Speak Well and Act Accordingly

The Durham Proverbs, a selection of Anglo-Saxon bons mots, show that medieval daily concerns and popular wisdom still have resonance today, says Eleanor Parker.

Eleanor Parker | Published in 04 Jan 2016

Common concerns: tending the boar. Calendar page, c.1030There is something irresistible about proverbs. In an age when the Internet is flooded with ‘inspirational sayings’, dubiously attributed but widely reproduced, it has never been easier to observe the popular appeal of short, cleverly phrased nuggets of wisdom.

Medieval literature placed a high value on proverbs and many lines of Anglo-Saxon poetry have a vaguely proverbial ring. But our best source of Anglo-Saxon proverbs is a single collection, which survives in a manuscript now in Durham Cathedral Library. The Durham Proverbs provide a vivid glimpse into the everyday life of Anglo-Saxon England, offering sayings on subjects ranging from mead-drinking and hunting to the benefits of friendship, caution and self-control. The manuscript is a collection of hymns and canticles, in Latin with interlinear English translations, probably for the use of the monks at Christ Church, Canterbury in the first half of the 11th century. Not long after the manuscript was made, someone in the monastery took advantage of a blank space between the hymns to write down a group of 46 proverbs. The proverbs each appear in English and Latin versions – perhaps a monk was giving himself a bit of practice translating from English into Latin, or the other way around.

Some of the proverbs collected in this manuscript are recorded elsewhere, but in most cases we would not know of their existence, if not for that anonymous monk. He made a sporadic effort at arranging them, at least at the beginning, where we find several proverbs on the theme of friendship: ‘A friend is useful, far or near; the nearer the better’; ‘In time of need, a man finds out his friends’; ‘No one can have too many friends’. These offer a rather pragmatic approach to the theme, focusing on the usefulness of having friends who can help you out when you are in trouble.

Many of the sayings are mildly cynical in tone, as proverbs tend to be, casting a wry glance at fallible human nature. ‘Sometimes people are most thirsty after drinking mead’, says one, commenting on insatiable desires both literal and metaphorical. They conjure up comic images with down-to-earth humour and the quality of sharp observation, which makes for a good proverb: ‘No one can have a mouth full of flour and also blow on a fire’, warns one about the dangers of doing two things at once. (Apparently this also makes good practical sense; flour and fire together form an explosive combination.) A proverb drawn from hunting, ‘He who wants to catch a hart can’t worry about his horse’, is perhaps the Anglo-Saxon aristocrat’s equivalent of ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’.

Others are more reflective and would not be out of place in the philosophical world of Beowulf: ‘A person acts what he is when he may do what he will’; ‘Truth will make itself known’; ‘He never knows the pleasure of sweetness, who never tastes bitterness’; ‘He is blind in both eyes who does not look with the heart’. One proverb, found in a very similar form in the Old English poem ‘The Wanderer’, describes the behaviour of a wise warrior: Ne sceal man to ær forht ne to ær fægen, ‘One should not be too soon fearful, nor too soon joyful’.

Since some of these proverbs are recorded in other sources, it may be that here we have a glimpse of the kind of sayings which might have been in common use. They make themselves memorable by rhyme, alliteration and wordplay. For instance: ‘Better to be often loaded than overloaded’ (Betere byþ oft feðre þonne oferfeðre) recommends the virtue of doing things step by step. A few of the proverbs are recorded from centuries after the end of the Anglo-Saxon period: ‘The fuller the cup, the more carefully one should carry it’, a saying first recorded in the Durham Proverbs, was still in common use (in the form ‘full cup, steady hand’) as late as the 19th century.

The Proverbs, despite their connections to other texts, are special: for all the great wealth of surviving Old English literature it is rare to capture something which sounds so much as if it may actually be the everyday speech of Anglo-Saxon England. Proverbs are often the kind of sayings everybody knows but no one bothers to write down. It would be nice to think we could bring some back into use, but the proverbs sound a note of caution for anyone who might want to adorn their speech with words of Anglo-Saxon wisdom: Gyf þu well sprece, wyrc æfter swa, ‘If you speak well, act accordingly’.

Eleanor Parker is a medievalist and writes at A Clerk of Oxford. Twitter: @clerkofoxford