Educating Reader: Chaucer's Use of Proverbs in
"Troilus and Criseyde"
The scholarship on Chaucer's use of proverbs is so vast
that one might imagine Chaucer closing either the MLA or the International Proverb Bibliography with a sigh
and shrug, muttering, "diverse folk, diversely they
said."1 The Troilus is a particular favorite because, simply, "Chaucer uses a
greater proportion of proverbs and sententious remarks in
the Troilus than in anything else he wrote."2 From Bartlett Jere Whiting's indispensable index to more
recent criticism, most scholars attribute the function of
this folk wisdom to characterization, particularly the
characters in the romance.3 Karla Taylor's work is worth mentioning here because through
its departure from this critical trend, it establishes the
integral function of proverbs throughout the work, not just
among certain characters and their
argues that Chaucer highlights the proverbs in the Troilus through not only their volume but also
through the poem's self-reflexive nature. Taylor notes that
"the poet often intrudes into his text to direct our
attention to the process of composition."5 And, since proverbs play such an important role throughout
this process, the poem also forces us to notice these
rhetorical devices. The Troilus, then, is not just a
romance; it is also a tale-being-told.
What Taylor, and other proverb scholars, neglect to
consider, however, is Chaucer's ironic, and often humorous,
use of the narrator. To be brief, Chaucer creates what D. C.
Muecke calls "ingénu irony" through this
narrator. Muecke characterizes this form of irony as
"another mode in which the ironist, instead of presenting himself as a simpleton [as Chaucer does in the House of Fame], puts forward in his place a
simpleton or ingénu who is to be regarded as
distinct from the ironist."6 By viewing the narrator in this way, we see that Chaucer not
only uses his narrator's proverbs for specific functions
but, more importantly, demonstrates their limitations
throughout the Troilus, particularly during
narration. Chaucer, finally, neither dismisses nor embraces
proverbial wisdom, but, to put it proverbially, admonishes
his audience to "let the user beware."
Before moving on to the narrator, it is important to
examine, briefly at least, the character of Pandarus, the
poem's most prodigious proverb-user.7 For through this character, Chaucer demonstrates the
inadequacy of proverbs, their illusive tendency to "seem to
embody the wisdom of the past," in non-narrative situations,
that is, in situations other than storytelling.8 According to Donald MacDonald, who notes that Chaucer's
audience habitually accepted the wisdom of proverbs, such an
illustration may have been necessary.9 We first meet Pandarus when he attempts to aid the love-sick
Troilus. The knight, aware of Pandarus' own problems with
love, declines the offer, saying. "Thow koudest nevere in
love thiselven wisse: / How devel maistow brynge me to
blisse?" (I, 622-23). Pandarus proceeds to answer this
question in the next fourteen stanzas almost completely
relying on proverbial material as his means of persuasion
(I, 624-721). Humorously, none of this folk artillery
works--Troilus remains silent. It is only when Pandarus
resorts to brute rhetorical strength that Troilus relents.
Pandarus shouts "Awake!" and Troilus finally speaks:
...whan he [Troilus] hadde herd hym
"Awake!" he gan syken wonder soore,
And seyde, "Frend, though that I stylle lye,
I am nat deef. Now pees, and crye namore,
For I have herd thi wordes and thi lore;
But suffre me my meschief to bywaille,
For thi proverbes may me naught availle.
Nor other cure kanstow non for me.
Er I nyl nat been cured; I wol deye.
What knowe I of the queene Nyobe?
Lat be thyne olde ensaumples, I the preye"
Warning: Division by zero in /home/world68/public_html/DPjournal/DP,6,2,00/CHAUCER.html on line 216 Proverbs, Sayings and Popular Wisdom - Audio Proverbs in English and Romance Languages, Proverb Studies, Proverb Collections, International Proverb Bibliographies
De Proverbio – Latin for ‘About the Proverb’ – is a website devoted to proverbs in several languages. It was founded in January 1995 at the University of Tasmania, Australia. De Proverbio was the world’s first refereed electronic journal of international proverb studies. It’s inspiration was Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship edited by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder at the University of Vermont. The Yearbook continued the tradition of Proverbium: Bulletin d’Information sur les Recherches Parémiologiques, published occasionally from 1965 to 1975 by the Society for Finnish Literature, Helsinki.
