A striking thing about Bosch's paintings is the great number of toads. Almost all of his paintings have at least one live toad (usually more). In a few paintings that do not show a toad, there are still toad images (e.g., on the shields of soldiers in Ecce Homo and the Crucifiction). Other painters of the period used toads very sparingly, and toad symbolism is largely absent from medieval art except for alchemical and magical text illustrations. One can find a few toads here and there, but certainly no more than in the 19th or 20th century art. The ubiquity of toads is something peculiar to Bosch. He was clearly obsessed with the animal. Why? What was a toad to Hieronimus Bosch?
In the Middle Ages, the toads were considered both poisonous AND demonic. They join several other benign animals believed to be extremely venomous. The toads were thought to be at least as deadly as scorpions and snakes, or more. The suprising fact is that there are historical examples of people who were poisoned to death by such animals. For example, Titus was said to be posioned by a sea hare (that is not toxic at all). One can argue that sea hares are exotic and little known to medieval people, so the superstition persisted. However, toads are very common and it is incomprehensible that their lack of toxicity would be overlooked for hundreds of years. In fact, toad poisoning has been reported until modern times. King John of England was poisoned to death by a toad adminestered in a drink by a monk from Swineshead Abbey. Both the monk (who tasted the drink first) and the king died of swollen bellies, after two days of agony. Another king who nearly escaped poisoning by a toad was James I of Scotland, in 1591. Here is the typical medieval toad story:
...There was 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. In an inspired moment, the prisoners squeeze venom from the toads 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." A pilgrimage to St 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.http://jjcohen.blogspot.com/2006/02/toads-man-eating-poisonous.html
Is it possible that people would be poisoned to death, showing consistent symptoms (belly swellings), if the toads were not poisonous? The power of superstiton is great, but can it really be that great?
Of course, the toads were also demonic. They were associated with envy, gluttony and lust. A miser was believed to be consumed by the toad after death. Toads did other despicable things:
...The Devil, who squat like a toad at the ear of Mother Eve in Eden, is always at hand in the churchyard after service, waiting in that guise for some evil-minded communicant to feed him with a bit of the consecrated wafer: whoever thus sacrifices to Satan will straightway become a witch or wizard. The relation of witches to toads (or frogs) is notorious; and, like everything else in this department of superstition, it is founded on fact. Toads are not uncommon in earth-floored huts, and doubtless they were sometimes petted by solitary old women who, esteemed as witches, regarded themselves as such and thought the creatures were really imps or demons. http://www.all-creatures.org/articles/rf-toads.html
...Thanks to the two tiny horns borne on his forehead, a toad was recognizable as a demon, and witches took infinite care of him. They baptized their toads, dressed them in black velvet, put little bells on their paws, and made them dance. Jeannette d'Abadie, a witch of the Basses-Pyrénées...declared that she saw brought to the Sabbat a number of toads dressed some in black, some in scarlet velvet, with little bells attached to their coats. An accused Cathar, a woman named Bilia, "admitted to having a familiar toad to which she fed meat, bread, and cheese, and out of whose feces, together with human body hair, whe made a powder from which she confected the potions drunk at the synagogues."
Toads had their uses in the witchcraft:
...It was believed "if you put the heart and left foot of a toad over the mouth of a sleeping man, for example, he will immediately reveal to you whatever you ask him." If a toad was baptized with an enemy's name then tortured to death, the victim supposedly suffered the same fate. In 1329, a Carmelite monk named Peter Recordi was sentenced to death for "having made images of wax, toads' blood, and spittle, consecrating them to the Devil and then hiding them in the houses of women with whom he purposed sexual intercourse..."
