Join curator Matthew Winterbottom as he explores ancient beliefs about disease testing and vaccines, through the Ashmolean’s collection of toadstone rings. These bizarre pieces of jewellery have a lot to tell us about the human effort to find hope in the face of illness and uncertainty, even when it involves the strangest superstitions. And at the end of the day, it turns out that toadstones have nothing to do with toads after all…
Charm ring with toadstone – Find out more
Gold and toadstone ring - Find out more
Silver and toadstone ring - Find out more
Silver and toadstone charm ring - Find out more
If you want to take a closer look at the objects in this episode, you can view them at the links above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website: ashmolean.org/museum-secrets
Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Episode Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Matthew Winterbottom
About Museum Secrets: Welcome to season 2 of Museum Secrets. Every week Lucie Dawkins will take you behind the scenes at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. There are a million objects here in the Museum, each with its own hidden story. Come on in, as we track down the weird and wonderful among them, to give us a bitesized pick-me-up in these challenging times. Join us every week for a daily dose of cheer.
Lucie: It’s been an amazing few days here at the museum, as the massive front doors have swung open for the first time in nearly five months. It is wonderful to have you back inside, bringing the galleries to life again, and it's all thanks to the vaccine rollout. Curator Matthew Winterbottom has been thinking about different ways of fighting disease in history, starting in an unexpected place: the Ashmolean jewellery collections. Over to Matthew.
Matthew: One display that always attracts lots of attention from our visitors is the colourful case of medieval and Renaissance finger rings in our Arts of the Renaissance Gallery. Brightly lit and full of beautiful rings made from gold, silver and precious gems, it is no wonder that this feast for the eyes is so popular.
However, in amongst them, you will find a small group of four decidedly dour looking rings in the section devoted to magical jewellery. They are all made of gold or silver and set with domed circular stones of opaque brownish-grey colour. They would certainly not win any beauty contests, especially when compared with the colourful rubies, amethysts and sapphires shown nearby!
These are known as toadstones or bufonites (bufo is Latin for toad) and they have a long history in Europe of being worn as protective amulets or charms. The toadstone rings in the Ashmolean are all sixteenth or seventeenth century, but Pliny the Elder mentions toadstones as far back as the first century AD and we know they continued to be worn into the 18th century.
They were believed to have magical curative and protective qualities, especially when it came to poison. Since toads are poisonous, the logic went that toadstones could defend against poison. And not only that, they could detect it. They were supposedly most effective when worn against the skin, and many toadstone rings have open backs so that the stone is in direct contact with the wearer’s finger. If the wearer was poisoned, they were thought to heat up, sweat and change colour, alerting the wearer to the danger they are in. If a person was bitten by a venomous creature, a toadstone would be touched against the affected part as a cure.
In short, toadstones were the original rapid testing kit and vaccine, rolled into one. Except, of course, it was all superstition.
And toadstones were thought to be a real cure-all. As well as poison, they were also believed to cure epilepsy (then known as falling sickness) dropsy and kidney disease as well as being a useful cure for sores, fevers, bowel problems, and pain in labour. They were even said to prevent ships from sinking and houses from burning and bring victory to the wearer in war!
Given their many supposed powers, toadstones were a popular piece of jewellery. Mounted in expensive gold or more modest silver or even base metal rings, they were worn by all levels of society. One of our rings is even set with two toadstones for double protection.
In fact, most precious and semi-precious stones were believed to have wonderworking properties with specific protective or healing abilities. These were described in Medieval or early modern lapidaries, books which catalogued the supposed healing properties of different kinds stones. For example, carrying a diamond was recommended to keep limbs healthy and act as a shield from the dangers of wild animals and their poison. Sapphires could also detect poison and also heal heart problems and cure ulcers. Rubies were thought to keep the wearer safe by turning black if danger was present. More mundanely, amethysts were used to avoid drunkenness. These beliefs persisted from ancient times into the eighteenth century and the advent of modern science and medicine.
So, amongst all these glittering gems, why were the mud-coloured little toadstones considered so powerful, and how did they get their name?
Well, they were thought to resemble the colour and warty appearance of a toad’s skin, and it was believed that the stones were formed inside their heads. The story went that they could only be extracted from live toads: the unfortunate creatures were either placed on a red cloth, when it was said they would spit out the stone, or alternatively, they were trapped pot on top of an ant hill. The ants would eventually pick away the flesh of the poor toad and reveal the stone in its head.
This grim process is alluded to by Duke Senior in Shakespeare's play As You Like It, when he says:
Sweet are the uses of adversity;
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
Despite being believed for centuries, these stories are, unsurprisingly, entirely untrue! No toadstones have ever been extracted from a toad.
They are in fact the fossilised teeth of an extinct genus of ray-finned fish from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The shallow domed teeth were used for grinding and crushing their prey.
Toadstones were – and still are - found in fields and quarries, not in the heads of unfortunate amphibians! They can even be found locally in Oxfordshire Jurassic sediment. They have a naturally glossy surface and so, unlike most other gemstones, did not need to be polished before being set into rings.
Many different types of fossils were used as charms and amulets. Before the advent of modern geology in the early nineteenth century, when the true age of the earth was beginning to be understood, much mystery and folklore was attached to fossils. Confusion about fossils is right at the heart of the Ashmolean’s history. In the 1670s, the first curator of the museum, Robert Plot, acquired what was in fact the lower part of a femur of a Megalosaurus. Due to its shape and size, he identified it as the scrotum of a giant.
In the Christian West, the earth was still believed to have been created in seven days rather than over billions of years. It was not recognised that fossils were the petrified remains of ancient extinct creatures. Fanciful origins and even more fanciful protective qualities were attached to different types of fossils. Fossilised sharks’ teeth were known as tongue stones and, like toadstones, were thought to neutralise poison. Objects known as elf candles were actually belemnites, or ancient squids. They were thought to be the remains of lightning strikes and so would protect against lightening. Fossilised sea urchins were even thought to help bread rise!
It is easy for us today with our modern medicines to scoff at these beliefs. But in an age when terrible illness and death were constant dangers, people were willing to believe in even the most outlandish ideas. Our experiences over the past year certainly makes me sympathetic to this human capacity to find hope in the face of uncertainty. But it’s also a relief to remind ourselves how far we’ve come. This week, as we open the doors of the museum again, we can reflect on the sheer ingenuity of the many researchers across the world who collaborated to create multiple vaccines in a few months flat. That, in itself, is its own kind miracle. As I stand in front of the Ashmolean’s toadstones, I am so glad our testing and vaccine technology has developed beyond these little grey lumps. Come and visit them for yourself, in Gallery 56.
Lucie: Thanks for joining us for today’s episode. If you don’t have the chance to see these magical rings in person, you can find an image in the link in the podcast notes. We do hope you’re enjoying Museum Secrets - if so, please do rate, review, and share this episode. Join us next week, for the last story in the series.