Dragons in the SkyDragons in the SkyDragons in the SkyDragons in the SkyDragons in the Sky

Dragons in the SkyCurve

"In this year terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Year 793)


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors



'Wisdom and Proverbs'
Dr Paul Cavill
University of Nottingham
March, 2001

I. Some Proverbs

Who first said mind your p’s and q’s or hungry as a hunter or many men, many minds, or a miss is as good as a mile? Nobody really knows, though scholars have traced the earlier recorded uses of these sayings. And although we know what they mean, we find that the third proverb is proved true when we ask what the p’s and q’s of the first one refer to: everybody has their own theory, some more probable than others (possibly ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, but who knows?). These examples tell us useful things about proverbs, and we will explore some of these in relation to Old English wisdom literature.

Many, if not most, of them originated in speech, and the sound (the initial h in hungry as a hunter, m in a miss is as good as a mile) or pattern (‘many x, many y’) or image (whatever the p’s and q’s are) of the saying appealed to others to the extent that they used it themselves, and it became widespread in speech and was eventually written down. These are ‘sayings’ and that usually implies that it was not necessarily the learned people who coined these proverbs. Certainly in early times learned, literate people were the ones who wrote proverbs down, but that was often at the end of a long process, not at the beginning of it. Often enough writers use phrases like ‘as the proverb says ...’ or ‘as the saying goes ...’ or ‘as it is said ...’. This ‘popular’ aspect of proverbial wisdom led to it becoming less acceptable as time went on for the upper classes and the learned people to use proverbs. Latin tags can be seen to replace proverbs in the Middle Ages; characters like Pandarus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Polonius in Hamlet with their proverbial sententiousness, become figures of fun.

Within the culture which gives them rise, or more generally if they are universal truths, proverbs have a kind of self-evident authority. Mind your p’s and q’s fits into a culture where rank or age or wealth or some other feature of social superiority is held to merit politeness and propriety in speech on the part of others. Most cultures have proverbs of their own about the important matter of social decorum, but mind your p’s and q’s is largely specific to England, and because its ethical stance seems old-fashioned now, specific also to the culture of the past. But we can imagine it being said by a parent to a child visiting a respected grandparent or a headmaster or a possible employer, and the circumstances of its performance gave it authority.

On the other hand, the Roman poet Terence recorded, if he did not coin, the phrase Quot homines, tot sententiae, literally ‘so many people, so many opinions’, which comes into Old English as swa monige beoþ men ofer eorþan, swa beoþ modgeþoncas, which, with the addition of ‘on earth’ to ‘people ...’, is a precise parallel to Terence. Clearly here the proverb is true in a very general sense, and it could be echoed in most cultures as a universal truth. Some proverbs are culturally specific, and others are nearly universal. This one has the irrefutable authority of being an observable truism.

Hungry as a hunter, I suspect, derived from the biblical story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis chapter 25. Esau was so desperately hungry after his hunting that he gave up his rights as his father’s heir in return for some food his brother Jacob had ready. But the proverbial phrase is not recorded until the end of the 16th century, and any explicit connection it might have had with the biblical story has been lost. There might be some connection here with that unheeded text of Chaucer’s Monk, in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, ‘that seith that hunters ben nat hooly men’. In this case the proverb has probably generalised itself, that is, it has lost its specific reference to the story and to the moral disapproval the story implies, as it has been used. But whether they are culturally specific or ‘universal’, it is clear that proverbs show us, or lead us to speculate about, interesting things relating to the culture in which they are used.

Change often happens as proverbs are passed on. This can happen to the proverbs themselves, as they are polished and improved. A miss is as good as a mile was originally An inch in a miss is as good as an ell, according to The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. It has come down to us today in a shorter, tighter version, with the repeated m-sound. But the later version is elliptical, it misses out elements which would normally be essential to the meaning, whereas the earlier one is more explicit, with inch and ell contrasting. An ell is an obsolete measurement which was just short of four feet, and clearly the point is that it doesn’t matter how far wide a miss is, it is still a miss. We need to supply this meaning to the modern proverb, with words such as ‘A [near] miss is as good as a [miss a] mile [wide of the target]’. In short, we have to know what the proverb means to know what it means!

