And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 17. januar 2017

Excerpts from the cultural history of the toad

In the middle of the thirteenth century, Thomas de Cantimpré (1201-72) composed an encyclopedic work titled Liber de Natura Rerum, in which he provided an overview of animals, trees, stones, and parts of the human body, to mention only a few. The third book of his work, only four pages long in the 1973 edition, Thomas dedicated to the monstrous humans of the east, "De monstruosis hominibus orientis". For much of this material he draws on Pliny, although his debt to multiple sources is indicated by the work's subtitle "secundum diversos philosophos", or "according to several philosophers".

One of these monstrous nations of the east is very briefly, but fascinatingly described by Thomas and disturbingly depicted in the illumination below. The name of this nation is not provided, and all Thomas states is the following:

In quadam regione, ut dicit Iacobus, cum bufonibus nascuntur pueri. Si quis autem sine bufone nascatur, mater eius tanquam adultera iudicatur et, que ab alienigena conceperit, a marito suo repudiatur.

In which region [the mountains of India], so says Jacobus, children are born together with a toad. But if it is born without a toad, its mother is judged to be an adulteress and, as she has conceived with another, is repudiated by her husband.

(My translation.)

Woman giving birth to a toad and a baby 
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.45v, Thomas de Cantimpré, De Natura Rerum, c.1290, Paris (Courtesy of

In the medieval imagination there were many nations on the peripheries of the world who were deemed monstrous, either by physical attributes or by differing from the beholders - European Catholic Christians - through cultural practices. The case of the women of the Indian mountain giving birth to toads, we are here dealing with a case straddling both those form of monstrosity, which shows that the distinction between cultural and physical monstrosity might be more academic than medieval, and not very accurate.

In any case, the fact that the women of this anonymous nation were believed to engender toads illustrate their monstrosity in two ways. In part this has to do with the fact that we are dealing with a birth that goes against nature. However, part of the monstrosity might also be said to come from the animal being born, namely the toad. Thomas de Cantimpré elaborates on this animal himself in book 9, on vermin, where the toad is described as venomous, and having a pestilential appearance.

Another instance of the toad being associated with evil comes from a Norwegian altar front dated to c.1300, currently on permanent exhibition in Bergen Museum. The altar front comes from Nedstryn in Western Norway, and depicts the recapture of the Holy Cross by Heraclius from the Persians in 628. The story appears to have been popular in Western Europe, and was widely transmitted through its place in Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine, but was also popular before this. The recapture of the Holy Cross was the occasion for the feast-day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated 14th of September.

The main antagonist of the drama, as it was portrayed in the various Christian renditions, was the Persian king Chosroes who had himself worshipped as a god, and whose evil power was confronted by Emperor Heraclius. In the altar front from Nedstryn, the Persian army is recognizable from the Christians by their coat-of-arms. The Christians led by Heraclius carry the cross on their shields, while the Persians carry the black toad, strongly resembling the toad being born of the woman in the Indian mountains depicted above. The use of the toad as the Persian coat-of-arms highlights the evil connotations of the toad, since it became the symbol for those who desecrated the cross of Christ by carrying it to Persia. Consequently, the victory of the Christians is also shown by the sword of Heraclius cleaving the toad in two during the fight against the Persian champion.

The Persians capture the Holy Cross
Detail from the Nedstryn altar front
Courtesy of, photograph by Frode Inge Helland

Heraclius defeats the Persian champion
Detail from the Nedstryn altar front
Courtesy of, photograph by Frode Inge Helland

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