled up with the raging poison and was in terrible agony."*

Rather than crush them with a broom-head, the method adopted by the crusaders was one that I might myself apply in the future. They discovered that if they made a great racket "banging and beating on helmets, stools and boards, casks, flasks, basins, plates and cooking pots, and any appliance or item of furniture suitable for making a noise..." the spiders would be driven away. Of course, it might be a bit difficult getting all that equipment into my bedroom, but probably worth the effort.

*Helen J. Nicholson (trans.), Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi 4.13, Ashgate, 1997, p. 241.

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