The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 17 (2017)

"Most Evident" or "Most Tricky"? Toward a Methodology for the Paremiological Study of Medieval Literature and Culture (Adapted From a Panel Discussion Held at the 50th Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, 2015)

Karl A. E. Persson, Brett Roscoe, Susan E. Deskis, Richard Harris, Brian O'Camb, Michael Drout

©2017 by Karl A. E. Persson, Brett Roscoe, Susan E. Deskis, Richard Harris, Brian O'Camb, Michael Drout. All intellectual property rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2017 by The Heroic Age. Permissions granted for educational and personal purposes only.


Karle A. E. Persson Mailto: Icon

Signum University

§1. The difficulty and allure of studying paremial wisdom traditions are their simultaneous participation in both dialectical and analogical thought—and their inability to fully and neatly occupy either category. Whereas classical dialectic is more interested in the thrust and parry of opposing arguments, and analogical thought is interested in the resonance of forms (the ways that x is like y insofar as both share a particular quality z),1 proverbs, wisdom collections, and wisdom traditions exist in the awkward nexus of these modes of thought; while the quality of the scholars involved in this panel warns us against exaggerating too extravagantly the neglect of this field, still, what neglect the field has suffered is largely due to the material's perceived failure to win merit in either category. As literature—the function of which is to celebrate the replication and differentiation of literary patterning and the conclusions that one might draw therefrom—wisdom fails because it is simply too didactic; contra the advice as old as Romanticism, that literature should show and not tell, wisdom and proverbs do tell, and sometimes in a way that is embarrassingly bald—Chaucer's Tale of Melibee is unlikely to pass muster at the local creative writing group.

§2. And yet, compared with the metaphysical or at the very least metacontextual heights achieved by the dialectical tensions explored in philosophy and theology proper, wisdom traditions can seem embarrassingly mundane, local, occasional, and trite; alongside more advanced dialectic concerning the ways people fall from power (Boethius), or the ways people fall into corruption (Milton), or even simply the ways people fall according to the physical principles of natural philosophy (Newton), the generalized instance that Michael Drout notes in his contribution to this panel, of the man falling from the tree in The Fates of Men, can strike one as the work of a thinker who has not got very far beyond his own doorstep. As panelist Brett Roscoe notes, this may in part be because traditions culminating in the Enlightenment (and arguably going back at least as far as the derision of Hamlet's hortatory Polonius) have offered few resources for appreciating such "doorstep-wisdom," most commonly called tradition; in the popular imagination of the complicated conglomerate still often referred to by scholars as "the West," such folk wisdom has been left behind along with most of our "more embarrassing" progenitors in the "Dark Ages."

§3. Accordingly, the challenge that post-structuralism and globalism have posed for Enlightenment thought and its heirs—the questioning of the supremacy of reigning instances of modern dialectic (philosophy and theology) and analogy (literature)—has in turn evoked a renewal of the possibility of serious scholarly engagement with wisdom and its contexts. Just to the degree that Kant's overreaching (and ironically sententious) motto, sapere aude, has foundered in its nakedness, scholars have turned their attention to other more humble and contextualized ways of knowing, and one of these ways is the way of wisdom and proverbs. In a scholarly context in which we generally question whether "great" literature is in fact great, and whether "authoritative" authors are in fact authoritative, it is understandable that wisdom literature and proverbs once dismissed as neither great nor authoritative should once again become a matter of interest among literary scholars—if not always in content, at least perhaps with regard to mechanism. In wisdom traditions, as in postmodern thought, the way humans can know things and evaluate their merit—whether by the authority of a sage, experience, or debate is as important if not more important than the particularity of the matters known. And it is precisely this question—how can we know if and when wisdom is being trustworthy, and how is it distinguishing itself as such?—that is at the heart of the topic of this forum.

§4. Unilaterally and resoundingly, the answer given in each of the following contributions is "context," and yet this answer is not given with mundane uniformity, but in polyphonic layers. Brett Roscoe engages the terminology of the discussion as a means of problematizing it; for Roscoe, even the meaning of what is "evident" and what is "tricky" depends on what we mean by these terms and the historical traditions out of which we speak, and his suggestion is that categories such as irony and straightforwardness may involve a reductive either/or pattern of thinking, and may miss some of the complexity of the premodern mind. With this caution in place, the forum proceeds to the more practical matter of mapping this complexity; these are studies of the agglutination, transformation, and situation of paremial forms in various media. Turning to matters of the wielding and generation of authority, Susan Deskis explores the role that poetic technique plays in determining the force of sentences, tracing the way that alliteration is used in Old English and some Middle English texts as a means of adding particular weightiness to paremial instances. Richard Harris investigates the nuance that occurs when Old Norse literature effectively reverse-engineers proverbs,2 opening them up such that they become a unifying factor in a narrative's plot. Whereas Harris finds proverbs entangled in narrative, O'Camb discovers them entangled in visual art, suggesting that this is a particularly important context to consider when thinking about the irony or lack of it in particular sayings. Michael Drout concludes with a nuanced discussion of the dynamism of proverb culture, pointing to contextualization as the means of determining the comport of a proverb, and resisting too simplistic interpretations of wisdom as either power-knowledge or proto-postmodern subversiveness; in resonances recalling Roscoe's opening piece, he warns against the paradoxical danger of appropriating according to our modern interests paremial instances indeed determined in meaning by their appropriation, though in their original contexts rather than our own postmodern fantasies. The unifying element of all these papers is a deep respect for the context of proverbs and wisdom—the fields in which they grow and the bouquets in which they have been arranged, so to speak—and a concern for their particularity yet also their potential multiple uses. What we discover from the panel is that proverbs are not stock characters in the literatures in which they appear—even if they may initially seem such—but characters as complicated or simple as the dramatic and social backdrops against which they appear. While the panel's answer to the original question seems to be indirect at best—"It depends on context"—the fruit of the panel is to show that early proverbs and wisdom in the contexts in which they appear merit more than a mere dismissal as literary set pieces; rather, they command our attention as literary sites potentially showcasing the outworkings of drama, authority, and tradition in social and literary contexts. Whether "most evident" or "most tricky," proverbs considered in relation to their literary backdrops are certainly most interesting—contra the caricatures of weary and boring didacticism too often assumed in the past to be the matter of wisdom and proverbs.

Prompt Question and a Note on Contributions

§5. Each of the respondents were given the following question in advance of the panel, and were requested to prepare an answer that could be delivered in approximately ten minutes; the following responses are written forms of each of these responses. I imagine that none is quite as thorough or complete as any of the authors could wish, given the complexity of the subject, so in evaluating each position, it is important to recall that the purpose of this panel in both oral and written form is provocative rather than comprehensive; it is designed to open up avenues of thought in relation to a burgeoning field rather than to thoroughly map them. While such intellectual provocation is arguably fitting in all academic contexts, it is I believe particularly so in the case of a panel on wisdom and proverbs. As discussed in the introduction, these matters are very often agglomerated and developed not only through dialectic—classical argument—but also through analogue—likeness and touch. As dependent as the conversation is on more traditional methods of debate, argumentation, and investigation, it is just as dependent on more accidental and circumstantial connections, including networks such as the Early Proverb Society, friendships welded by common academic interests, conferences such as the Congress on Medieval Studies, and a space and time set aside through the workings of a variety of scholarly efforts and generosities orchestrated by a chain of persons too complicated to allow me to thank each individually. Hence, it must suffice to thank each of the contributors for their time and energy, and to trust that the generosity of others involved indirectly will be recognized at some point in the future as part of those "gifts of men" so prominently featured in Old English wisdom, regularly unnoticed surprises awaiting those who have yet to discover the hopeful fact that generosity exists.

Panel Prompt

§6. Is truth "most evident," or is truth "most tricky?" As Fred Robinson has outlined, the answer to these questions from the perspective of the Old English Maxims II depends on whether the final word in soð biþ swicolost should remain as it is, or be emended to swutolost. Beyond their immediate context, however, these questions and the debate over emendation represent the broader theoretical question of the nature of maxims and other sentential materials. If swutolost—most evident—should this be understood as a rhetorical maneuvering of power-knowledge, as Michael Drout suggests of the relation between Maxims I and the Benedictine Reform; or rather, as Paul Cavill suggests, as a way of minimizing the "shock of the new" by applying to it the "relativizing descriptions" of which Old English maxims generally consist? And if swicolost—most tricky—does this trickiness resonate with a contemporary postmodern hermeneutic of subversion, as suggested in Elaine Tuttle Hansen's The Solomon Complex (1988); or does Old English wisdom only appear tricky because we encounter it in a premodern form unfamiliar to modern readers, as Nicholas Howe suggests in his work on Old English catalogue poems?

