Inspiration comes from the strangest places…
On Friday night the Medieval Historian gave a blistering talk on Medieval Ways of Death, in the restored Victorian cemetery in Bristol, Arnos Vale. I have always thought that were it not for his agnosticism, he would have made a great Victorian country parson wrestling with his Darwinian doubts in a well-appointed parsonage, and Friday night confirmed me in this view. He showed some great pictures, several of which seemed to feature toads as creatures associated with death, and I wondered why this is.
Toads certainly seemed to me to be associated with magic and witchcraft, apparently at one point the devil’s coat of arms had three toads. I knew toads were considered poisonous and at other times to have a precious jewel on their backs or in their heads which could detect poison, but the link with death was a bit more puzzling. A potter round the internet revealed that toads are associated with the Other World, because of their ability to live in water or on land, they are (and here is another bit of jargon which is very fashionable in Social Sciences) betwixt and between creatures. I didn’t realise, though, that they are associated with women’s wombs and have been included in fertility rites.
I mention all this because I have been thinking about my death quilt, and I would definitely like to include an emerald green or bejewelled toad as an element in the piece. I think it would be fun to make one out of some sort of vivid green fabric, padded and with some precious stone on its back, and I like the ambiguity of the symbol. I like those symbols that have a certain duality – here the poison and the cure. So, when I get a moment I will look out some green silk or better yet some green velvet if I have some, and will make a start at my noisome toad. The reference, by the way comes from a sonnet by John Clare, although it may well have antecedents in Shakespeare…
The frog croaks loud, and maidens dare not pass
But fear the noisome toad and shun the grass;
And on the sunny banks they dare not go
Where hissing snakes run to the flood below.
The nuthatch noises loud in wood and wild,
Like women turning skreeking to a child.
The schoolboy hears and brushes through the trees
And runs about till drabbled to the knees.
The old hawk winnows round the old crow’s nest;
The schoolboy hears and wonder fills his breast.
He throws his basket down to climb the tree
And wonders what the red blotched eggs can be:
The green woodpecker bounces from the view
And hollos as he buzzes bye “kew kew.”