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July 19, 2009

Death by Toad Poison

This is the inaugural entry in what I hope will be a long series I’m calling Medieval Death Trip, a collection of miscellaneous grotesque, peculiar, or curious episodes from medieval texts. It is inspired by Michael Lesy’s cult-sensation doctoral thesis Wisconsin Death Trip. The following little narrative is from uThomas of Monmoth’s Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich.

There was, then, a woman of Brandney called Wimarc, who in the time of king 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, believing that were he dead they would be free, while, as long as he lived, they were in danger. And, inasmuch as the keeper of the prison, who was the gaoler, was accustomed to drink with them when their beer was brought to them, they took a toad (of which, as I said, there were many in the prison) and mixed its poison with the drink when it was brought as usual, and invited the gaoler to drink, handing him at one moment the cup and death. But he, whether because God’s providence would preserve him, or because he had some touch of suspicion, bade them first taste what they had offered him. Whereat, their craft being discovered, they grew red with confusion, and pale with fear and stiff with terror. The gaoler at the sight perceived that these signs pointed to some wicked intention, and turning the tables upon them forced them all to drink the draught. Compelled whether they would or no to do this, they became compassers of their own death, after contriving the death of another. Immediately the venom crept through the limbs of each, and all of them swelled up in so wonderful and horrid a manner that any man who saw them would be convinced that their skin must break. What more? The poison saturated them through and through, and their life was brought to the doors of death. The rest died; Wimarck alone survived. The others were buried as dead; she was released as being thought to be at the point to die: but her life was spared, whether because she had taken less of the poison than the rest, or because the mercy of God was decreeing her salvation. In so far as she had escaped death, she was happy, but wretched in that for seven years’ space she was not rid of the monstrous swelling. All her limbs were inflated to an incredible extent, so that one would discern in her not so much the figure of a human being as the portentous form of some new monster. Her body consequently presented a hideous appearance to the beholder: and one looking at her would wonder that the skin so forcibly distended did not break. In this wretched plight the poor woman, seeing that the swelling did not subside, repaired to doctors, and spent on them whatever she had. But the labour was lost and the money wasted, though ultimately she was accounted worthy to find healing, when she betook herself to the refuge of the divine pity. For when she perceived that she had been mocked and left destitute by the doctors, she thought she must consult the saints and visit their shrines. She accordingly visited many, and at length came to Norwich, and there determined to remain for some time and wait for the divine mercy to be procured by the intercession of the merits of the holy martyr William. After she had now spent some days there, on a solemn feast-day, when according to custom a great throng of people had assembled at the blessed martyr’s tomb, and she among them, she came forth from the throng and approached the holy and venerable sepulchre, and she obtained a speedy healing. For when she had kneeled down and uttered a short prayer, she pressed her lips on the tomb, and forthwith vomited all that poisonous discharge on the pavement. I can only describe it by saying that it was horrible — nay, unbearable, that there was enough of it to fill a vessel of the largest size, that the bystanders were constrained to leave the place, and the sacrists to cleanse the spot and strew it with fragrant herbs. The poor woman left the church in haste and got rid of all that was left of the poison. The result was that in one hour’s time, she who, as I have said, had been swollen to an incredible size, now appeared as slim and healthy as if she had never suffered from a swelling at all. Being thus cured, she gave thanks to God and St William, and betook herself to Rome, where she told Pope Adrian what bad happened to her; and returning whole she remained long in life to bear witness to the miracle.

[From The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich (Jessopp and James 1896), Book 6, Chap. 13. pp. 246–250.]


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