Recently, the website has added audio proverbs in six languages, read by native speakers. Also available for the lovers of languages and their proverbial richess is a page of multilingual proverb crosswords.
Proverbs and Their Definition
From time immemorial proverbs have fascinated people of all ages and from all walks of life. As it happened throughout centuries, common people today still avail themselves of the proverb’s rich oral tradition to convey their culture and values, while scholars collect and study them from a wide range of angles: linguistic, social, psychological, political, historical and so on.
The problem of proverb definition is still open. However, it is broadly accepted that proverbs were born from man’s experience. And that they generally express, in a very succinct way, common-sense truths. They give sound advice and reflect the human condition. But, as we know, human nature is both good and bad and the latter is often mirrored by discriminatory proverbs, be they against women, different nationalities or particular social groups. For a thorough discussion of proverb definition, see Popular Views of the Proverb by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder. Another article which sheds some light on the proverb definition is The Wisdom of Many and the Wit of One by Archer Taylor.
Proverbs and Their Origin
As to the origin of proverbs we tend to assume that they were born in times when human society began to self-impose rules and embrace principles necessary for communal living. Research can trace them back only to the time when language was recorded by means of some type of writing. The Sumerian civilisation of more than five thousand years ago is the oldest known civilisation to have made use of proverbs, some of which have been passed on through its cuneiform inscriptions.
One such proverb, in its Latin version, is Canis festinans caecos parit catulos. It spread to other languages. The English translation is The hasty bitch brings forth blind whelps. In French, it became La chienne dans sa hâte a mis bas des chiots aveugles. In the Italian La gatta frettolosa fece i gattini ciechi, the bitch has been replaced by the cat. The Portuguese version is Cadelas apressadas parem cães tortos, and the Romanian, Căţeaua de pripă îşi naşte căţeii fără ochi.
Proverbs and Their Use
Apart from use on a wide scale in day-to-day speech, there is ample evidence that proverbs were essential tools in teaching and learning. The pedagogical use of proverbs was encountered first in Sumerian society and subsequently this use became widespread throughout Medieval Europe.
Proverbs and proverbial expressions are found in religious manuscripts of the first half of the eighth century. The aim of introducing proverbs into religious texts was to help novices to learn Latin, and this practice became widespread by the tenth century.
The use of proverbs in teaching and learning was not circumscribed to England. Relatively new research attests to the use of proverbs in teaching in the eleventh century in Liège, France. In Italy the famous medical School of Salerno of the eleventh century formulated medical precepts which later became proverbs adopted by different cultures. Post prandium stabis, post coenam ambulabis was translated After dinner sit awhile, after supper walk a mile in English. In French became Après dîner repose un peu, après souper promène une mille, while in Italian Dopo pranzo riposar un poco, dopo cena passeggiar un miglio. The Spanish version is Después de yantar reposad un poco, después de cenar pasead una milla and the Portuguese Depois de jantar, dormir; depois de cear, passos mil.
Proverbs and Their Abuse
But from use comes abuse, as a Spanish proverb says. There is no doubt that the capacity of the proverb to convey universal truths concisely led to their abuse and manipulation.
Hitler and his Nazi regime employed proverbs as emotional slogans for propaganda purposes and encouraged the publication of anti-semitic proverb collections. For a thorough analysis of this phenomenon, please read the fascinating article “ … as if I were the master of situation.” Proverbial Manipulation in Adolf Hitler by Prof. Wolfgang Mieder.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, communist regimes of the past have not only manipulated proverbs, but also purged popular collections of features which did not reflect their political ends. The former Soviet regime is at the forefront of such actions. One type of manipulation described by Jean Breuillard in Proverbes et pouvoir politique: Le cas de l’U.R.S.S. (published in “Richesse du proverbe”, Eds. François Suard and Claude Buridant. Lille: Université de Lille, 1984. II, 155-166). It consisted in modifying ancient proverbs like La vérité parcourt le monde (Truth spreads all over the world) into La vérité de Lénine parcourt le monde (Lenin’s truth spreads all over the world). As a result the new creation is unequivocably charged with a specific ideological message.