Use, Context, and Tradition: Towards a Hermeneutic of Proverbs

Brett RoscoeMailto: Icon

The King's University

§7. "Most evident" or "most tricky." The question Karl Persson has posed for us today is "most tricky" indeed, and I suppose he is looking for more of an answer than that I flip a coin, saying, if it's tails, evident; heads, tricky. I must confess, though, that I do not really have an answer to the question, if by answer we mean a method, a formula that allows us to definitively interpret all proverbs. But fortunately hermeneutics is larger than method. Even without a method, it is possible to discuss a hermeneutic of proverbs, and I believe that as we collectively work towards this hermeneutic certain terms will be central to the discussion. I wish to begin the conversation by meditating on three of these terms: use, context, and tradition.

§8. For many years now, folklorists and paremiologists have emphasized the fact that a proverb cannot be judged and cannot, to a certain extent at least, even be understood apart from its use by a specific speaker with a specific intention within a specific situation.3 A proverb does not float freely in the air; it is seized and used by speakers as a tool to various ends. So, for instance, the proverb "too many cooks spoil the broth" could be used to reject new help, supporting the status quo; but it could just as easily be used subversively to challenge a democratic ideology. I also sometimes wonder to what extent this proverb should be applied to Ph.D. dissertation committees, but that's a topic for another panel.4 The main point is that proverbs can be used in expected and therefore more evident, or unexpected and therefore trickier ways.

§9. The word "use" naturally leads to another important term, and that is "context." While everyone, I think, would agree that context is important, the problem lies in defining just what it is. Unfortunately, many folklorists and paremiologists restrict context to lived, social situations, which leads even great minds like Wolfgang Mieder to look askance at lists of proverbs,5 as such lists, being artificially detached from social contexts, could not possibly hold any real meaning. But what if proverbs and maxims are also given meaning by literary context? The first medieval example I want to examine is from the Old English Maxims I, and it begins:

Frost sceal freoson, fyr wudu meltan,
eorþe growan, is brycgian.
(Maxims I ll. 72–73)
Frost shall freeze, fire melt wood,
the earth grow, ice bridge over.

What could be more evident, more obvious, than this? It is like saying that fish will swim, or that rabbits will hop, or that academics will have conferences. But when we take the literary context into account, these simple lines become complicated. Following the poem's train of thought, we come to an important theological twist:

Frost sceal freosan, fyr wudu meltan,
eorþe growan, is brycgian,
wæter helm wegan, wundrum lucan
eorþan ciþas. An sceal inbindan
forstes fetre felameahtig god;
(Maxims I ll. 72–75)
Frost shall freeze, fire melt wood,
the earth grow, ice bridge over,
water wear a covering, [frost shall] wondrously enclose
the shoots of the earth. Only one shall unbind
the fetters of frost: almighty God.

Frost now becomes mysterious, wondrous evidence of God's power, a power that is imminently at work even in the very ground beneath our feet. The initial statement, that "frost shall freeze," is still evident, as it is a manifest, concrete part of our experience, but it is also tricky, for this frost is part, not of an impersonal natural system, but of creation, an ongoing work of God, who binds and looses, changes and directs as and when he pleases. Moreover, the comments on frost surround the statements about fire, the earth, ice, and water in an envelope structure, thus implying that these natural phenomena, like frost, are also visible (or "evident") signs of God's mysterious work in the world. Therefore when literary context is taken into account, these maxims question the very dichotomy of "most evident" and "most tricky."

§10. When we ask whether a proverb or a group of proverbs are "most evident" or "most tricky," we are actually asking a number of different though interrelated questions: in addition to the question, "Is this proverb used ironically or not?" we are also asking, "Are proverbs simple or complex?" and "Do proverbs merely support the status quo, or can they be subversive?" Our answers to these questions will be influenced by our assumptions about the third word I wish to discuss today, and that word is "tradition." Proverbs are commonly seen as a voice of authority because they are the voice of tradition. The problem is that the word "tradition" carries all sorts of negative connotations, and these connotations are transferred to proverbs by association. Is tradition simple and naive? Then so are proverbs. If the term "traditional" is synonymous with oppression, then so is the term "proverbial." I would suggest that many of the modern assumptions critics bring to proverbs are a carry-over of the Enlightenment rejection of tradition in favor of reason.

§11. To interpret proverbs properly, therefore, I believe it is important to think on just what this word tradition means. According to philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, tradition is not something we can simply reject or do away with. He writes, "In seeking to understand tradition, historical consciousness must … think within its own historicity" (1998, 360–61, emphasis added). Tradition is not a box we can open and close and put on the shelf at will; it is an environment in which we live.6 We can interact with it, but we can never escape it. Or, to use another metaphor, tradition is a community, a mix of opinions, experiences, prejudices, and assumptions, and the person seeking to understand this community must enter into dialogue with it. To see this dialogue in action, we need look no further than proverb poems. For an example today I turn to a passage from Málsháttakvæði, an anonymous Old Norse-Icelandic proverb poem preserved in the Codex Regius (GkS 2367 4to) manuscript. The speaker of this poem gives hints that he has been disappointed in love, possibly rejected or betrayed by a woman. To deal with his emotional turmoil, he turns to the traditional wisdom found in proverbs. The fourth stanza reads:

Ró skyldu menn reiði gefa,
raunlítit kømsk opt á þrefa,
gagarr er skaptr, þvít geyja skal,
gera ætlak mér létt of tal;
verit hafði mér verra í hug,
var þat nær sem kveisu flug,
jafnan fagnar kvikr maðr kú,
kennir hins, at gleðjumk nú.
(Málsháttakvæði 4.1–8)
Men should give rest to their wrath.
Often a very little thing occasions strife.
A dog is shaped for barking.
I intend to make my speech lighthearted.
Something worse had been on my mind.
It was almost like the pain of a boil.
The living man always rejoices in a cow.
It is clear that I am cheering up now. (Frank 2009, 4.1–8)

§12. If the proverb "A dog is shaped for barking" isn't evident, then I don't know what is. And the saying "Men should give rest to their wrath" sounds trite, a piece of advice more easily said than done. Sometimes the proverbs in the poem seem humorously random, as "The living man always rejoices in a cow." Most of the time, though, the proverbs are carefully chosen because of their relation to the speaker's experience. The speaker uses traditional material in an effort to comment on and contain his own private emotions. I've quoted this particular passage at length because it offers a visual example of how tradition is engaged: the alternating lines of proverb and commentary demonstrate the speaker's dialogue with the voice of authority. Or we could say that the speaker's experience is worked out in the environment of the proverbial material. This proverbial tradition, however, is not just something that stands outside and above the speaker; the speaker is the one who selects, arranges, and applies the proverbs, playing an active role in the shaping of tradition. As Gadamer writes, "Tradition is not simply a permanent precondition; rather, we produce it ourselves inasmuch as we understand, participate in the evolution of tradition, and hence further determine it ourselves" (1998, 293). Proverbs, to borrow a term from Mikhail Bakhtin, are "double-voiced."7 Bakhtin writes that "language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else's" (Bakhtin 1994, 293). This is equally true if "proverb" is substituted for "language." The proverb is a liminal site in which tradition and self can meet and engage in a dynamic, complex dialogue.8

§13. To return to the original question—how we decide whether to read a proverb or set of proverbs as "most evident" or "most tricky"—I must repeat that I have no method to offer. But however we interpret proverbs, we must take account of use, of context, and, perhaps most importantly, of tradition, recognizing that neither the writers of medieval proverbs nor we, the readers, stand outside it.

Alliteration, Authority, and Truth in Medieval English Proverbs9

Susan E. DeskisMailto: Icon

Northern Illinois University

§14. The truth-value of a proverb depends upon its link to authority. That authority can be established in any number of ways; for example, the brazen generality of most proverbs is itself an assertion of authority: X is true always and everywhere. In a narrative context, the authority of a proverb can be manipulated based on the reliability of its speaker. In this paper I would like to address one formal characteristic of English proverbs that marks them as authoritative sources of wisdom: that is alliteration. Alliteration marks medieval English proverbs as statements of evident truth, even after the Norman Conquest and even in relation to the normally more authoritative Latin Bible.

