It’s Not Easy Being Green

Poor Kermit would have had an even worse time of it had he lived in the Middle Ages. Frogs and toads were, frankly, considered to be the worst: they were associated with the devil and thought to be a favourite form of familiar for a witch. Indeed, in North Cambridgeshire, an old word for “bewitching” was “tudding, probably a corruption of toading”.[1]

It was a commonly held belief that the toad itself was formed from corrupt matter or menstrual blood (spoiler alert: that last bit’s definitely not true). They were dangerous, and when they appeared in medieval art their image represented sin, illness, treachery, impurity and avarice.

You would think all the bad rep frogs and toads got would mean people would leave them in peace, but no. In fact, the toad was extensively used in medieval medicine to cure people and animals, the idea being that if it could inflict disease then it could also draw it out.

Got a problem? Get an amphibian:

  • In the Limousin region of France, if a cow failed to give milk then a live toad was attached to said cow’s neck, the idea being that when the toad dried up (and inevitably died), the spell on the cow would vanish and it would produce milk again.[2]
  • Cancer? Cut a toad in two and apply to the sick organ to cure.
  • Toothache? Transfer that to a frog by spitting in its mouth and asking it politely to take on your toothache.[3]
  • Got a fever? A toad can draw that off if placed on the body.
  • Still fever? A slightly later French method is to hold a frog in your hand until it dies, thus taking away the fever. (Make sure, however, that you don’t get pregnant while you’re undergoing this treatment. One woman reportedly did this, and nine months later her baby was born with a frog face!)[4]

The curing nature of toads could also extend to providing protection: an amulet of dried frog protected against plague, while “bone” from a toad’s head could protect against plague and other diseases. This was the toadstone: a stone thought to come from a toad’s head (duh) but was actually a fossil of a certain type of fish. Toadstones were classed as precious stones and can be found mounted in expensive rings of gold and suchlike as powerful talismans to cure ailments, protect against demons, and turn cups of poison safe. Pliny the Elder (ca. 23-79 AD) was the first to record the toadstone’s existence, noting that since toads have poison glands in their skin, they surely carry the antidote (the toadstone) in their bodies too.[5]

A very grumpy looking desert rain frog marching on the ground.

I can only aspire to this level of grumpiness. (Pic from knowyourmeme.com)

Toads and frogs aren’t just useful for healing though. Pliny also reported that a frog’s tongue placed over the heart of a sleeping woman will compel her to tell the truth. Similarly, a fourteenth century Flemish manuscript writes that if you put a toad’s heart and left foot over a sleeping man’s lips, he’ll tell the truth of whatever you ask him.[6] Though presumably he’d be asking you a lot of questions first.

Burying a toad in a stable was a good way to bewitch livestock, and likewise they or their body parts could be hidden in a house as part of a curse.[7] Frogs and toads were considered one of the few animals – other than humans, wolves and snakes – which could cast the evil eye on someone.[8] And in Brittany, it was thought that people died if toads jumped on them during the night (it is not recorded how many toads though – one toad causing death I find doubtful, three hundred toads is more believable).[9]

A final brief mention of a use for frogs or toads: divination by frog was claimed by one Joan Mores of East Langton, Kent in 1525, who claimed to tell the future by their croaking.[10] Sadly, her methodology was known only to herself.

While the humble frogs and toads were clearly very useful to the medieval person, you can see that the amphibian in question might not quite agree with its feared-but-useful status and rather be left alone.

Kermit the Frog waving his arms and panicking.

From giphy.

[1] Wilson, Stephen, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe (London: Hambledon and London 2000), p.417.

[2] Ibid, p.418-9.

[3] Kibler, William and Zinn, Grover, “Magic” in Medieval France: An Encyclopedia (Routledge, 1995) p.1088.

[4] Gelis, Jacques, L’Arbre et le fruit: la naissance dans l’Occident modernne 16thC – 19thC (Paris: Fayard 1984), p.118, cit. Wilson p.150.

[5] Kieckhefer, Richard, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: CUP 1989), p.22. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History – specifically see books 28-37.

[6] Kieckhefer, p.90.

[7] Wilson, p.418.

[8] Ibid, p.404.

[9] Ibid, p.418.

[10] Thomas, Keith Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Penguin 1971), p.285.

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