Manipulation did not stop at individual proverbs, it extended to entire collections. Vladimir Dal’s mid-nineteen century collection of Russian proverbs is such an example. Its first Soviet edition (1957) reduces the proverbs containing the word God from 283 to 7 only. Instead, those which express compassion for human weaknesses, such as alcoholism, disappear altogether. In more recent years, in Ceauşescu’s Romania, Proverbele românilor (published in 1877 by I. C. Hinţescu) suffered the same treatment. More than 150 proverbs were eliminated or changed in order to respond rigidly to the communist ideology.
Proverbs Across Time and Space
The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs states that foreign proverbs’ contribution to the English proverbial stock has enriched our language. Many proverbs of foreign origin were quickly absorbed into English life and have a rightful place in an English dictionary. Indeed, a close scrutiny of that dictionary reveals that more than two hundred and fifty proverbs are listed as first existing in Italian.
This is also true for other modern languages, particularly French and Spanish. The translation is not always literal. At times it is adapted to the new language and the resulting proverb is often enriched in its expression. For instance the Latin Homo sine pecunia est imago mortis (A man without money is the image of death) is rather closely translated in Italian as Uomo senza quattrini è un morto che cammina (A man without money is a dead man walking).
However, in other languages the metaphor changes, but not the meaning. In English the proverb becomes A man without money is a bow without an arrow, while in French Un homme sans argent / Est un loup sans dents (A man without money is a wolf without teeth) and an element of rhyme is introduced. The Romanian adaptation is a real poetic gem Omul fără bani e ca pasărea fără aripi; Când dă să zboare / Cade jos şi moare (A man without money is like a bird without wings; When he tries to fly / He falls down and dies). The concept is essentially the same: the man without money lacks something important…
While proverbs are still used today in a traditional way, that is in speech, literature and teaching, they have found a new ever expanding use in the advertising industry and in the mass media. One example is Here today, gone tomorrow, which became Hair today, gone tomorrow in the hair-removal industry. In the mass media it has a variety of paraphrases such as Hear today, gone tomorrow or Heir today, gone tomorrow. Before the Barcelona Olympic Games the old proverb All roads lead to Rome became All roads lead to… Barcelona in many English language newspapers and magazines. A new phenomenon encountered in many languages nowadays and is undoubtedly a sign of the proverb’s resilience and vitality.
Important writers of the past, among them Goethe and Voltaire, have questioned the traditional wisdom of proverbs. That led to some proverb transformations. Prof. Wolfgang Mieder coined the term anti-proverb for all forms of creative proverb changes. They can be deliberate innovations, alterations, variations, parodies. Anti-proverbs are widely spread today, some living a short time, some even making their way into recent proverb collections. A new broom sweeps clean, but the old one knows the corners and Absence makes the heart grow fonder – for somebody else are considered anti-proverbs.
Proverbs and Their Collection
Apart from studies on individual and multilingual proverbs and proverbial expressions, you will find a few e-books on our website. I will mention a Brazilian collection and a dictionary of equivalent English and Romanian proverbs. Prof. Wolfgang Mieder’s yearly bibliographies are an invaluable tool for students and researchers. Given their widespread use over the millennia, it is no wonder that scholars of the past started assembling proverbs in collections. Aristotle is believed to be among the first paremiographers (collectors of proverbs), but, unfortunately, his collection was lost. In more recent times a great impetus to the collection of proverbs was given by Erasmus. His fame spread from Venice throughout Europe after the publication in 1508 of his Adagiorum Chiliades. This collection contained 3,260 proverbs drawn from classical authors.
