We are all familiar with proverbs – simple sayings that are meant to provide a little wisdom. You can find them in every language, with some going back to ancient times, while others were coined only a few years ago. Medieval people had many proverbs and sayings, some of which have survived and still popular today.
The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs has over a thousand sayings in its list, and traces many of them back to the Middle Ages. Here is our 20 favourite English proverbs that have medieval origins.
After a storm comes a calm – this dates back to the Ancrene Riwle from the mid-13th century: ‘Blessed are you Lord, who makes a calm after the storm’.
When the cat’s away, the mice will play – an early 14th century line is ‘where there is no cat the rat is king,’ while another line found in a manuscript from c.1470 says ‘The mows lordchypythe ther a cat ys nawt.’
Clothes make the man – ‘Euer maner and clothyng makyth man’ is a line that dates back to c.1400
The voice of the people is the voice of God – this line can be traced back to Alcuin in the 8th century, who wrote: ‘They often say: the voice of the people is the voice of God.’
Ask a silly question and you get a silly answer– an English Legendary from c.1300 includes this phrase: ‘Ffor-sothe thou axest as a fol, and swich ansuere me schul the yive.’ Later on, in William Caxton’s version of Aesop in 1484, is the line: ‘And thus they wente without ony sentence For to a folysshe demaunde behoueth a folysshe ansuere.’
It is better to give than to receive – The Confessio Amantis by Gower, c. 1390, has this: ‘Better is to yive than to take.’
Let sleeping dogs lie – In his work Troilus & Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer writes: ‘It is nought good a sleypng hound to wake.’
Big fish eat little fish – an early thirteenth century version of Old English Homilies has this line: ‘The more fishes in the se eten the lasse’
Strike while the iron is hot – this line can be found in the 13th century: ‘One must strike the iron while it is hot’.
Look before you leap – a version of this line dates back to mid-14th century: ‘First loke and aftirward lepe.’
Blood is thicker than water – a version of this line is found in the 12th century: ‘I hear it said that kin-blood is not spoiled by water.’
All good things must come to an end – the Partonope of Blois, c.1440 has this line: ‘Ye wote wele of all things moste be an ende.’
Children should be seen and not heard – this dates back to a line from c.1400: ‘Hyt ys an old Englysch sawe: A mayde schuld be seen, but not herd.’
Misery loves company – a 14th-century line is similar: ‘It is a comfort to the wretched to have companions in woes.’
Do as I say, not as I do – an 11th-century text includes this line: ‘Although I do worse than I teach you, do not do as I do, but do as I teach you if I teach you well.’
All roads lead to Rome – in the Middle Ages the saying goes by ‘a thousand roads lead man for ever towards Rome.’ Geoffrey Chaucer’s version is a little different: ‘Right as diverse pathes leden diverse folke the righte way to Rome.’
Every man for himself – Geoffrey Chaucer also has this line from the Knight’s Tale: ‘At the kynges court, my brother, Ech man for himself, there is noon oother.’
All that glitters is not gold – this line can be found in a text from c.1220: ‘ Nis hit nower neh gold al that ter schineth.’
A friend in need is a friend indeed – a proverb from c.1035 say this: ‘Friend shall be known in time of need.’
All’s well that ends well – a line from the mid-13th century is similar: ‘Wel is him te wel ende mai.’ Meanwhile, Henry Knighton’s Chronicle from the late 14th-century one can read: ‘ If the ende be wele, than is alle wele.’
You can read more in the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, edited by Jennifer Speake.
See also: Medieval Proverbs from The Well-Laden Ship
See also: Ten Old Norse Proverbs: Wisdom from the Hávamál
See also: Fake Medieval Proverbs (from the Middle Ages)
Top Image: Cats and mice in British Library MS Royal 12 C XIX f. 36v