§15. The earliest independent (that is, non-continental) proverb collection in English is the so-called Durham Proverbs. This collection contains forty-six pairs of Latin and Old English proverbs, of which, in Olof Arngart's opinion, the Latin was translated from the English. (1981, 288). Part of Arngart's argument for the direction of translation in the Durham Proverbs stems from a contrast between the imperfect and sometimes ungrammatical state of the Latin, on the one hand, and the smoother, sometimes even metrical construction of the Old English proverbs, on the other (1956, 6). Arngart notes the abundance of alliteration in the Old English proverbs; a few will serve to illustrate the pattern:

#2: Amicus tam prope quam longe bonus est.
Freond deah feor ge neah. byð near nyttra.
#9: Post amabilem hominem durissime tedet.
Æfter leofan menn langað swiðost.
#19: Non omnia uera dicenda sunt.
Ne deah eall soþ asæd ne eall sar ætwiten.
#26: Non erit fidelis amicus qui mala celat imminens.
Ne byð þæt fele freond se þe oðrum facn heleð.
#42: Vas quantum plenior tantum moderatius ambulandum.
Swa fulre fæt swa hit mann sceal fægror beran. (Arngart 1981, emphasis added)

§16. According to my count, thirty-two of the forty-six Old English proverbs display alliteration of content words.10 This astonishing concentration of alliteration, almost two-thirds of the sentences in a non-poetic text, seems to indicate that alliteration served as a primary marker of proverbiality in the Anglo-Saxon period. As Arngart points out, many of the Durham Proverbs have analogues in Scripture, in the classics, and in Old English poetry (1981, 289), but I would argue that the variants recorded here are given alliterative form to mark them as proverbial sentences worthy of being translated into Latin and perhaps even memorized. From our earliest records, then, alliteration appears as an essential marker of proverbial form in English.

§17. One might reasonably expect to find alliteration linked with proverbial authority in Old English, but what about in Middle English, where the use of alliteration carries less cultural status? One vernacular genre that grows considerably between the Old English and Middle English periods is religiously didactic (but non-homiletic) prose. In the Anglo-Saxon period, such works were directed almost exclusively towards the clergy, with the sad assumption that not all of them could read Latin with ease. The body of vernacular religious prose grows considerably during the Middle English period as the laity, and especially laywomen, are added to its audience. The first Middle English text that I wish to address was written for women—the Ancrene Wisse. In a description of the deceitful ways of the devil, the author of the Ancrene Wisse explains that the evil one may try to trick a person by advocating an attitude generally favored by God—e.g., just discipline—but pressing for its misapplication: "Rihtwisnesse he seið mot beo nede sturne ant þus he liteð cruelte wið heow of rihtwisnesse" (Tolkien 1962, 138) [He (the devil) says that righteousness must necessarily be stern, and thus he paints cruelty with the color of righteousness]. Authoritative warnings against such behavior follow, one drawn from the Bible and cited in both English and Latin, and one in the form of an alliterative English proverb:

Me mai beon al to riht wis. Noli esse iustus nimis. In ecclesiaste. Betere is wis liste þan luðer strengðe (Tolkien 1962, 138).11
[One may be entirely too righteous. Do not be overly just. In Ecclesiastes [7.16]. Better is wise cunning than evil strength.]

Here, the proverb combines with the biblical quotation to reinforce the desired lesson using authorities from both the Latin and English realms of the anchoress's cultural world. The alliteration of the proverb provides it with some amount of authority to match that of the biblical quotation.

§18. The same proverb continues to prove popular with writers and translators of Middle English literature for contemplatives. Many of these texts were heavily influenced by Richard of St. Victor, whose works they frequently translate, summarize, or paraphrase. In transforming Richard's words and ideas from Latin into English, the later writers vernacularize their texts in ways that go beyond the strictly linguistic. For example, in his so-called Benjamin Minor, Richard presents lengthy allegorical readings of the sons of Rachel. Joseph represents discretion:

Sed post natam Dinam et quasi per confusionis ignominiam fratres sui inveniunt, et per experimentum addiscunt, nihil melius esse quam consilio regi: Quia melior est vir prudens viro forti (Prov. XVI). Vir enim prudens loquitur victorias, et qui cum consilio cuncta agit, in aeternum non poenitebit (Prov. XXI). Cum igitur consilii necessaria utilitas per experimentum cognoscitur, et per studium attentius quaeritur et invenitur, Joseph quodammodo nascitur, per quem virtus discretionis intelligitur. (Richard of St. Victor Benjamin Minor 47)
[But after Dina's shameful birth his brothers searched for him (Joseph) confusedly, and discovered through their efforts that he had risen to become consul to the king. Because a wise man is better than a strong one (Proverbs 16). For a wise man speaks of victories, and he who does all things by good counsel will not be punished in eternity (Proverbs 21). When, therefore, useful counsels are necessarily found through experience, and are sought and found through attentive study, in this way is Joseph discovered, who stands for the virtue of discretion.]

A Middle English version of the Benjamin Minor (not close enough to be called a translation) was written in the fourteenth century. It omits Richard's quotation of Prov. 16 and re-paraphrases Prov. 21:

& þerfor it is þat after am all & last is Dyna borne, for oft after a sodeyn fal comes sone schame. And þus after mone fallynges & failynges, & schame foloande, a man lers be þe prof þare is noying better þen to be rewlede be counsell, þe wilk is þe redist geytyngof discresion. Forwy he þat dus all yng with consaile, hym sall newere forynk it – ffor better liste þen lythere strenght (Richard of St. Victor Benjamin Minor 1.170).
[And lastly was Dina born, for often shame comes after a sudden fall. And thus, after many falls and failures and attendant shame, a man learns by this proof that nothing is better than to be ruled by good counsel, which is the clearest way to discretion. Therefore, he who does all things by counsel shall never regret it, for cunning is better than evil strength.]

Alliteration figures prominently in this passage, with the clusters of "sodeyn, sone, schame" and "fallynges, failynges, foloande." The authoritative wisdom of alliteration becomes apparent when our proverb is used not in passing or as a simple supplement, but, introduced with "ffor" (that is, "because"), as a logical prerequisite to the biblical paraphrase. Rhetorically, the English proverb forms the base of knowledge on which the biblical proverb expands. If the reader were to recognize the biblical reference, the English proverb would still appear (almost) equally authoritative; if the reader missed the allusion, the alliterative proverb would stand out even more for its authority and memorableness.

§19. A different redaction of the Middle English Benjamin Minor uses the same clusters of alliteration but treats the biblical passages a little differently:

For whi he þat doþ alle þing by counsel, he schal neuir forþink it. For betir is a sley man þan a strong man, ȝe, and betyr is list þen liþer strengþe.  And a sley man spekiþ of victories…. (Hodgson 1958, 40–41)
[1. Therefore, he who does all things by counsel shall never regret it. 2. For a sly man is better than a strong man, yea, and better is cunning than evil strength. 3. And a sly man speaks of victories ….]

This version breaks up the two biblical verses into three sententiae, re-orders them, and places the English proverb in the middle. By this disruption, the biblical sentences lose some of their superior authority and are rendered further equivalent to the English proverb by being adorned with such alliterative language as "sley, strong, spekiþ." According to Phyllis Hodgson, who edited this and related texts, their use of alliteration is abundant, but unobtrusive, for it is neither perfunctory nor merely decorative. It sharpens the outline of the thought and reinforces the rhythm of the sentence. Often it serves to point an antithesis or to weight a balance, and it gives to many a phrase the pithiness of epigram (Hodgson 1958, 1).

§20. Hodgson's explanation, while accurate, is based entirely on the principles of rhetoric. Her attention to rhetorical study is apt, because Middle English writers were consistently influenced by their education in Latin rhetoric. However, the fourteenth-century author might also have been influenced by the prevalence of alliteration in early-Middle English religious prose like the works of the Katherine Group, which have been linked to Old English alliterative models.12 In his own day, he is intellectually indebted to Latin writers like Richard of St. Victor, but endeavors to create a specifically English literature of Christian devotion. He makes good use of the teachings of Latin rhetoric, but the frequency with which he employs alliteration goes beyond what the textbooks recommend and indicates that he finds alliteration (including alliterative proverbs) to be an appropriate and forceful mode for the expression of religious wisdom.