The success of the book led to several augmented editions culminating with that of 1536, which contains 4,151 proverbs. Erasmus’ work was translated into several European languages. While it became the model for future proverb collections in those languages, they were widely copied and translated.
One good example of such a practice is the 1591 Italian collection Giardino di Ricreatione, nel quale crescono fronde, fiori e frutti, vaghe, leggiadri e soavi, sotto nome di sei miglia proverbii, e piacevoli riboboli Italiani, colti e scelti da Giovanni Florio. And two decades later appeared in French as Le Jardin de Récréation, au quel croissent rameaux, fleurs et fruits très-beaux, gentils et souefs, soubz le nom de Six mille proverbes et plaisantes rencontres françoises, recueillis et triéez par GOMÈS DE TRIER, non seulement utiles mais délectables pour tous espritz désireux de la très-noble et copieuse langue françoise, nouvellement mis en lumière, à Amsterdam, par PAUL DE RAVESTEYN.
Proverbs and Fun
On the less academic side, you can test your knowledge of languages by solving our bilingual or multilingual crosswords. Or, you can listen to our featured proverbs in 6 languages – English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. Also, enjoy sharing them with your friends. Some were posted on Twitter as comments to political events of the day.
Painters in Renaissance time, from Hieronymus Bosch to Pieter Bruegel, with his famous Netherlandish Proverbs, were attracted by the subject.
Modern artists like James Chapman illustrated recently proverbs from other world languages with hilarious cartoons. See some of his images on this page.
Throughout the Troilus, Chaucer demonstrates the
illusive nature of the proverb, its tendency to offer
"verbal stability" without offering a reliable answer to the
problem it purports to solve. It may momentarily protect the
speaker, but it, finally, "means" nothing. Barbara
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues that the meaning of proverbs
are "indeed contextually specified."19 Through the conclusion to the Troilus, in particular,
Chaucer takes this assessment one step further to show that
misapplication, or a misunderstanding of the situation to
which the proverb is inappropriately applied, often renders
proverbs meaningless. If we use Burke's admittedly broad
definition of the proverb, then the retraction functions as
a proverb. It, like many of Pandarus' sayings is a strategy
for "dealing with" a situation, namely the conflicting
purposes the narrator faces and is responsible for
Some, of course, might say that this conclusion merely
reflects the medieval tendency to Christianize pagan texts.
But throughout the narrative stance of the Troilus,
Chaucer creates the context in which these retractions
generally appear: it is not piety which motivates our
narrator to resort to Christianity but his own inexperience
with narrative strategies--he, like many medieval authors in
crisis, resorts to religion during troubled rhetorical
times. Like proverbial wisdom, this Christian solution is
fine in and of itself, but when misapplied, as it is here--a
Christian conclusion to a classical text--it offers no real
solutions; it only "sounds good." The effects of such
proverbial uses of this doctrine not only disrupt narrative
unity but also, in effect, destroy the validity of such
conventional wisdom. The medieval Curch may offer salvation,
but it does not solve the narrative sins of the Troilus. In this way, Chaucer neither embraces nor
condemns conventional wisdom but illustrates the effects of
its misapplication on both the work and the conventional
wisdom itself. Like Pandarus' persuasive techniques, this
conclusion becomes merely a stockpile of Christian
commonplaces. Through the simultaneity of the tale and its
telling, Chaucer controls the context for his proverbial
wisdom. Through Pandarus and the narrator, Chaucer
illustrates the proverb's tendency to provide quick
solutions when either speakers or tale-tellers face
overwhelming situations or literary material. Rather than
offering us successful uses, however, Chaucer teaches us
what to avoid--easy, conventional answers to life of
literature's complexities--possibly in the hopes that we
will create our own successes as he has. For by illustrating
the limitations of the proverb in the midst of a romance,
Chaucer creates a clever and humorous piece of literary
criticism. At the same time, however, Chaucer uses this
limited rhetorical device to his advantage. With Pandarus as
the plot's catalyst, Chaucer protects the classical
characters in the romance from assuming full responsibility
for their actions; they, after all, live according to the
"rules" of folk or socially acceptable wisdom. The narrator,
however, is not so well-protected. By hurriedly concluding
his complex story with a simplified and formulaic version of
Christian wisdom, he, finally, appears to have no wisdom at
Previously published in Proverbium 3 (1986), pp. 47-58.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University
of Vermont, USA).
