LRB letter: ‘Weather-forecasting frogs’

On the unlikely 17th and 18th-century German fashion of keeping tree frogs to forecast the weather.

The following letter appeared in the 24th September 2015 edition of The London Review of Books. It was in response to an article entitled Too Many Pears by Thomas Keymer, which reviewed The Court Journals and Letters of Frances Burney 1786-91, Vols III-IV: 1788, edited by Lorna Clark. My letter refers to the following passage from the review:

Fellow courtiers are caught by Burney’s lash, notably the atrocious Mrs Schwellenberg, an Angela Merkel-like operator who had run the queen’s household for decades, and who, when not tormenting underlings at court, relaxed in the company of her pet frogs: ‘A commendation ensued, almost ecstatic, of their most recreative & dulcet croaking, & of their Ladder, their Table, & their amiable ways of snapping live flies.’

I had previously written about the strange phenomenon of weather-forecasting frogs on the Friends of Charles Darwin blog.

Readers bemused, as Frances Burney seems to have been, by Mrs Schwellenberg’s frogs and their ladders might be interested to learn of the 17th and 18th-century German fashion of keeping tree frogs to forecast the weather. The idea was that, mimicking their behaviour in the wild, as good weather approached the frogs would climb the thoughtfully provided ladders to catch insects that flew higher in such conditions. The frogs were, in effect, supposed to function like primitive barometers. W.G. Sebald makes reference to these weather-forecasting frogs in his poem ‘Barometer Reading’:

Nothing can be inferred
from the forecasts

Tree frogs
are ignoring their ladders

I understand that German weather forecasters are still known as Wetterfrosch (‘weather frogs’).

Richard Carter
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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