Toads were believed to have a precious stone in their heads. This stone was considered both a talisman for obtaining "almost perfect earthly happiness" and a means to detect poison. As demonic animals, the toads tormented sinners in Hell:
...One could also see toads of wonderful size and as if made of fire sitting on the chests of some and burying their hideous muzzles there as if trying to pull out their hearts. And those who were thus pinned and tormented never ceased crying and moaning. (St. Patrick's Purgatory)
Actually, their very origin was in human death:
...after death three kinds of vermin are born of a human body: a toad from his head and throat, a scorpion from his spine, and a weevil from his body and stomach. (Fasciculus Morum)
On the other hand, precisely because of their origin in death, toads were a cure for many diseases, most importanly the bubonic plague
...a dried toad was placed onto the victim’s plague boils. A doctor [Athanasius Kircher] at the time wrote instructions: “Toads should be thoroughly dried in the air or sun. They should be laid on the boil. Then the toad will swell and drain the poison of the plague through the skin to its own body. Once the toad is full, it should be thrown away and a new toad applied to the boils.” http://www.igshistoryonline.co.uk/Focus%20Days/Teachers
Amulets of dried blood and ground-up toads were worn at the waists of the physicians attending to the plague victims. Pulverized toads in wine were used against kidney stones. Ashes of a toad were worn in bags hang around the neck, as prophylactics against the plague. Toad parts were also used to cure rheumatism, scrofula, swellings. Often hind legs of toads were worn; when the legs were cut off, the toad was left to die slowly, taking disease with it.
Given these popular beliefs, there should have been overwhelming demand for toads in Late Medieval Europe during the Black Death, when 30% of the population died. I would expect that toads were hunted nearly to extinction back then. Could it be that poisonous toads in Europe went extinct due to the medicinal overharvesting? After all, there are poisonous (cane) toads in Australia and North America which have potent toxins in their parotoid glands. The poisoning symptoms are "profuse salivation, twitching, vomiting, shallow breathing, and collapse of the hind limbs. Death may occur by cardiac arrest within 15 min. The venom is absorbed through mucous membranes such as eyes, mouth and nose, and in humans may cause intense pain, temporary blindness and inflammation." Another possibility is that European toads, harmless by themselves, were infected by a pathogen that made their skin toxic. Such an infection, induced by a chytrid fungus that consumes keratin in amphibian skin, is presently decimating toads everywhere. The stories of medical use, witchcraft, and poisoning might be true.
The common interpretation of toads in Bosch's paintings is that they symbolize the sin of debauchery:
...when a toad is seen, it points to sin and impurity. Such evidence is in a detail of The Haywain, where the toad covering the genital area of a nude woman shows her lustful nature. A woman with the same virtues [actually, she is Superbia] is found in the right panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights with a toad resting on her breast... Toads are shown as servants of Satan in Bosch's Temptation of St Anthony. St Anthony is carried away on the stomach of a winged toad while other monsters fly at his side. In the center panel of the Temptation of St Anthony triptych, an overgrown toad is surrounded by sin, while the saint prays and resists temptation, toads surround him. "..the devils used unclean creatures to create their own imperfect creatures. The toads represent the will of the devil. http://www.bookrags.com/Hieronymus_Bosch#br_3
That is completely unclear to me. The toads in the hellish scenes may actually be emerging from the dead bodies, as was the belief of the day. They might be tormenting their dead victims too. The toad waiting for miser's death was there to consume his body in a very nonsymbolic way. The toads on women's chests could be the indications of their involvement in witchcraft or their crime of poisoning other people. There is also the possibility that the toads indicated that the person had died of the plague. There was a recurrence of the plague in Lower Countries during Bosch's time, in 1498, and toads were common medical remedy. So placing toads on genital and chest area (where bubes are commonly found) of dead people makes perfect sense. There are contemporary images of Death whose genitals are covered by a toad (e.g., Memling's Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation) that may be interpreted along these lines. This does not mean that the sinners did not sin (as pestilence killed only sinners), but it suggests that these sinners died for their sins of the plague. Such an allusion would be obvious to Bosch's contemporary, but it is lost on us, as we are used to less graphic medication.
What were toads to Hieronymus Bosch?