Thursday, February 16, 2006

toads: man-eating; poisonous

Readers want to know: what's up with that index entry on toads? (See "Index Joy") We know the Middle Ages were zany, you say, but could they really be so zany as to believe in not one but two types of lethal toad?

Well, yes.

The story of the man-eating toads (I suppose they would also eat women, and maybe even children, but in the story they devour only a man) was narrated by Gerald of Wales. This was the same twelfth-century writer who also loved to tell tales of self-castrating beavers and interspecies procreation. In a travelogue he composed of his preaching tour of Wales -- a tour that netted about 3000 volunteers for the crusades -- Gerald tells of a man plagued by toads. Great quantities of the creatures gather near him and joyfully nibble his flesh. Bedridden and in danger of being transformed completely into amphibian kibble, the poor fellow is eventually carried to the top of a tree by sympathetic friends. Carnivorous toads are, unfortunately for him, also arboreal. They climb the tree, troop to his branch and eagerly snack upon him, leaving only a skeleton clinging to the limb (Journey Through Wales 2.2)

More widespread in medieval literature are toads of the venomous rather than carnivorous variety. Working recently with texts produced around England's twelfth-century civil war, I became interested in two appearances of these creatures. The first is in the Peterborough Chronicle, a version of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle that was continued late into the century. The chronicle takes us inside the dungeons of malefactors who, because the king is weak, have been incarcerating innocents to extort their money. Death by toad venom ranks right up there with being suspended by your thumbs or having your brains forced out through your ears:

No martyrs were ever tortured as [these victims] were. They were hung by their thumbs or by the head, and corselets were hung on their feet. Knotted ropes were put round their heads and twisted till they penetrated to the brains. They put them in prisons where there were adders and snakes and toads, and killed them like that. [entry for 1137]

A second and eerily similar example of venomous toads can be found in Thomas of Monmouth's Life of St William of Norwich. Here we are once again taken inside one of these civil war dungeons:

There was, then, a woman of Brandney named Wimarc, who in the time of Stephen, when the days were evil, was given as a hostage at Gainsborough for her husband who had been taken by pirates. In his stead she was committed to prison with three other women and one man, and there she remained for long. These people, after long enduring miserably cold, hunger, stench, and attacks of toads, began to plan in concert the death of their gaoler (6.13)

In an inspired moment, the prisoners squeeze venom from some of these threatening but oddly handy amphibians and mix with it the gaoler's drink. Suspecting treachery, he forces them to imbibe their concoction. All but Wimarc immediately perish of toad poisoning. Her flesh swells grotesquely. Her skin nearly tears. Once she is finally released from prison, for seven years Wimarc is possessed of the body not of a human being but of "some portentous new monster." You will be happy to learn, though, that a pilgrimage to Saint William's shrine in Norwich brings her instant relief. She vomits the toad's venom over the pavement in front of the shrine ("there was enough of it to fill a vessel of the largest size") and is restored to her slender figure.

So medieval toads were indeed lethal ... but at least there was a possible cure.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

from JKW, an intriguing contemporary version:

The toxic cane toad in Australia is evolving into an "eco-nightmare" capable of covering huge distances, a study in the journal Nature reports.

Scientists say the species Bufo marinus is developing a leggier, faster-moving form that is now hopping out rapidly across the continent.

The toads were introduced 70 years ago to control pests, but have since wrought havoc on indigenous animals.

They kill snakes, lizards, water birds - even crocodiles and dingos.

When harassed they secrete poison carried in two sacs behind the head which is lethal to a potential predator within minutes of being ingested.

Karl Steel said...

There's a pretty good documentary on those animals. I imagine now that they've evolved into something more frightening there's call for a sequel.

Anonymous said...

It's the story of Australia. Endless European critters were introduced by accident or on purpose, and they've thrown the pre-existing ecosystem into a tail-spin.

Steve sculpts critters said...

The director of the documentary 'Cane Toads, and Unnatural History' tells me that he has plans for a sequel.
It's very funny.
I reckon the worst thing white people introduced into Australia is white people.