Archaic Proverbs

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the February 2000, A.S. XXXIV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

One the best ways of evoking a medieval atmosphere is to speak in a medieval fashion, to speak forsoothly. Many articles have been written in the past teaching people the grammar necessary. But in the face of talking with other people speaking in modern grammar, and phraseology, it becomes very difficult to maintain this archaic mode of talking. This essay will ignore the grammatical differences, and concentrate on some of the proverbs used in the period on the theory it is easier to expand a person's vocabulary, then to change the way they talk. By substituting medieval allusions for the modern phraseology will help evoke that medieval atmosphere. There are many proverbs of the period are best known through or were created by Shakespeare. For the purposes of this essay I’ll ignore those.

"A cat may look at a king"2
The origins of this one is obscured, it was first recorded in a collection in 1546. It is usually used as an assertion of some right. The French version is"Even a dog may look at a bishop".

"All lay loads on a willing horse"2
The horse in question is a pack-horse. And, of course, it is easiest to put the larger loads on a docile horse.

"Anything may be spoken if it be under the rose"4
This ancient proverb apparently arose from a Greek myth in which Cupid uses a rose as a bribe to insure silence of Venus’s love affairs. Thus the rose came to symbolize silence. The proverb also appears as the Latin phrase‘sub rosa’.
"Art is long, life is short"2
This first written in English by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1374, but is really a section of the original Hippocratic Oath. The sentiment here is that to master a craft takes longer then a lifetime.

"Cut your coat according to your cloth"2
While first recorded 1546, this could easily be from the previous century. What is being alluded to here are the various sumptuary laws that were passed in the wake of the Black Plague. The intended advice is to live and act within your allocated station. More recently it has been taken to mean to live within one’s income.

"Empty vessels make the most sound"4
This one by John Lydgate in "Pilgrimage of Man" of 1430 is stating that the less someone has to say the louder he says it.

"Far-fetched and dear-bought is good for ladies"4
This lament of boyfriends, suitors, and husbands is from 1350.

"It is best first to catch the stag, and afterwards, when he has been caught, to skin him"2
Bracton recorded this proverb in a law treatise in 1250. You can call it a noble version of"Don’t count your chickens..."

"The cat and dog may kiss, yet are none the better friends"4
A statement of the obvious from 1225.

"The cowl does not make the monk"4
The medieval version of the"Judging a book..." proverb from 1340.

"The good Bernard does not see everything"4
The Bernard being referred here is St. Bernard of Clairvaux who was a major theologian and reformer of the 12th century and was held in the same regard then as Einstein does today. This proverb, penned by Geoffrey Chaucer, proclaims that even the best don’t know everything.

"The nearer the church, the further from God"2
An expression that shows that cynicism was well established in 1303 when this was written down. While not so pithily stated, similar sentiments can be found in various written several centuries earlier.

"The pitcher goes so often to the well that it is broken at last"2
This is a somewhat obtuse fourteenth century way of saying:"Everything comes to an end." While obscure today, it was a favorite proverb to be illustrated during the late Renaissance and Baroque periods.

"The proof of the pudding is in the eating"2
The pudding of this proverb is not the smooth milk based desert of today, but the medieval mixture of minced meat, oatmeal, and seasonings. There are many recipes for such puddings, the most infamous is haggis. The difficulty with these puddings is that it is difficult to tell how the turn out by looking, and only by eating could it be told how they came out. The word ‘proof’ is used in this context in its archaic meaning of ‘test.

"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"4
This attack on the concept of class was reportedly first said by Richard Rolle of Hampole around 1340, but its most famous use occurred in 1381 by John Ball during the Peasant’s Revolt. The word ‘delved’ here means to dig with a shovel, i.e. to farm. The word ‘span’ is the archaic past tense of the word ‘spin’.

"When bale is highest, boot is nighest"4
This statement of hope was penned in"The Owl and the Nightingale" in 1350. ‘Bale’ is an archaic word meaning mischief or sorrow, while boot is Middle English for advantage or recompense.

"Benefit of Clergy"3
One of the benefits of the churchmen was immunity from the secular courts. Important as ecclesiastical courts did not have the death penalty, and did not usually try secular charges. And since for most of the period the most distinguishing mark of the clergy was the ability to read. The most common passage used to test reading ability was the first verse of the 54th Psalms:"Save me, O God, by thy name, and judge me by thy strength."

"Born to the Purple"3
The phrase come not from the purple clothes traditional reserved to royalty, but from the special birthing room in Constantinople used by the Byzantine empress. It is lined with porphyry, which is a purple colored stone.

"Robbing Peter to pay Paul"1
In 1560 Old St. Paul's Cathedral (later to be burned down the Great London Fire of 1666) was in serious need of repair. Since the Dissolution, Westminster Abbey, officially called Collegiate Church of St. Peter in Westminster, and St. Paul's formed the diocese of London. Thus some revenues for Westminster was diverted to pay for the repair work at St. Paul.



1.(Beeson, Trever.)

2. (Flavell, Linda et. al.)

3. (Oppel, Frank.)

4. (Pickering, David.)



Beeson, Trever. Westminster Abby. BarcelonaFISA, 1983.

Flavell, Linda, and Roger Flavell. Dictionary of Proverbs and Their Origins. New YorkBarnes and Noble Books, 1993.

Oppel, Frank. Why Do We Say It?The Stories Behind the Words, Expressions and Cliches We Use. SecaucusCastle Books, 1985.

Pickering, David. Cassell's Dictionary of Proverbs. LondonCassell, 1997.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

back to article index