Species mentioned: toads (?B. bufo; E. calamita?) snakes (?N. natrix?) and newts (?T. cristatus, L. vulgaris, L. helveticus?).
Source: ‘A Bawd’, a mock-sermon discussing bawdy (rude) people.
Date: 1630. Late for this blog but still centuries ahead of its time.
Highlights: John Taylor does not describe toads, newts and snakes as polluting the water they are in but rather as only being found in clean water. It is centuries before this fact is generally accepted, and even longer before the significance of amphibians and reptiles as bio-indicators is appreciated.
John Taylor (1578-1653) was one of the leading figures in the London Guild of Watermen. When he wasn’t ferrying people or goods across the Thames, he was busy writing and “the Water-Poet” was one of the most famous authors of the seventeenth century (Capp, 2004). He commented on the deaths of William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser, and although he never gained royal approval like these sixteenth century poets, he did gain some measure of fame in London during his lifetime.
In 1630 Taylor published his Workes, a collection of all of his short creative endeavours. One of these was ‘A Bawd’ which was later published separately in 1635. ‘A Bawd’ consists of a poem followed by a tongue-in-cheek sermon which discusses both the archetypal bawd (dirty and lascivious people), and various bawdy people. The text is famous for its strong condemnation of the Pope, starting:
The first with spirituall Bawdes, whose honour high
[S]prings from the Whoredome of Idolatry
[Fea]st but your eyes vpon the Man of Rome,
That stiles himselfe the head of Christendome… (Taylor, 1630, p.93)
The part of the text we are interested in is a bit further down. Taylor explains that bawdy people are necessary for the commonwealth because they draw all the filth to themselves so that it does not pollute daily life for other people. He uses two natural metaphors to describe this, one of which describes amphibians and reptiles in a completely unexpected way.
Here’s what Taylor says:
We doe esteeme a Fountaine. Well, or Spring to be the more cleere from poyson, if a toad, a newt, or a, snake, be in either of them, for wee imagine that those venimous creatures doe sucke or extract all the contagion of that Christaline Element into themselues. (Taylor, 1630, p.99)
This continues his metaphor of the bawdy person drawing filth to themselves. Toads, newts, snakes and other known poisonous animals draw all the poison to themselves in exactly the same way.
It makes complete sense for his context, even if it is dubious scientifically. But at the same time it’s a really exciting reference.
Supposedly, amphibians and reptiles could poison standing water and fruit on trees. This was one of the only things people thought they knew about the animals (especially salamanders and snakes) prior to this point. Bestiaries are full of pictures of the animals caught in the act. We previously looked at the salamander in the Aberdeen Bestiary which is a typical example.
I like to think that Taylor is speaking as the Water-Poet here. Not only does the poet go against centuries of received wisdom about heptiles, he actually suggests the opposite: Ponds are likely to be all ‘the more cleere from poyson’ if a toad, newt or snake be in them. This is actually something scientists have discovered recently. Amphibians and reptiles can act as freshwater bio-indicators. As long as they are present, an ecosystem is probably healthy, although even if they are absent this need not necessarily indicate the ecosystem is inadequate (Lannoo, 2005, p.xxi).
For toads and newts this was an especially prescient idea. Amphibians have permeable skin which enables water and even oxygen to enter their bodies from outside (“cutaneous respiration” see: Cloudsley-Thompson, 1970). This is a fantastic adaptation but also makes them very susceptible to poison and toxins in their environment. They do draw in poisons in a way, although the poisons are more likely to kill them than to give them strength.
It is possible to make some guesses about which species Taylor was talking about. He talks about native newts (T. cristatus, L. vulgaris, L. helveticus), water snakes (=grass snake, N. natrix?) and toads. He probably knew the difference between frogs and toads so probably meant B. bufo or E. calamita). These identifications are interesting since the only kind of snake commonly associated with still water is the grass snake, and the grass snake is not poisonous at all (see: Beebee & Griffiths, 2000, p.163,170). Taylor’s account is also especially interesting because he does not mention (non-native) salamanders, which are the most common creature of this kind associated with poison and water. This, along with the fact Taylor challenges centuries of scholarship about this subject suggests that he may even be speaking from personal experience. He knows that these animals do not pollute water, and are in fact associated with the freshest water.
Ultimately, Taylor’s views were far ahead of the popular ideas of the time. Sadly, the idea of amphibians and reptiles poisoning water proved too popular to be defeated by his words alone. It took until the time of Bell’s British Reptiles (1838) for the public as a whole to accept the idea.
Sadly, no-one else seems to have ever realised that the Water-Poet was centuries ahead of his time in his knowledge of water creatures. This is yet another symptom of the widespread lack of ecological knowledge and interest among historians.
Much later on, the idea of toads, newts and snakes which he presented in ‘A Bawd’ were the foundations of ideas about using amphibians and reptiles as bio-indicators and thinking of animals as inseparable from their ecosystems rather than independent units of study. If only more people had taken Taylor’s interest in the species, science today might have much less catching up to do, and the environment might not be at such a crisis moment. Unfortunately amphibians and reptiles were far more pervasively shown as dangerous pests rather than as the proper denizens of clean-water, as I have explained previously.
I’d like to express my thanks to Rory Dimond and Colin Williams of the UK Amphibian and Reptile Groups for their help with this post.
Beebee T & Griffiths R (2000) Amphibians an Reptiles. (The New Naturalist, London)
Capp B (2004) Taylor, John (1578–1653). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. [accessed 2/8/14]
Cloudsley-Thompson JL (1970) The significance of cutaneous respiration in BUFO REGULARIS Reuss. International Journal of Biometeorology. 14:361-4.
Lanoo MJ (2005) Amphibian Declines. University of California Press.
Taylor J (1630) All the Workes of Iohn Taylor the Water Poet. Iames Boler, London.