And change happens within the society using proverbs. Sometimes the meaning of a proverb remains even after the precise reference has been lost, as with p’s and q’s. We know the proverb means ‘be polite’ even though we might only have a theory as to what the p’s and q’s are. In the same way, we know what being hoist with one’s own petard means, while we might only have a hazy idea what a petard is, or indeed what being hoist with it might be, though it all sounds rather painful.

A quick analysis of these English proverbs has highlighted perhaps three things: proverbs are closely related to the society which produced them; they have authority within the society for a limited time; and change happens both to proverbs and to the society using them (or trying not to use them).

II. Importance

Most ancient cultures have proverbs, and there is clear evidence for the importance of proverbs and wisdom more generally. Some of the earliest written texts are wisdom literature. Wise sayings and proverbs are found collected in Sumerian and Babylonian as well as Hebrew (the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), and later Jewish literature (books like The Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus), from a thousand years or more BCE onwards. Greek and Roman literature have collections from the first millennia BCE and CE. And somewhere near the end of the first millennium CE, we can find collections of wisdom material, proverbs and sayings in Old English poetry and prose (Maxims I and II, The Durham Proverbs, The Old English Dicts of Cato, and scattered throughout Old English), and in Old Norse (particularly a poem called Hávamál, but also more widely).

It is worth asking what we have in the modern world which equates with these books and poems. We might occasionally use proverbs in speaking or jokes, but nowadays we tend to find self-consciously ‘wise’ sayings in specific places: ‘Just a thought’ space-fillers in general newspapers and magazines, ‘Thought for the day’ on the radio or in papers, ‘Quotable quotes’ in Readers Digest, ‘Tips and tricks’ in more specialist magazines. The thing to notice about all these is that though they appear in mainstream media outlets, the particular places to which the wisdom is confined make it clear that wisdom is marginal, that is, it is for people with this particular inclination or need or interest, and different from the stock-in-trade of the medium. Alongside this, we have catchphrases, perhaps from films or advertising, and more recently from computing, which have a wide currency for a while: so currently it is chic to be geek, and a little while back, it was said that greed is good; and a universal truth recently discovered is garbage in, garbage out.

This contemporary picture contrasts with what we find in Old English. There we have catchphrases and proverbs both in mainstream literature and in collections, which are themselves given prominence by being placed where they are. So, for example in Beowulf we have heroic maxims like Deaþ biþ sella/ eorla gehwylcum þonne edwitlif ‘Death is better for every nobleman than a life of shame’, a maxim that encourages Wiglaf to risk his life helping Beowulf to fight the dragon. And we find similar expressions in many another heroic and Christian poem, some of which seem to be repeated: Dol biþ se þe his dryhten nat, to þæs oft cymeþ deaþ unþinged ‘He is foolish who does not know his Lord; death often comes suddenly to such’, in Maxims I, 35 is paralleled by Seafarer 106, Dol biþ se þe him his dryhten ne ondrædeþ; cymeþ him se deaþ unþinged ‘He is foolish who does not fear his Lord; death comes suddenly to him’. So far as we can tell from the broad spread of Old English wisdom sayings, they seem to reflect a pretty general world view. They are not marginal, nor are they restricted to a specific class of people or a certain kind of poem.

The importance of wisdom literature becomes even clearer in the collection called The Durham Proverbs. It is sandwiched between a glossed version of a major Latin hymnbook, and a grammar of Latin in Old English by Ælfric. Part of this might have been an accident of binding, but even the binder must have thought there was something similar about the two parts of the book that he bound together. The proverbs themselves are given in both Latin and Old English. So they have got all the trappings of importance and learning, both in the way they are written and in the place where they are put when written.

But when we look at the proverbs in the Durham manuscript, it is clear that importance and learning are not divorced from a strong and earthy sense of humour. Nu hit ys on swines dom cwæþ se ceorl sæt on eoferes hricge, ‘"Now it’s up to the pig," said the peasant who sat on the boar’s back’, says one. Ne swa þeah treowde þeah þu teala eode cwæþ se þe geseah hægtessan æfter heafde geo[...], ‘"Nevertheless I wouldn’t trust you, though you go well," said the man who saw a witch going along on her head’, says another. It is probable that the first one is a recommendation to take care over who you allow to have power over you, who you entrust yourself to; and the second one is about how far you can trust people who look impressive, or can do impressive things: packaging isn’t everything. Both combine a farcical image with sharply witty comment.

