Early-modern Frogs: The history of four footed beasts and serpents: Collected out of the writings of Conradus Gesner and other authors, by Edward Topsell.
London , Printed by E. Cotes, for G. Sawbridge, T. Williams, and T. Johnson, 1658
Canterbury Cathedral Library, Elham 134
Once upon a time, seemingly around the year 1500, there was an English monk who was busy gathering up bundles of green rushes to lay upon his cell floor. Before he had completed this task, however, he was overcome with post-lunch drowsiness and lay down for a nap. When he woke up, he found that a large toad had crawled over him. Two of its feet were planted on his upper lip and two on the lower. His mouth was completely blocked. He was stuck; if he tried to prise the toad off, it would certainly spit its deadly poison into his mouth and kill him. Fortunately, this monk’s friends remembered that the toad’s deadly enemy is the spider. They carried him, face up, to the window, where a large spider had his web. After a while, the spider lowered itself on its strand of silk and stung the toad. The toad swelled, but did not die. Again the spider descended and stung it, and again a third time. Each time the toad swelled a little more, until at last it died and fell off. The monk was saved.
This story, originally told by the great humanist scholar Erasmus, is found in Edward Topsell’s History of Serpents, Or, the Second Book of Living Creatures, which was published 1608 as a companion to his History of Four-Footed Beasts (1607). The two volumes were reprinted and bound together in 1658, a copy of which is found in the Cathedral Library.
The tale’s apparently credulous recycling is an example of why recent scholars have been unkind to Topsell. Justly accused of plagiarising Conrad Gessner’s sixteenth-century Historiae Animalium , he is also condemned in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for showing in his book on serpents ‘signs of haste, and perhaps of boredom’.
However, in the section on frogs, at least, Topsell was doing a little more than just recycling. He was keen to divide his stories into two types, the ‘natural’ and the ‘magical’. The immediate temptation is to assume that this was a proto-scientific distinction between the real and the mythical. And some of his comments do indeed seem to back this up.
For example, Topsell recounts the belief that a water-frog’s tongue, when laid upon a sleeping person, will cause him to blab all of his secrets while he snoozes. (The feat is harder to pull off with a woman – in this case the tongue must be cut from a live frog and have special symbols carved upon it). Topsell has no truck with this notion: ‘Now if this magical foolery were true, we had greater need of frogs then of Justices of the Peace or Magistrates’, he comments.
Similarly Topsell considers the folktale that if a woman takes a frog in her mouth and spits three times she will not conceive that year. He concludes robustly: ‘And this is as true as a shoulder of Mutton worn in one’s Hat healeth the tooth-ach.’
But compare these to the following, with which Topsell agrees: if you burn young frogs, feed their powdered remains to a cat, remove the cat’s bowels, roast the cat, anoint the cat with honey and lay it by the wood-side, you will surely lure out all the wolves and foxes of the wood (so that you can kill them). Convinced? I’m not.
Confusingly, Topsell dismisses as magical other frog-properties that sound way more plausible than this complicated Rentokil technique. Witches, Topsell tells us, use toads to poison their husbands; but this, he says, is magical.
At other times, things that we might consider magical are presented as ‘natural’. Roasted frogs, Topsell assures us, make a good broth for those who have been poisoned by venomous creature; and it works best if they don’t know what they are drinking – which seems to modern sensibilities like a pretty magical way of thinking about the use of medicine.
These unexpected exemplars of the natural and the magical, then, indicate that his distinction was not at all a proto-scientific one. Topsell was instead concerned to make a theological distinction between natural and magical uses of frogs. Natural uses were aligned with their natural properties, used in keeping with God’s laws, while magical ones were contrary to the divine order.
In a very roundabout way, Topsell’s theology made possible the experimental science that flourished fifty or one hundred years after his books were written. It was not obvious to the early moderns that reliable knowledge could be obtained by looking at animal bodies, still less that knowledge so obtained could be appropriate to an understanding of humans. Topsell’s protestant shriving of the frog’s body – from its medieval connotations of uncleanliness to a conditional attribution of ‘naturalness’ – indirectly made it plausible for the Dutch anatomist Jan Swammerdam to make his frog experiments the centrepiece of his great work, a complete natural history of God’s laws. (This work, published in English as The Book of Nature in 1758, is also in the library’s collection.)
One big problem remained for Topsell, namely the apparently well-attested cases of women giving birth to frogs and toads. This was something that was obviously ‘magical’ in his sense, because it disrupted the natural order of things, and yet the women had not sought it; it was apparently a magical phenomenon of divine origin – which would be a contradiction in terms. Topsell got around this tricky theological problem in two ways. First, he noted with relief that the women concerned generally made a speedy and complete recovery. Secondly, he observed that the misfortune generally tended to befall Catholics; the hint was that they had brought it upon themselves due to their connection with the whore of Babylon and her unclean, frog-form spirits. With protestant science you could, literally, take the frog out of the Catholic, as well as the Catholic out of the frog.
Dr Charlotte Sleigh: School of History, University of Kent
Other books mentioned in this article:
- Conradi Gesneri … Historiae animalium Lib. V.
Tiguri : in officina Froschouiana, 1587.
Canterbury Cathedral Library, W2/X-7-12
- The book of nature; or, the History of insects by John Swammerdam.
Translated from the Dutch and Latin by Thomas Flloyd. Revised by John Hill.
Canterbury Cathedral Library, H/G-11-4