§21. Here I have discussed a small number of alliterative proverbs with attention to the contexts in which they appear. It comes as no surprise to find alliteration contributing to proverbial authority in the Old English period, although it is interesting to see how it enhances the status of the vernacular language relative to Latin. After the Norman Conquest, on the other hand, alliteration generally cedes cultural status to end-rhyme, just as English suffers a social demotion relative to French. However, religious prose is one domain in which English continued to flourish as a written language, and in which the proverb played a role in the construction of wisdom. In these texts, alliteration marks both the proverbs and the vernacular paraphrases of biblical verses, thus implying equivalent authority—or evident truth value—for both types of sententiae. The association between alliteration and proverbial wisdom was established during the Old English period—as we saw in the Durham Proverbs—but as late as the fourteenth century it continued to contribute to a particularly English rhetoric of wisdom.

An Example of Paroemial Cognitive Patterning in an Old Icelandic þáttr

Richard L. HarrisMailto: Icon

University of Saskatchewan

§22. The last decades of saga study have been much influenced by Theodore M. Andersson's notion of the "oral family saga," the nature of which came to be clarified most usefully by Carol Clover's theory of "immanent saga," that "larger undertaking—the dramatic chronicle of the Icelandic settlement period," or, in other words, those innumerable stories, in whatever form, the Icelanders told about their ancestral heritage. (Andersson 1966; Clover 1986, 290; Clover and Lindow 1985, 293) Attempts to access more precise information about this diversely existent source have not proven so successful as might have been hoped. (Danielsson 2002a and 2002b; Sigurðsson 2004) However, I think a more fruitful approach to the pre-literate narrative lies in phraseological study, the micro-textual detail of how the story was told rather than the shaping of the story's content. (Springer 1939, 107; Bolton 1971, 35)

§23. Among the formulas of oral saga narrative, proverbs and the various array of other wisdom texts constitute an inventory of relatively fixed phrases which serve as the building blocks, can be culled from extant sources, and can then be studied both for literary critical purposes and yet also for the insights they may provide into the customs and methods of pre-literate saga narrative. Recently, and with particular reference to Clover's development of "immanent saga," I have come to the view that the proverbs we notice in the Íslendingasögur might be studied more accurately as partially extant evidence of the early existence of a much larger and more complex oral repository of wisdom formulas preserving the ethics and mores of pre-literate Nordic culture (Harris 2013). This repository must have been so widely embedded in the consciousness that it informed the very thinking even of the literate and in some cases highly educated saga composers, as well as the characters and utterances they described. As Walter J. Ong wrote of pre-literate society, proverbs "form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them" (Ong 1982, 35).

§24. Elsewhere I have studied how our awareness of this paroemial cognitive patterning, as I term the process, can enhance our reading of early Icelandic literature, using as an example the þáttr, or short story, of Hreiðarr heimski, or Hreiðarr the Fool. (Harris, forthcoming) The hero of this story is not mentally deficient, but is described rather as being "always at home," in consonance with his nickname, whose etymological roots have to do with qualities suitable at home but not abroad in society. North Germanic conventional wisdom generally encouraged the isolation of individuals whose personalities and temperaments were marked by an immature impulsiveness that could give rise to scenes of derision or even conflict in the harshly cynical and potentially violent gatherings of warriors. Hávamál prescribes the treatment of such people, and it is reasonable to regard that poem as the primary witness to the background of traditional wisdom operative in paroemial cognitive patterning.

§25. The requirements for social success are emphasized at the start of the poem, in stanza 6: þá er horskr ok þögull / kømr heimisgarða til, / sjaldan verðr víti vörum / þvíat óbrigða vin / fær maðr aldregi / en manvit mikit ("when a wise and silent man comes to a homestead / seldom does shame befall the wary; / for no more trustworthy a friend can any man get / than a store of common sense") (Eddukvæði 1.24; Larrington 1996, 15). One is immediately reminded of Hreiðarr's insufficiency in stanza 17, describing the visit of a fool: Kópir afglapi / er til kynnis kømr, / þylsk hann um eða þrumir ("The fool gapes when he comes on a visit, / he mutters to himself or keeps silent") (Eddukvæði 1.27; Larrington 1996, 16). Silence is best in company: Ósnotr maðr, / er með aldir kømr, / þat er batsta at hann þegi; / engi þat veit / at hann ekki kann, / nema hann mæli til mart ("The foolish man in company / does best if he stays silent; / no one will know that he knows nothing, / unless he talks too much") (Eddukvæði 1.29–30; Larrington 1996, 18.) Traditional wisdom recommending the close supervision of foolish people seems tempered by recognition of the possibility that their behavior was the result of insufficient experience, as adages like því er fífl að fátt er kennt ("He is a fool to whom little is taught") (Cleasby and Vigfússon 1957, 155b) and heimskt er heimalit barn ("Foolish is the home-bred child") (Cleasby and Vigfússon 1957, 251b) would imply. Despite this proverbially discerned understanding of possible reasons for their social inadequacy, however, the dangers of introducing them into society are obvious from the fact that the insecurity of social interaction in this competitive milieu is a matter also much discussed in Hávamál.

§26. Whatever the origins of his condition, the contemporary audience, learning of Hreiðarr's personality, automatically sought reference in this area of communal paroemial thinking in forming its expectations of this figure, his limitations and his likely behavior, as well as any dangers attendant upon his being released from the environment in which he was protected. In this story the reader's sympathy is engaged by Hreiðarr's insistently seeking escape from the limiting circumstances of his homely existence. As the narrative progresses, his bumptious good-natured surface gives way to a more complex and cunning potential. And as he argues with and manipulates people who have power over him, his surface naivety is clearly seen to be accompanied by a shrewd sense of strategy suggesting a more astute character in process of growth.

§27. The composer of the þáttr makes Hreiðarr's own use of that proverbial background of thinking to which the title of this paper refers most persistent and most obvious as he persuades his brother to take him first to Norway, and then to the king's court. Demanding to journey abroad with Þórðr, who would prefer to leave him behind, he warns he may get into more trouble alone in Iceland than on travels with his brother abroad: Ok era þér þá betra hlut í at eiga ef ek ber á monnum eða gerik aðra óvísu, þeim er um fé mitt sitja at lokka af mér. ("Your part will be no easier if I come to blows with men or am otherwise embroiled with those who are after my money and try to steal it away from me.") (Jakobsson and Guðjónsson 2011, I.152; Andersson and Gade 2000, 171.) And, once in Norway, when he wants to heed the signal of the trumpet calling a meeting with the king, and thus in a social environment of the sort he would do best to avoid, he objects to his brother's demand that he stay behind: … fara skulu vit báðir. Muna þér betra þykkja at ek fara einn, en ekki fær þú mik lattan þessar farar. ("We should go together. It will not turn out better for you if I go alone, and you're not going to talk me out of this trip.") (Jakobsson and Guðjónsson 2011, I. 26. 153; Andersson and Gade 2000, 172.)

§28. King Magnús wants to have Þórðr with him at court, but with Hreiðarr staying elsewhere: en betr þykki mér þér þar vistin felld vera er heldr er fátt manna. ("I think you would be lodged better where there are fewer people.") (Jakobsson and Guðjónsson 2011, I. 157; Andersson and Gade 2000, 174). Hreiðarr, however, returns to his favorite theme, Nú sýnisk mér hitt vitrliga at vera heldr hjá þeim er um mik hyggr, som Þórðr er bróðir minn, þótt þar sé heldr fjolmenni, en hinnug þótt menn sé fáir ok sé þar engi til umbóta. ("it seems to me wiser to be near someone who cares for me, like my brother Þórðr, even if there are a lot of people present, rather than to be where there are few people and none to take a hand on my behalf.") (Jakobsson and Guðjónsson 2011, I.157; Andersson and Gade 2000, 174). By this time even a reader possessed of the most basic familiarity with the paroemial inventory of Old Icelandic culture will have felt in Hreiðarr's rhetoric the impact of the proverb, Berr er hverr á bakinu, nema sér bróðir eigi, ("Bare is his back who has no brother,") which, though not in Hávamál, occurs in two of the later Íslendingasögur and is found also in Saxo, who seems to have had Icelandic informants for narrative materials known from their country. (TPMA 2.128.) One might recall here Carolyne Larrington's contention "that there was a body of folk-wisdom, not yet in metrical form, a body which can be sensed as a living, pulsing, gnomic background to all Germanic poetry," of which Hávamál provides partial witness and which lies at the cognitive core of old North Germanic prose forms as well as its poetry (Larrington 1993, 18).

