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How the French became frogs: English caricature and a national stereotype

Apollo,  August, 2003  by David Bindman

Some years ago the London Institut Francais, a French government body, put out an elegant and witty poster to advertise French language courses at all levels from beginners to advanced students (Fig. 1). It pictures the development of a frog in stages from egg through tadpole to full maturity. The humour--unmistakeable to any British person--lay in its highlighting of the age-old identification of the French as frogs, and it was given a further level of irony through its use by a French organisation.


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That such a motif could register its meaning clearly without verbal explanation confirms the familiarity of the stereotype. The identification, furthermore, comes with a ready common-sense explanation. As everyone knows, the French eat frogs, and by the same token the English are, or were, known in France as 'les rosbifs'. The principle that we are what we eat seems reasonable in this case, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was not the French but the Dutch who were identified as frogs for just as commonsensical a reason: the Dutch and frogs were both at home in waterlogged terrain. It is true that the French were often caricatured in eighteenth-century literature and visual satires as frog-eaters, but--as we will see from looking at some English caricatures--that is not at all the same as being frogs.


In one of the foundation texts of eighteenth-century national polemic, John Arbuthnot's The History of John Bull, written in 1712 (1) we find that the author--a Tory--uses stereotypes of the English, Dutch and French to argue against going to war with France, taking the then unusual position that the Dutch were a more natural enemy of the English. The Englishman John Bull is a clothier, 'an honest plain-dealing fellow, Cholerick, Bold, and of a very unconstant Temper'; he is thus bull-like in his temperament, though he is susceptible to flattery and is easily led by other nations. The Dutchman, who is called Nic Frog, is a linen draper and, by contrast with John Bull, is 'a cunning sly Whoreson, quite the reverse of John in many particulars; Covetous, Frugal; minded domestick affairs; would pine his belly to save his Pocket, never lost a Farthing to careless servants, or bad debtors'. (2) The French are represented by their king, who plays a major part in the drama under the name of Lewis Baboon, a humorous corruption of Louis Bourbon.

Arbuthnot does not dwell especially on either the Englishman's bull-like or the Dutchman's frog-like character, though the latter does live in 'a marshy soil and unwholesome Air, infested with Fogs and Damps'. (3) Nic Frog represents an unscrupulous trading nation, and as a result he is sharp, crafty and devious, rather different from the fat, lazy though cunning peasant who appears in most anti-Dutch satire of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and who is only occasionally perceived as frog-like. In an English satire of 1665, entitled The Dutch Boare Dissected, or a Description of Hogg-Land, (4) the Dutchman is described as 'a Lusty, Fat, two legged Cheese-Worm: A Creature, that is so addicted to Eating Butter, Drinking fat Drink, and Sliding, that all the World knows him for a slippery Fellow.' What is more, 'he loves to be down in the Dirt, and Boare-like, to wallow therein.' He is thus both maggot and pig, bloated, drunken and idle, but he does live in a boggy country: couplets record that 'Their Quaqmire Isle/ t'would make one smile', and that 'Frogs in great Number/Their land doth Cumber'.

In an anti-Dutch satire of c. 1672, (5) Holland is represented as a huge horse turd, while the Dutch are now frogs who grow from maggots feeding on it (Fig. 2). A full-grown frog in military uniform pleads with the Devil: 'Sweet little Devill thou shall't hear my prayer/ A poor distressed Froglander to spare.' The Dutch, then, can on occasions be represented as frogs, and they certainly live among frogs, but there are other characteristics they are presumed to possess that require different animal prototypes. With the Dutch William III on the English throne from 1688, satire turned decisively away from the Protestant Dutch towards the Catholic French, hence Arbuthnot's hostility to the Dutch is exceptional in the period. In the first half of the eighteenth century, the Dutch appear in English satire much less frequently than the French, and when they do it is usually for exploiting their neutrality, as a dog that steals away the bone that two other (French and English) dogs fight over.


If the Dutch were usually represented in England in the eighteenth century as fat, the French by contrast were thin, affected, arrogant and false. The idea that the French were a nation of baboons or apes was commonplace by the beginning of the eighteenth century. An anonymous poem of 1704, entitled Baboon A-la-Mode, attacks the 'proud, perfidious, haughty French':

To Friendship, Constancy and Virtue Foes; In English, Fops and Knaves; in French, they're Beaus; In short, they are an ill contriv'd Lampoon; And to conclude, A French-Man's a BABOON. (6)