Wisdom is both widespread and important in Old English literature, and it covers pretty much the whole of life, from the dilemmas of heroic conduct, through to the canny suspicions ordinary people might have of Flash Harrys of all kinds.

III. The Art of Persuasion

There are two sets of Old English poetic proverbial material called Maxims. One is in the Exeter Book, an important collection of Old English poetry, and the other is in a manuscript containing a major version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Once again, the placing of these poems in the manuscripts shows that the scribes treated them as important. The poem called Maxims II (which seems to act almost as a preface to the Chronicle) has a catalogue of things and their proper places. So the wolf belongs in the forest, the javelin belongs in the hand, the mast belongs on a ship, the dragon belongs in the burial mound, God belongs in heaven, loyalty belongs in a warrior, and so on. The fascinating thing here is the way the poet exploits the repetitive form of the verse catalogue to persuade people. Some of these things are obvious. The first three, for example: a mast without a ship, or a ship without a mast, are less than fully useful. But dragons?

Draca sceal on hlæwe,

frod, frætwum wlanc.

(A dragon, old and proud of its treasures, belongs in a burial mound.)

The dragon in the mound probably reflects a Germanic folk taboo which promised disaster to anyone disturbing a burial mound. The second half of Beowulf revolves around the chaos unleashed by the disturbing of the dragon sitting on its hoard. Sadly, not everybody was troubled by this idea, and many Anglo-Saxon mounds have been disturbed and robbed. And those who robbed the mounds probably did not encounter dragons. But the verse encourages the audience in their belief in dragons, and everybody knew where they were usually to be found. The maxim at least tells people how to avoid dragons, and if most people did not disturb burial mounds, it might have at least seemed that the maxim was true.

If the dragon reflects a folk belief, the lines about God, ‘the judge of deeds’, reflect a religious belief; and the lines about loyalty a cultural, heroic belief. The poet makes no distinction, mixing science, folklore, religion and ethics. The individual dragon maxim can be ‘proved’ true along with the others, if anyone wanted to try. But when the maxims are put together they have the effect of reinforcing each other. This elicits from the audience the feeling that all the ideas are just as obvious and factual as each other: they are all treated in broadly the same way and are presented as incontrovertible fact. To deny one of the maxims in this series is to make holes in the socially-constructed fabric of belief.

This was one of the problems with proverbs and wisdom sayings, at least as far as some people were concerned. They sound important and true and obvious. The homilist and later archbishop Wulfstan, around the turn of the first millennium CE, was indignant about some proverbs he heard:

Cweþaþ ... to worde þa þe syndan stunte, þæt micel forhæfednes lytel behealde, ac þæt mete wære mannum gescapen to þam anum þæt men his scoldan brucan, 7 wimman to hæmede þam þe þæs lyste.

(The foolish ... say as a proverb that great asceticism is of little importance, but that food was made for the sole purpose that people should eat it, and woman for the purpose of sexual intercourse for those who desire it. )

Wulfstan quotes these sayings as proverbs in his homily De Septiformi Spiritu, and they may have been genuinely popular. The first has the contrasting ‘great x, little y’ structure, and the last proverb has the parallel ‘a for b, y for z’ structure. The latter has a sixteenth-century parallel, ‘All meats to be eaten, and all maids to be wed’ (again we see the tightening of the way the proverb is phrased). But as far as Wulfstan was concerned, these proverbs were attacking the fundamental principles of monasticism and Christianity, where bodily appetites were rigorously repressed for spiritual purposes. This was a difficult time for monasticism, and Wulfstan was doing his best to defend and extend it. So he gave these proverbs the full treatment:

And soþ is þæt ic secge, mid eal swylcan laran Antecrist cwemeþ 7 laþlice forlæreþ ealles to manege. Forþam nis æfre ænig lagu wyrse on worulde þonne hwa folgie eallinge his luste 7 his lust him to lage sylfum gesette.

(But what I say is the truth, by means of all such teaching, Antichrist entices and hatefully leads astray all too many. For never in the world is there any worse law than that someone should entirely indulge his inclination, and set his own inclination up as law for himself.)

In the process of refuting these proverbs, we might note, Wulfstan is also opposing the suggestion that women are ‘for’ the gratification of men. This is just one of many proverbs which express a misogynistic view, and it is a churchman who gives it the lie. On the other hand, this is also an early example of a learned man refusing to accept popular proverbs, but curiously recording the earliest forms of them.