§29. We can see how, in Hreiðars þáttr heimska, a composer can use the traditional Nordic wisdom of which Hávamál is the primary extant encoded manifestation for quite various narrative purposes. On the one hand, he refers to the early Icelandic perception that some individuals are better off at home than in public assemblies or a continental court. On the other, he ironically lets his hero use the psychologically persuasive power of this wisdom to get his way with those whom we would expect rather to have power over him. While we might anticipate that proverbial knowledge originates, instructs, and is maintained without being subverted by the unwise or the disingenuous, or subjected to the third eye of ironic reflection, such proves not to be the case in our reading of the Old Icelandic corpus, especially works of later composition. Though sentential strings arise from, and in their linguistic marking signal, their origin in the human impulse to encode and to impart the limits of productive social behavior, these formulaic admonitions can be and are used creatively by those whose purpose it is to describe the human condition with all its capacities for behavior, including those which lie far outside the normative ways which proverbs were originally used to delineate. In the hands of the saga composers, what was in the first place a body of instruction in wisdom becomes another rhetorically based tool for defining meaning and refining nuance in their narrative descriptions of the whole range of the human potential and aspiration.

Visualizing Old English Proverbs13

Brian O'CambMailto: Icon

Indiana University Northwest

§30. In response to Karl Persson's stimulating question about how to distinguish straightforward assertions of authority from instances of irony or trickery when interpreting medieval proverbs, I suggest we engage more deeply with the visuality of medieval proverb culture.14

§31. In this respect, I wish to extend the insights advanced by art historian Walter Gibson in his excellent monograph Figures of Speech: Picturing Proverbs in Renaissance Netherlands (2010). While he chiefly focuses on Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting Netherlandish Proverbs and its relationship to the tradition of visualizing proverbs and other figures of speech during the Renaissance, "the first great age of the pictured proverb" (Gibson 2010, 20), Gibson reminds us that proverbs were often depicted in the later Middle Ages in the margins of illuminated manuscripts—especially books of hours—and the woodwork of medieval church pews and choir stalls (21). Despite Gibson's implicit claim that proverbial figures were commonly visualized only in the later medieval period, it is possible, though not always easy, to perceive visual proverb traditions at work in the earlier Middle Ages as well. In what follows I suggest some ways that we can use the visuality of medieval proverbs as a hermeneutic tool for interpreting their verbal content, especially when proverbs are found in non-narrative contexts such as collections and catalog poems. Following my research interests in Old English literature and medieval visual culture, I will focus on proverbs from Anglo-Saxon England as a test-case for this approach.15

§32. I begin with the first ten items included in the eleventh-century collection of early English sayings known as the Durham Proverbs. In its material context, the scribal layout of this collection of forty-six pairs of sententiae helps readers see a formal separation of two languages—Latin and English—on the manuscript page.16 Each Latin proverb precedes its vernacular equivalent on the line below. Less clear in facsimile images, but readily apparent in the manuscript itself, is the fact that the collection's original scribe omitted the first letter of each Latin proverb, which has been added by a later hand. The visuality of these letters contributes an authoritative, hanging-indent like effect resembling the ones used to organize reference lists in modern word-processing programs. Several of the Durham Proverbs contain verbal links, such as the cluster of proverbs concerning freonda, 'friends' (items 2–5) or items 8 (Hwilum æfter medo. menn mæst geþyrsteð; "At times a man thirsts the most after the mead [-drinking]") and 9 (Æfter leofan menn langað swiðost; "One longs greatly for the beloved man"),17 which overlap in their use of the preposition æfter, the noun menn, and superlative adjectival forms. Yet a handful contain visually stimulating content. An excellent example is Durham Proverb 6: God ger byþ þonne se hund þam hrefne gyfeð, "It is a good year when the hound gives to the raven." This alliterative cleft sentence is clearly as ironic as the proverbial phrase, "when pigs fly."18 Ironic too is Durham Proverb 7's vivid observation that, Oft on sotigum bylige searowa licgað, "Often in a sooty bag treasures (or contrivances) lie."19 This alliterative proverb, an inversion of the proverb "not everything that glitters is gold," instructs us that one "should not judge a book by its cover." As these examples suggest, visualizing a proverb's verbal content can yield insights into the ironic tone of medieval sententiae.

§33. Somewhat less ironic is Durham Proverb 10: Nu hit ys on swines dome cwæþ se ceorl sæt on eoferes hricge; "'Now it is at the discretion of the pig,' said the churl sat astride the boar's back." More properly characterized as a Wellerism, a sub-genre of proverbial discourse,20 the scribal layout of this humorous saying reinforces its didactic function and the authority of the manuscript itself. The Durham Proverbs were written out by a scribe on blank leaves (fols. 43v–45v) between an eleventh-century Latin hymnal with monastic canticles that includes an interlinear Old English gloss, and an eleventh-century copy of Ælfric's Latin-Old English Grammar in the manuscript Durham, Cathedral Library B.III.32.21 Specialists concur this manuscript is a schoolbook designed for use in a monastic classroom (Milfull 1996, 41; Keefer, Rollason, and Doane 2007, 59). As indicated in my diplomatic transcription of Durham Proverb 10 below, the scribe's use of blank space, word division, and abbreviations enriched this proverb's visuality, and thus its utility, in a bilingual schoolroom:

ṇ__unc ĩ iudicio porci dixit mariť sedens inapro ·
Nu hit ys onswines dome cwæþ se ceorl sæt on
ʒ eofores hricge ·

The enjambment of eofores and hricge—the latter word has no equivalent in the Latin—immediately below se ceorl at the bottom of the folio page literally seats the churl on the boar's back. And an ornamental bracket resembling a tailed Z formally augments the Wellerism, storing it in the mind's eye for practicing reading. These visual elements probably served the straightforward purpose of helping students learn their letters and the arts of rhetoric. The Latin prepositional phrase in apro and on swines are written as single words with no space between the prepositions and the nouns they govern. Reading sequentially through the Latin statement to the Old English one emphasizes the near-grammatical parallelism of in apro (with a Latin noun in the dative case) and on swines (with the corresponding vernacular noun in the genitive). But the scribe's abrupt separation of the second English preposition on from the noun it modifies across an enjambed line partially obscures the grammatical parallelism of onswines and on / eoferes.22 In sum, this proverbial statement's visual elements induce readers to play with the spacing of the text's letters, and thus, to read rhetorically and syllabically.23

§34. Yet as paremiologists have also suggested, Durham Proverb 10 resembles "the freakish humor so often expressed in the gargoyles and grotesques of medieval sculpture and illumination" (Arngart 1981, 296).24 The text's most recent editor goes further, noting that, "Among the little thirteenth-century stone carvings which are to be seen high up in the nave and in the chapter house of York Minster in England are two which depict a man precariously astride a pig" (Marsden 2004, 305). Marsden's observation confirms that this early English Wellerism was depicted in visual media in the early Middle Ages, just as other proverbs were pictured in misericords and images produced in Renaissance Netherlands. Other examples of pictured proverbs may be adduced from Anglo-Saxon England. Consider, for instance, the series of related illustrations for the "Labors of the Months" adorning two eleventh-century calendars preserved in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, specifically London, British Library, Cotton Julius A. vi and Cotton Tiberius B. v.25 In the image depicting medieval haymaking for the month of August in Julius A. vi, several men cut, bundle, and bind hay that is being loaded onto a cart.26 Yet this illustration, like Hieronymus Bosch's famous Haywain triptych, also visualizes the proverbial content of Isaiah 40:6: "All flesh is grass, and all the glory thereof as the flower of the field" and Psalm 102:15: "Man's days are as grass, as the flower of the field so shall he flourish" (Gibson 2010, 40–41),27 two Biblical passages that circulated in the colloquial guise of the vernacular proverbs, "That now is heye some tyme was grase" and "Whan the sunne shinth make hay" (Whiting 1968, nos. H212 and H206, respectively).28

§35. Likewise, the well-known proverb "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" probably informs the picture of two hawkers water-fowling in the illustration adorning the month of October in both calendars.29 And the inclusion of bay hounds and the orientation of the tusked boars that remain oblivious to the Anglo-Saxon hunters behind them in each calendar's image for September probably evokes the proverbial content of Matthew 7:6: "Give not that which is holy to dogs; neither cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet and turning upon you, tear you."30 Alternatively, this calendar, which contains numerous Irish elements,31 may depict insular proverbs such as, "The quiet pig eats all the draff" or "He got it from nature as the pig got the rooting in the ground" (Gaffney and Cashman 1979, nos. 990 and 697, respectively). Given the inclusion of no fewer than five discrete proverbs featuring pigs (and a sow) in Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs, we may reasonably infer that a comparable visual tradition of pig proverbs existed among the Anglo-Saxons.32