1 Chaucer, Geoffrey, "The
Canterbury Tales" in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer,
2nd ed., Ed. F.N. Robinson (Boston: Houghton
Mifflin, 1957), Reeve's Prologue, 3857. All further
references to Chaucer's works are taken from this edition
and appear in the text.
2 Whiting, Bartlett Jere, Chaucer's Use of Proverbs (Cambridge: Harvard Univ.
Press, 1934). Whiting also notes that Chaucer "introduces
one hundred twenty-eight sayings, of which sixty-one are
proverbs and only eighty-seven proverbial phrases, of which
thirty-two are comparisons" (p. 49).
3 According to Whiting,
Chaucer, "who loved and appreciated the rich pawky wisdom of
the folk" (p. 4), uses proverbs "largely for purposes of
characterization" (p. 74). Following Whiting's lead, R.M.
Lumiansky studies the relationship between Troilus and
Pandarus via proverbs in "The Function of the Proverbial
Monitory Elements in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde" in Tulane Studies in English, 2 (1950), pp. 5-48.
Donald MacDonald argues that proverb misapplication enhances
comic effect, but focuses primarily on Pandarus in
"Proverbs, Sententiae, and Exempla in
Chaucer's Comic Tales: The Function of Comic
Misapplication," Speculum, 41 (1966), pp. 453-465.
And finally, Charles S. Rutherford focuses on Troilus' use
of proverbs in "Troilus' Farwell to Criseyde: The Idealist
as Clairvoyant and Rhetorician," Papers on Language and
Literature, 17 (1981), pp. 245-254.
4 Taylor, Karla, "Proverbs
and the Authentication of Convention in Troilus and
Criseyde" in Troilus: Essays in Criticism, Ed.
Stephen A. Barney (Hamden: Archon Books, 1980), pp.
5 Taylor, p. 278
6 Muecke, D.C., Irony (Norfolk: Methuen, 1970), pp. 57-58. See Alice Kaminsky's
annotated bibliography, Chaucer's "Troilus and Criseyde"
and the Critics (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1980). And
Dorothy Bethurum's "Chaucer's Point of View as Narrator in
the Love Poems," PMLA, 74 (1959), pp. 511-20. Both
are good introductions to the Chaucerian narrator. Neither
work, however, includes any folklore-related materials or
7 Thanks to Whiting's work,
the frequency of proverbial wisdom among the characters is
Pandarus: 20 Proverbs; 2 Comparisons; 22 Proverbial Phrases;
23 Sententious Remarks.
Narrator: 17 Proverbs; 2 Comparisons; 16 Proverbial Phrases;
12 Sententious Remarks.
Criseyde: 11 Proverbs; 2 Comparisons; 10 Proverbial Phrases;
16 Sententious Remarks.
Troilus: 4 Proverbs; 4 Comparisons; 2 Proverbial Phrases; 6
8 Abrahams, Roger D.
"Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions" in Folklore and
Folklife, Ed. Richard Dorson (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago
Press, 1972), p. 122.
9 MacDonald, Donald, p. 455.
Ray Browne also notes, "in the Middle Ages great stress was
placed on generalized wisdom, and thus on the importance of
proverbs" (p. 199). From his essay, "The Wisdom of Many:
Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions" in Our Living
Traditions: An Introduction to American Folklore, Ed.
Tristam Potter Coffin (New York: Basic Books, 1968). Whether
or not these statements hold true for Chaucer's courtly, and
probably more educated, audience is difficult to