An Empire of Frog: Notes On The Consumption of Form
This source I rather like as it contains many of the subjects that interest wrapped up in one form. Star jelly is a substance I will examine in the future (between the 18th and 19th century there was hardly a gentleman with an interest in natural history who had not stepped in this substance on a country walk) along with the will o the wisp and spontaneous generation. Identity and the frog will return to with the Nativisim and frog debate that will erupt some years later in the wake of a shocking archeological discovery.
The writer is more open to continental influence rather than the Irish forms of natavisim, which were gaining ground amongst sections of the learned classes, who imagined an uncontaminated Celtic past free from outside influence and filled with the pure unbroken voice of Volk tradition. The potato famine was not yet in full force but the conditions for it were in place and the peasantry existed on a knife edge, starvation an ever present threat. The text is somewhat chilling in this regard and in its casual throw away reference, to what would become one of the most devastating periods in Irish history.
His remarks do however suggest that the frog is viewed as a relatively abundant species and one familiar to the peasantry. A slightly different picture will be presented in the great frog controversy of the 1870’s. But the sides in this debate it is to be suggested were shaped and drawn long before this date. The frog/ toad (medieval classification is somewhat different to modern; these are venomous creatures who all share the same means of reproduction i.e spontaneous generation) was already referring to a creature other than itself by the 12th century in Ireland (1).
“The vulgar opinion that Frenchmen eat frogs for want of better food is quite erroneous; the contrary is the fact; for a fricassee of these animals is an expensive dish in France, and is considered a delicacy. Its chief merit appears to me to be its freedom from strong flavor of any kind; a delicate stomach may indulge in it without fear of a feeling of repletion. In this country the foolish prejudices which forbid the use of many attainable articles of wholesome food, applies with force to frogs. Our starving peasants loath what princes of other nations would banquet on, and leave to badgers, hedgehogs, buzzards, herons, pike and trout, sole possession of a very nutritive and pleasant article of food. When devoured by the heron, it is in part converted into a source of wonder to the unenlightened; for the curious masses of whitish jelly found on the banks of rivers and other moist places and said by the country people to be fallen stars (2), are so far as I have been able to observe, masses of immature frog spawn in a semi digested state; and they seemed to me to have been rejected by herons just as we see hawks and owls reject balls of hair, feathers or other indigestible portions of their pray.”
The Irish Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No.14 (oct 3, 1840)
(1) Frog/ Toad/ Snake; These animals had more in common than separated them in the medieval period; unsafe to assume the feeling we have of knowing and identifying species (and taking such knowledge for granted) is naturally repeated through time. When John Ray put forward his definition of species based on reproduction, the argument that different kinds of goose who were all still thought to be subject to reproduction by spontaneous generation and therefore should be treated as a single species was a serious suggestion. But it was suggestion that lead to rigor of scientific testing. Anatomical examination of reproductive origins of various kinds of birds were undertaken at the time to determine the validity of the philosophical proposition. In this moment of time we gaze at the historical horizon of modern biology at its inception.
(2)The explanation that star jelly was the vomit of birds shot out in the air at high speed was first suggested by Thomas Pennant. Return to it later look more fully and repetition and difference between 18th and 19th century authoritative narratives on this subject. Will look at some other explanations Erasmus Darwin for example thought that birdlime (a glue like substance used for trapping birds) was mistaken for the substance. My favorite explanation is the somewhat dour Scottish minister who in what seemed to be motivated by a vanity of the eye bout of indignation thought the substance was nothing more than rotten potato skins.
Star Jelly was a much talked about substance, of high value in the chatter of the learned classes at the time. A substance every one wanted to see, examine and discuss and clearly many did find what they wished to seek.
A theme that repeats in these narratives on the subject of star jelly is that a single answer is always given as explanation. It is a mis-identification of a natural phenomena. This is the traditional form of conclusion given within the natural sciences in its narratives dealing with belief and the story’s that shape it. It is the answer it has customarily found most pleasing.
Frogspawn by Tarquin