An Orgy of Toads

Toads breeding

Soon after the clocks have gone forward and April Fools has passed, a spring event occurs which has yet to capture the popular imagination in quite the same way as eggs and rabbits. From the sodden depths of secret muddy highways, frogs and toads descend on their annual breeding grounds. For one unnerving week I find myself breathlessly clambering along the edge of our local lake, bewitched and repulsed in equal measure as swollen, amphibian bodies squat and squash against each other, before pirouetting off into the still waters of a cool mauve sunset. Afterwards, their faint babbling voices follow me home on a quiet breeze.

In western culture, we have never quite felt at home with frogs and toads. For centuries they were heavily associated with putrefaction, and were thought to be able to self-generate from rotting flesh. Their Biblical appearance in Exodus did not grant them any favours, and they grew to be viewed as minions of the devil, demons incarnate who fed off the corruption of the body. There are multiple medieval accounts of toads suckling from the sites of the body where sin is enacted: the genitals of an adulterer, the throat of a glutton. In particular, it is the terrible silence of the toad that is emphasised. With a rhythmically heaving chest it watches from the shadows, a dreadfully visceral vanitas, which makes the wink of a clock face or a trickling hourglass seem frankly comforting. If your soul is not safely whisked upwards at the chiming of the hour, then you must await the toad.

The toads’ heaving bodies are like a parody of human lust, so there is something self-reflexive about the experience of disgusted fascination.

This is what makes the frog or toad the ultimate animal-icon of the grotesque. Wolfgang Kayser commented that, “The grotesque instils fear of life rather than fear of death”. There is something of this statement in witnessing a toad orgy by sunset. Their heaving bodies are like a parody of human lust, and so there is something self-reflexive about the experience of disgusted fascination. This is an image of ‘new life’ that is very different to the sanitised, smooth surface of an egg shell.

What are we to make of the aesthetic of the toad? It is perhaps best exemplified by the curious seventeenth-century fashion for ‘frog purses’, which can be found in multiple British collections. These tiny, threaded and beaded creations in the shape of frogs are thought to have contained herbs or perfumed sachets, being too small for coinage. With drawstring fastenings at the lips of the animal, a frog purse would have dangled like some kind of dead, repulsive witch’s charm from the body. Indeed, whilst frogs fitted perfectly into the fashion for ornament inspired by the natural world, they were also closely associated with witchcraft and disease during this period. The taboo of the frog crept into scientific discourse, often with heavy theological undertones. William Harvey and Jan Swammerdam were both forced to defend their experimental study of amphibians and associated findings as valid and ‘proper’ to natural philosophy. Despite this very real aversion to the frog or toad, clearly the animal held enough cultural fascination to be acceptable when its grotesque existence was aped in textile form.

Ashmolean frog purse

It seems that frog purses were made to intentionally draw on the unnerving humour of the grotesque in a sanitised manner. Scattered amongst early modern sources we find references to toads as repulsive vessels of marvellous things. The ‘toadstone’ was a legendary beautiful stone which it was thought could be extracted from the head of toads. When worn, the toadstone could protect the wearer from poison. Toads were believed to be venomous, so it seemed logical that they should carry the antidote to their own weapon. Minerals that were believed to be toadstones were embedded in jewellery; examples were found amongst the Cheapside Hoard. There is a reference to such a stone in As You Like It, when Duke Senior says:

Sweet are the uses of adversity;
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

The toad is used as a caricatured example of something which needs to be embraced in all its horror in order to appreciate its beautiful, inner contents. In 1549 the first British written account of the legend of the frog-prince appeared, known as The Well of the World’s End. It is thought that these frog purses were made by women, and so it is interesting to consider the possible gendered implications of the frog aesthetic. Despite the witchy, sinister appearance of the wire-and-thread frog, the owner can part its mouth to reveal the most wonderfully sweet-scented contents, hence resolving this imitation-grotesque act into something comic, charming and unexpected. The uncivilised imagery of a frog is found to contain the civilising substance of perfume; the grotesque is used as a convenient foil to make a sophisticated joke about the status of humans who have learnt to ‘tidy up’ their animalistic qualities through humour, cultural taste, and bodily ornament.

Standing witness to toad breeding-season provides a much more textured aesthetic than our usual April palette of spring greens and downy feathers.

If the grotesque in art and literature is a key tool for creating dark comedy, where for a short moment we are thrown off kilter, and it is unclear how deep the shadows of possible sinister undertones stretch, then a seventeenth-century frog purse is the best example of a grotesque accessory. Beguiling and horrid, it induces multiple responses in staccato succession: a sharp intake of breath, a quick shot of the horror of mortality, then a sharp dismissal of anything so moralising, followed by a short snort of laughter.

Standing witness to toad breeding-season is surprisingly similar, and provides a much more textured and complex aesthetic against our usual April palette of spring greens and downy feathers. It is the prime time to revel in the downright disgusting, to think of knobbly, bulbous skin, of dark slimy vegetation and all those other revolting realities of the natural world waking up. If the horror of winter is its silent, deadened sleep, then the horror of spring is its unrefined cacophony of grotesque new life.

 
 

Image credits: 1. Frances Hughes; 2. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 
 

The Learned Pig

Frances Hughes

Frances is a recent History of Art graduate from the University of Cambridge, living in Hay-on-Wye. Her final thesis provided a fresh iconographical interpretation of an Anglo-Saxon sculpted shaft in Rothley, Leicestershire. Her main areas of interest are the visual culture of early medieval and early modern Britain. She likes to spend her time filling notebooks with incoherent ideas about objects that she has encountered, and is a firm believer in the value of local history. She is happiest when long-distance rambling, with just a rucksack to recommend her.