§36. But how should we read the cultural authority of Old English proverbs from verse catalogs such as the late-tenth century poetic triptych known as Exeter Maxims (or Maxims I)?33 Again, recent scholarship on visual proverbs from Renaissance Netherlands provides fruitful examples of how to reimagine the structure and visuality of medieval proverb poems. Mark Meadows's Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Netherlandish Proverbs and the Practice of Rhetoric (2004), for instance, links the formal arrangement of proverbs included in Bruegel's masterpiece to contemporary intellectual traditions that valued the accumulation of proverbs in commonplace books as a means of structuring knowledge and rhetorical compositions. Thus, Meadows foregrounds the organizational function of proverbs for composing literary and visual artworks, much as Susan Deskis (2013) has shown how proverbs and proverbial images organize the first scribal section of Exeter Maxims. And as one person suggested in our panel's discussion period, Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs essentially transforms proverbs into riddles,34 an elegant observation that partially explains, I think, why many readers of Exeter Maxims compare its proverbial contents to Old English riddles.35

§37. Still, whenever possible, we should compare the visuality of medieval proverbs and proverb poems to culturally and historically appropriate analogs that allow us to "see" them through contemporary eyes.36 The Frisian wife episode from the second scribal section of Exeter Maxims (ll. 93-106) provides an excellent illustration of what I have in mind. As has been recently suggested (O'Camb 2013), the Frisian wife episode is a vernacular paraphrase of Proverbs 31:10-31, an acrostic poem in honor of divine Wisdom who is personified as an ideal wife. Comparing the relevant passage from Exeter Maxims to Anglo-Saxon copies of Proverbs, such as the eighth-century copy of Proverbs 31 included in the so-called "Egerton codex" (London, British Library, Egerton 1046, fol. 10v)37 reminds us that Proverbs, along with the Psalms, constituted one of two poetic books of the Bible for Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastics.38 Moreover, the visuality of Anglo-Saxon copies of the Biblical book of Proverbs help us see Exeter Maxims as a sophisticated alphabet poem, an abecedarian whose wordplay resembles the vulgar dismemberment of the Pater Noster in the Old English Solomon and Saturn dialogues, and the playful articulation of Old English phonemes printed as the Rune Poem in George Hickes's Thesaurus.

§38. In the Egerton codex, the Latin text of Proverbs 31 is laid out in two columns, and in the left-hand column of fol. 10v, the scribe includes the colored names of Hebrew letters (ALEPH, BETH, GIMEL, and so on) that stand as empty signifiers. Put otherwise, these letter names—which the British Library describes as "coloured initials" in its online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts—play no part in the text's meaning.39 Rather, their visuality marks the poem as an acrostic. A similar visuality is present in the tenth-century copy of Proverbs 31 inscribed in the manuscript London, British Library, Cotton Vespasian D. vi. Here each verse of Proverbs 31's abecedarian uses a decorated majuscule letter for the first meaningful word of each verse instead of a Hebrew letter or its name. What both these manuscripts suggest, however, is that Anglo-Saxon scribes were keenly interested in preserving Proverbs 31's visuality, presumably because it signaled that text's poetic status. (Indeed, I would speculate that the visuality of this authoritative passage prompted the Maxims-poet to compose hypermetrical verses—themselves visually distinct in the layout of modern editions of the poem—to lend dignity to the vernacular paraphrase of Proverbs 31.) In short, the visuality of these cultural analogs suggest Exeter Maxims is a rhetorical exercise, a poetic experiment in what I have elsewhere described as the "visual formulaicism" of Anglo-Saxon scribal culture (O'Camb 2011, 155). In order to help future students of medieval proverbs see the visuality that animates vernacular proverb poems like Exeter Maxims and collections of medieval sententiae such as the Durham Proverbs, I have a few suggestions.

§39. For critics and social historians: when reading for cultural and linguistic strata in proverb collections, render visible the verbal seams of these poems through typography. Following the lead of Deskis (2013, 683–85), boldly distinguish between traditional sayings, authored gnomic passages, and the poetic canvas deployed as a backdrop. Alternatively, consider distinguishing between verbal registers spatially, as does Drout (2006, 272–80) in modern translations of proverb poems.

§40. For editors: print facsimiles of these collections as Arngart (1956) did in his first edition of the Durham Proverbs. And, whenever possible, provide images of other proverb collections from the scribal culture(s) that produced them so readers have an easier time seeing the visuality of medieval proverbs.

The Wisdom Genre is a Meta-Context

Michael D. C. DroutMailto: Icon

Wheaton College

§41. In Bald's Leechbook, a remedy for an eye-salve is described as "se betsta læcedom"—the best remedy (Ker 1957, no. 262, 332–33).40 After reading that Christina Lee's research group at Nottingham successfully killed Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria with the mixture of onion, garlic, ox gall and wine, we probably interpret the description (Harrison, et al. 2015) as: "It's the best remedy!" However, if we had only read the earlier article from my research group at Wheaton College, in which we found that the mix of ingredients was less effective than the individual elements, we might read the line with a different intonation (Brennessel, Drout, and Gravel 2005): "the best remedy. Sure it is. Let's stick the foul-smelling, loathsome slime into our eyes immediately."

§42. Our interpretation of the Leechbook's evaluative comment—whether it is ironic or straightforward—is determined by the way the statement interacts with the non-negotiable realities of the physical world, not by its linguistic form. We can infer from the manuscript context that the person who wrote "the best remedy" was unlikely to have been making a sarcastic evaluation in a medical compendium, but the surface form of the statement is irrelevant to that judgment. It is only the triangulation of the streams of data—the literal meaning of the words, the manuscript context in a medical text, and the Nottingham group's determination that the remedy would indeed work—that makes a non-ironic reading almost certainly correct.

§43. We are much less sure about similarly abstract statements in literary texts. We sometimes have enough contextual information to help us determine with confidence both the denotative and connotative meanings of abstract statements; it is very difficult to read þæt wæs god cyning in line 11b of Beowulf as sarcastic or ironic criticism, since the evaluative comment occurs at the end of a passage praising the accomplishments of Scyld Scefing, the king of the Danes.41 However, there are plenty of other places where context is lacking,42 and even more where the context itself is ambiguous and requires interpretation.43 These problems are even more frequent in the Old English "wisdom poems" than they are in narratives,44 because the "proverbial" or "wisdom" register is characterized by abstraction from the specific to the general (Drout 2006, 229–39. To make a wisdom statement, you must abstract, even to the point of making a man falling out of a tree stand in not only for all men falling out of trees, but for the very Fates of Men (Isaacs 1975, 363–75).

§44. Abstraction is decontextualization. Moving from the specific to the general breaks interlinks between text and context (Drout 2013, 102–11), making it more difficult to know if a statement is ironic or straightforward, if there is a special meaning that is absent from the surface form of the proverbial statement but which would have been invoked, in the minds of the audience, through associative memory and traditional referentiality (Foley 1991, 7; Drout 2013, 36-42). All wisdom poems produce this interpretive challenge because we identify wisdom literature by finding utterances that are abstract, decontextualized, existential, statements that stand out from their matrices precisely because they appear too abstract to be solely an element of a narrative. That is why the dichotomy that Karl Persson framed in his invitation to this panel is so central to the study of wisdom literature: How do we know when should we interpret proverbs "straight" and when are they examples of irony or trickery? You are not going to find the answer in the proverbs themselves, because if they weren't abstracted and thus decontextualized, they wouldn't be proverbs.

§45. This difficulty neither requires us to throw up our hands and assume that resolution in any given case is impossible, nor does it or give us entirely free rein to interpret a proverb whichever way—ironically, sincerely, or otherwise—is most convenient for a given analysis. But we do need to acknowledge the problem created by proverbial language being abstract, abstract language requiring interpretation, and interpretation enabling irony. It is hard to imagine that a clever speaker or writer in the Middle Ages could not take the ironizing turn, or that an intelligent audience would not understand it, but irony only works as a figure if the ground is sincerity, if un-ironic interpretation is the most frequent case, the baseline. And, in general terms, we possess information that allows us to see that wisdom literature was—at least in Anglo-Saxon England—much more likely to be straightforward than ironic. That information is the context of the wisdom poems.

§46. This assertion may seem strange given that I have just asserted that proverbial language is abstracted from its immediate narrative context. But in being abstracted away from the context of its matrix narrative, the proverb, wisdom poem or maxim becomes marked as belonging to a special category—the wisdom genre—which is itself a specific context. The wisdom genre categorizes together proverbial material from disparate sources and indicates the preferred mode of interpretation for entities that belong to the genre. The proverbial register signals to the reader that the words must be interpreted in some special sense, not merely what the words alone, taken literally, would mean.45 The wisdom genre, therefore, is the meta-context that provides overarching interpretive context.