IV. Change

Most Old English proverbs are lost to modern speakers, though some survived through the Middle English period. There are two copies of a little poem called Latin-English Proverbs in Old English. Like the Durham Proverbs, they are given in both Latin and the vernacular. The proverbs are used in the Middle English poem The Owl and the Nightingale:

Ardor frigesscit, nitor squalescit,

amor abolescit, lux obtenebrescit.

Hat acolaþ, hwit asolaþ,

leof alaþaþ, leoht aþystraþ.

Senescunt omnia que terna non sunt.

Æghwæt forealdaþ þæs þe ece ne byþ.

(Heat grows cold, white becomes dirty, the beloved becomes hated, light becomes dark. Everything which is not eternal decays with age.)

These lines become:

Nis nout so hot þat hit nacoleþ,

Ne nogt so hwit þat hit ne soleþ,

Ne nogt so leof þat hit ne aloþeþ,

Ne nogt so glad þat hit ne awroþeþ:

Ah eauere euh þing þat eche nis

Agon schal, & al þis worldes blis. (1275—80)

(There is nothing so hot it does not grow cold, nothing so white it does not become dirty, nothing so loved it does not become hated, nothing so cheerful it does not get angry. But everything that is not eternal shall pass away, and all this world’s joy.)

Interestingly, these lines are about the very process of change that they illustrate.

A last example of change appears in the use of a late Old English proverb in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, under the year1130:

man seiþ to biworde, hæge sitteþ þa aceres dæleth.

(people say as a proverb, ‘the hedge remains that divides fields’.)

The proverb here is about important differences. Hedges could be boundary markers between fields, and if two owners had fields side by side, both had an interest in maintaining the hedges. Unusual is the fact that the proverb is given a metaphorical application: just as the difference of ownership makes the hedge important, so the differences of discipline and style between the writer’s monasticism and that of the powerful monastic house of Cluny become a hedge which make it impossible for the English monastery to become part of the Cluniac movement.

Now a version of this proverb appears in the Middle English collection of proverbial material called The Proverbs of Hending:

Men seþ ofte breþren striue,

þe wiles þe fader is on liue,

Wo shal haven þat lond.

þe fader may hem ouerbide,

And þat lond, hit may atglide

In-to a fremde hond.

‘Heye he sit, þat akeres deleþ’ Quad Hending.

(Men often see brothers struggle about who is to have the land while their father is alive. The father may outlive them and the land may pass into the possession of a stranger. ‘He sighs deeply who divides the land’, said Hending.)

Hending’s proverb in the last line of the stanza is a version of the one in the Chronicle, but it has been misunderstood. There are only the smallest changes of sound in the recording of the proverb, but a complete change of meaning. The compiler of the Hending poem is clearly struggling to make sense of what the thinks the proverb means, and in the end he does quite well in that he gives us something that could perfectly well be a proverb: dividing land could be a miserable business for a wide variety of reasons. But it is a far cry from the original. Perhaps as far a cry as would be the explanations offered for p’s and q’s or being hoist with one’s own petard by most people today.

V. Conclusion

Proverbs and wisdom literature generally give us fascinating insights into the culture and mindset of the Anglo-Saxons. We have only been able to touch on some of the topics that beg to be treated in more depth. But if you would like to read more, here are some books and articles:

Arngart, Olof, ed., ‘The Durham Proverbs’, Speculum, 56 (1981), 288—300; an edition of the proverbs with commentary.

Cavill, Paul, Maxims in Old English Poetry (Cambridge: Brewer, 1999); a study of maxims and proverbs in Old English literature.

Cox, R. S., ed., ‘The Old English Dicts of Cato’, Anglia, 90 (1972), 1—42; an edition of the text with commentary.

Shippey, T. A., ed., Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English (Cambridge: Brewer, 1976); an edition of a collection of wisdom poems with a good introduction.

Whiting, Bartlett Jere, in collaboration with Helen Westcott Whiting, eds, Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases From English Writings Mainly Before 1500 (London: Oxford University Press, 1968); a referenced catalogue of proverbs and proverbial phrases.

Wilson, F. P. ed., The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970); a collection of proverbs from many sources.

Paul Cavill


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors