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The toad features widely in English folklore, in beliefs, cures, and customs, but its roles are often contradictory, and in many of the following frogs and toads are apparently interchangeable. One of the factors which contributed to the toad's evil reputation was its reputed connection with witchcraft, as witches were widely believed to use them as familiars and to turn themselves into toads when they wished. A story reported from Ashburton (Devon) in 1876 relates how a man who had no strength to work found a great toad in his house one evening. He killed it with a pitchfork and threw it on the fire. The following evening he found another, which he dispatched in the same way and his strength returned (quoted in Opie and Tatem, 1989: 408).

On the other hand, beliefs printed in several 19th-century folklore collections stress that should you find a toad in the house you should remove it carefully, precisely because it might be a witch. Toads in the house are generally reported as unlucky or dangerous, but the earliest known reference to this belief only dates from the 1830s. Earlier sources, from the 12th century onwards, refer to meeting a toad in the outdoors, and in most cases this is, paradoxically, regarded as lucky, although there is a hint that if it crosses your path from the left it is not so good. By the 19th and 20th centuries, however, as many reports say it is unlucky as lucky.

For centuries, it was taken for granted that toads were poisonous. Shakespeare refers to this, and the toadstone:Sweet are the uses of adversityWhich, like the toad, ugly and venomous,Wears yet a precious jewel in his head(As You Like It II. I)

(As You Like It II. I)

Another old notion, based on the belief that both toads and spiders were venomous, was that they had such an antipathy for each other that they would fight if they met and would both be killed in any encounter.

But it is in the realm of folk-medicine that the toad becomes a valuable commodity. Many of the older folklore collections report remedies in which the toad figures strongly, being used to cure, among many other ailments, cancer, rheumatism, plague, abscesses, nosebleeds, sprains, smallpox, the king's evil, and whooping cough. The methods of preparing the toad vary, but there are two main ways, depending on whether you want the whole toad or only part of it. A number of cures call for the toad to be powdered: ‘Put the toads alive into an earthen pot, and dry them in an oven moderately heated, till they become fit to be powdered’ (Paris's Pharmacologia (1833), 6, quoted in N&Q 10s:2 (1904), 325) while others use the live toad whole, or a leg: ‘In the neighbourhood of Hartlebury (Worcestershire) they break the legs of a toad, sew it up in a bag alive, and tie it round the neck of a patient’ (Gentleman's Magazine, part II (1855), 384–6). The wearing of something in a bag around the neck is a common element in folk-medicine.


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