§47. Wisdom poems are all abstractions, and they refer to other abstractions of a similar sort. The wisdom genre produces in its associated interpretive community expectations that can be invoked, through traditional referentiality, by the marked features of the genre: those features of language, style and form, and those information relations, topics and themes that become part of the genre categorization, the features of the genre prototype in the minds of participants in the culture (Drout 2011, 462–68).46 The single most important thing a wisdom poem or proverbial utterance does is indicate "I am a proverbial utterance." Thus the meta-context of the wisdom genre solves our irony versus straightforwardness problem by allowing us to make comparisons and to see how the wisdom genre operates in living traditions. And, world-wide and diachronically, the wisdom or proverb genre tends not to be characterized by irony or trickery. In living traditions, proverbs can be used sarcastically, but that is the high-contrast exception that is only enabled by the background of straightforward interpretation. In order to subvert, there must be a structure whose foundations the poet or critic can seek to undermine, and such subversion would need to be marked in some way, else the poet would risk his readers not recognizing the deviation from the norm. For this reason, I think Elaine Tuttle Hansen is in The Solomon Complex indulging in some wish fulfillment, in which Anglo-Saxon poets become that heroic ideal of post-modern academics: under-miners of the social structure empowered by their skill with ironic language (Hansen 1988). Given the manuscript, historical and genre contexts, however, it is far more likely that the wisdom poems are rather straightforward attempts to understand the world through the particular interpretive framework of the "reformed" Benedictine monasteries of the tenth century (Drout 2006, 219–86; O'Camb 2009).

§48. In the invitation to the session, Persson suggested that a straight reading of the wisdom material functions as an "assertion of authority." I would agree, but only if we read "assertion" in a very specific way. In general discourse, "assert authority" is merely a synonym for "exercise authority," but I do not think that meaning of "assert" is entirely applicable to the Anglo-Saxon wisdom poems, which do not really have the power to do anything. The idea that these poems shaped the thoughts and thus the behavior of large segments of Anglo-Saxon society has very little evidence to support it, given the rates of lay literacy and the likelihood that the wisdom poems—in the forms in which they are preserved in the manuscripts—never appeared outside a monastery.47 However, if we take "assert" as being the antithesis of "argue," that is, to mean the stating of conclusions without the production of evidence for them, then I agree that wisdom poems assert authority. They imply without explanation that monastic folkways are superior to secular ones, and they assume authority when they have no power to command. The author of Precepts tells young men in no uncertain terms (i.e., using the wisdom register) that they must avoid the love of women. Historical records suggest that few secular aristocratic youth would have felt obligated to obey even if they ever heard the poem (Drout 2006, 257–59).

§49. The authority of the wisdom poems, and of the wisdom genre in general, is also a function of the meta-context created by the features shared among the poems or proverbs. But because that meta-contextual authority is available to anyone who can follow the genre conventions, its power is diffuse, and there exists space for freedom of thought and action even within the proverb or wisdom tradition. This freedom is not achieved by reading the proverb ironically, however, but by interpreting its applicability to a given situation. The more abstract a proverb, the more situations to which it can apply, but also the greater the number of ways that its meaning can be construed. Thus the "power-knowledge" to use Persson's terminology, although it is of itself quite limited, can be deployed as an element in a rhetorical strategy.

§50. Anglo-Saxon wisdom poems end up being rhetorically effective because they imply that the Benedictine way of looking at the world was not merely compatible with traditional, secular arrangements of knowledge and power, but that the monastic view subsumed all other interpretive frameworks. The customs, family relationships and social structures were not invalidated but were instead re-interpreted as less-perfect variants of the monastic life. I therefore do not see my approach as being completely opposed to Paul Cavill's argument that the wisdom poems minimize the "shock of the new" (Cavill 1999). An important element of the power of wisdom poems is their implication that others have already encountered, and perhaps solved, the problems with which you are grappling; that the wisdom of the tradition may be applicable to your current situation. It is difficult to imagine a monastic Anglo-Saxon author being sarcastic or ironic about such a view, any more than we would imagine the author of the Leechbook bothering to copy out a remedy that he thought was ineffective and then sarcastically commenting that it was "the best." But it is not at all difficult to see that rhetorically maneuvering so that the tradition appeared to be on your side could be a very effective strategy for making your argument convincing. After all, "old sayings are wise sayings.".


1. For the theoretical background that has allowed me to develop this observation, see the recent English translation of Polish theologian/philosopher Erich Przywara's Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm (. My broader contention (and one which I intend to explore further in future publications) is that Przywara's work, suggesting that analogical ways of understanding the world typical in Medieval thought have been eclipsed by dialectical modes of interpretation in the more recent philosophies and theologies of modernity, allows us to identify why precisely much Old English literature and particularly Old English wisdom literature frustrates modern readers. Looking to identify a train of thought or thematic through-line in the poems, they seek a dialectical unity where the unifying factor is in fact analogical such that responses often seem indirect, literally tangential insofar as themes agglomerate where they touch in likeness, rather than only at junctures where they contradict. An excellent example of this is the Old English poem Solomon and Saturn II, in which analogical content is cast in dialectical form such that those looking only at the form are frustrated when they try to seek in it classical dialectic such as that embodied in the original Latin of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. [Back]

2. Here and elsewhere in this introduction, I am using the word "proverb"—as does the title of this forum's affiliate group, the Early Proverb Society—as shorthand for sentences of various kinds rather than with regard to the formal differentiation amongst proverbs, maxims, Wellerisms, etc. [Back]

3. See, for example, Yankah (1994). [Back]

4. Just to clarify: in no way is my comment here meant to reflect on my own dissertation writing experience! I am grateful to have had the support of my supervisors and second reader. [Back]

5. He writes that "social context gives meaning to a particular proverb, for a proverb in a collection that merely enumerates uncontextualized proverb texts is for all general purposes meaningless" (Mieder 1993, 11). [Back]

6. I first heard the metaphor of tradition as an environment in a talk by Andrew Bingham. [Back]

7. This term is discussed in Bakhtin 1994, 324–31. [Back]

8. This dialogue is discussed in much greater detail in chapter 4 of Roscoe 2014. [Back]

9. Material in this paper appears in Alliterative Proverbs in Medieval England: Language Choice and Literary Meaning (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2016); reprinted with permission. [Back]

10. Based on Arngart's 1981 edition, numbers 2, 4, 6–9, 11–13, 15–21, 23–27, 29–31, 35, 37–38, 40–44. [Back]

11. The version in Cotton Cleopatra C. vi omits the Latin (Dobson 1972, 197) [Back]

12. The phrase "liste ne luðer strengðe" appears in the Life of St. Katherine; see d'Ardenne and Dobson 1981, 79–80 (lines 1031–32 in the Titus MS; the phrase also appears in the Royal and Bodley MSS). [Back]

13. Portions of this essay draw upon archival research funded by a New Frontiers Exploratory Travel Grant from Indiana University (2014). [Back]

14. I follow Benjamin Withers' use of "visuality" to denote "the mental constructs and the technologies used to perceive, capture, describe, reformat, or ignore what is seen" since "visuality registers that these processes are learned and acquired as well as socially prescribed and controlled" and is, therefore, "culturally and historically dependent" (2012, 252). Students interested in scholarship on visual proverbs should consult the extensive bibliography of work on proverb iconography compiled by Mieder and Sobieski (1999). [Back]

15. Starkey (2005, 1–12) provides an excellent introduction to the study of medieval visual culture. [Back]

16. A facsimile of the folio containing the first ten Durham Proverbs is included in Arngart (1956), an edition that also remains useful for its introduction. The entire collection is also available in facsimile as item no. 120 of the Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile project (Keefer, Rollason, and Doane 2007). [Back]

17. Items 2–5 of the Durham Proverbs read: Freond deah feor ge neah. byð near nyttra; (A friend, or kinsman, is helpful whether far or near, but it more useful nearer); Æt þearfe man sceal freonda cunnian (A friend in need is a friend indeed); Nafað ænig mann freonda to feala (No man can have too many friends); and Beforan his freonde biddeþ se þe his wædle mæneþ (Let him who complains of his poverty beg before his friend). Since Marsden (2004) only edits the Old English statements without their Latin companions, Arngart (1981) remains the standard edition of the Durham Proverbs. All citations and translations of the Durham Proverbs in this essay are from this edition. [Back]

18. The structure of Durham Proverb 6 vividly illustrates how cleft sentences allow writers to convey an ironic tone, and thus, "accomplish by means of word order what a speaker can do by varying the point of main stress or loudness" (Kolln and Funk 2012, 98). [Back]

19. Arngart notes the meaning 'treasures' for Old English searowum, 'contrivances' is unusual, and must be inferred from the equivalent Latin noun aurum. He also suggests searowum may also be construed here as 'cleverness' based on a parallel maxim from the Old Norse poem Hávamál (1981, 296). [Back]

20. An ancient form of proverbial discourse with roots in Latin and Greek literature, the Wellerism—named after Sam Weller of Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers (1836)—is a "device popularized by Dickens by which an innocuous or uninteresting statement is transformed by inventing a fantastic, ridiculous, or obscene context in which it is said to be said" (Shippey 2000, 41). On the historical roots and development of Wellerisms, see Taylor (1965, 200–20). Also consult Mieder and Kingsbury (1994, ix–xvi) for an overview of the Wellerism's structural features. [Back]

21. The manuscript's two parts were bound together sometime between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries; the Durham Proverbs are inscribed following the hymnal toward the end of part one. Thorough descriptions of the manuscript and discussions of its likely provenance are found in Milfull (1996, 27–41) and Keefer, Rollason, and Doane (2007, no. 120). [Back]

22. The word "on" has been squeezed in at the end of line 19 of the manuscript, suggesting a deliberate break by the scribe. [Back]

23. Carruthers (1998, 135–38 and 160–61) concisely explains the importance of visuality for teaching the syllabic reading of Latin. [Back]

24. Arngart is quoting from the 1948 Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. Later editions of this resource omit the reference to medieval art objects. [Back]

25. Gneuss (2001) dates Julius vi to "s. xi1 or xi med." (no. 337) and Tiberius B. v. to "s. xi2/4" (no. 373). I should also note that the visual layout of the calendar images in these manuscripts resembles those included in medieval books of hours like the ones Gibson (quoted above) singles out for their frequent inclusion of pictured proverbs. Kolve (2009, 91–170) includes extensive visual analogs from later medieval books of hours resembling the ones discussed here in his persuasive argument for the influence of medieval calendar images on Chaucer's "Merchant's Tale." [Back]

26. In Tiberius B. v the image has been displaced to the month of June. Reproductions of the illustrations in both calendars are included in Webster (1938, plates XVII–XX) and black-and-white photographic reproductions of both calendars are found in McGurk, et al. (1983). [Back]

27. Gibson (2010, 40) claims Bosch's painting was first linked to these Old Testament passages by the Spanish friar José de Sigüenza in 1604. [Back]

28. Another variant of the first proverb cited above is "That which was whilom grene gras, Is welked hey at time now" (Whiting 1968, G436). While it is probable that these early English proverbs ultimately derived from the Biblical passages quoted above, those who used them would not necessarily have known of their scriptural origins. For an indispensable discussion of the complexities involved in the transmission of Biblical proverbs through both oral and written channels, see Taylor (1965, 52–61). [Back]

29. It may be objected that the presence of three wild birds in Julius A. vi (and five in Tiberius B. v) does not align with the count of wild birds in the proverb. But the precise wording and number of birds said to be in the hand instead of the wood (or bush) is variable. Among the nine recorded instances of the proverb from English writings dating mainly before 1500, a bird in hand is said to be better than "tweye," "thre," "iiij," "ten," and "twenty score" birds in the ever-familiar "wode," as well as in "the sky a-bove," "with-owyt" or even "fast in a Cage" (Whiting 1968, B301). [Back]

30. Key to this interpretation is the off-white color and round shape of the capule-less acorn fruit eaten by the sow in the right register of the Tiberius image, combined with the two men, their bay hounds, and the orientation of the swine. (A full-color digital image of the Tiberius calendar image for October is available through the British Library's Web site: Taken together, these tropes picture Christ's warning against casting pearls before swine in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:6). The biblical passage may also partially explain some of the artistic differences between the Julius image and the Tiberius one. In the Tiberius picture, the lead hunter grips the handle of his sword whereas the lead hunter in the Julius image pulls back the branch of a tree (OE beam) with his hand so as to obtain a better view of his prey. Despite Webster's claim that there is an "apparent lack of meaning" in these details (1938, 54), it is possible that the Julius image would have prompted some viewers to recall the central image of the wooden beam that obscures the hypocrite's vision in Matthew 7:3-5, which immediately precedes the passage quoted above: "And why seest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye; and seest not the beam that is in thy own eye? Or how sayest thou to thy brother: Let me cast the mote out of thy eye; and behold a beam is in thy own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thy own eye, and then thou shalt see to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye." (Douay-Rheims) [Back]

31. For a full discussion of the calendar's Irish elements, such as the inclusion of Irish saints and feast days, see McGurk, et al. (1983, 46–48). [Back]

32. My count includes a variant of Matthew 7:6 ('to cast roses before swine'). A list of proverbs featuring pigs, paired with details from Bruegel's painting, is available online at [Back]

33. On my use of the title Exeter Maxims instead of Maxims I, see O'Camb (2011, 138–39). [Back]

34. Credit for this point belongs to Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., who helped me to better articulate the utility of comparing Bruegel's painting to Old English proverb poems during our panel discussion. [Back]

35. Tigges (1994) examines the Maxims poems alongside the Old English riddles in a thoughtful study that foregrounds their shared interest in vivid images. [Back]

36. Again, my use of "see" here is adopted from Withers. As he explains, from a visual studies perspective, "'Seeing' is not the same as 'looking', what human beings do with their natural, biological organs of sight. 'Seeing' involves filtering and framing that natural vision in ways that allow the mind to focus on and process information about the sensory world. Any act of seeing, defined against merely looking, is seen as problematic, a product of tensions arising from the encounter that ties a subject's internal mental and psychological process to social and cultural concerns of knowing and power" (Withers 2012, 252). [Back]

37. Gneuss (2001, no. 410) dates this Northumbrian manuscript "s. viii." [Back]

38. As Thornbury (2014, 24) observes, even though the "Anglo-Saxons accepted the Book of Psalms as poetry" their acceptance was "not necessarily an inevitable position, given that none of their standard Latin versions were metrical." The same could be said about the Anglo-Saxons' reception of the Book of Proverbs. [Back]

39. A digital facsimile of the relevant folio page from the Egerton codex may be viewed through the British Library at: [Back]

40. For a discussion of the dating and provenance, see the facsimile of the manuscript: Wright and Quirk (1955, 18–23). Cameron (1993, 119) was the first to suggest that the eye-salve remedy would indeed kill bacteria. [Back]

41. Beowulf, lines 1–11. Quotations from Beowulf are taken from Bjork, Fulk and Niles (2008). For discussion of the non-ironic nature of the passage, see 110–12. [Back]

42. Perhaps most famously (and most intriguingly) when, after Grendel's mother has attacked Heorot, Hrothgar laments that "dead is Æschere, Yrmenlaf's older brother!" without the character or the poet (or all of the Germanic literature that has survived) saying who Yrmenlaf was. Beowulf, lines 1323b–24. [Back]

43. For example, Beowulf, lines 3077–78, when Wiglaf says that oft sceall eorl monig anes willan / wræc adreogan, [often must many men suffer hardship on account of the will of one]. It is a subject of significant debate whether this statement is a direct criticism of Beowulf, of the man who plundered the dragon's hoard, of the dragon itself, or if it is a general maxim. See Bjork, Fulk and Niles 2008, 267–68. [Back]

44. Establishing a canon of wisdom poems is a complex problem that is beyond the scope of this essay. For discussion, see Drout (2006, 223–24; 2013, 151–69). [Back]

45. This is my adaptation of John Foley's explanation of the ways that special codes key performances: "interpret what I say in some special sense; do not take it to mean what the words alone, literally, would convey" (Foley 2002, 86). [Back]

46. For more discussion, see Drout (2013, 122–33). For cognitive prototypes, see Rosch (1978). [Back]

47. It is a great temptation for professors to believe that small groups of highly educated individuals in socially distinct institutions could change the hearts and minds of large portions of the population, and so it is easy to project that idea back onto the Middle Ages. It is more likely that the ideas of the intellectuals could, at times, influence some members of the elite, who could then employ their power to change the culture, but there was only one King Edgar. [Back]

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Published: 8-Jan-2018