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Educating Reader: Chaucer's Use of Proverbs in "Troilus and Criseyde"

Ann C. Hall

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 interrelationships.4 Taylor 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 crye
"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"

(I, 750-760)

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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.

Proverbs by James Chapman - cat
A cat in mittens won’t catch mice

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 by James Chapman - book
A book is like a garden carried in the pocket

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…

Proverbs Today

Proverbs by James Chapman - egg and hen
The egg thinks it’s smarter than the hen

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

Proverbs by James Chapman - duck
If the world flooded, it wouldn’t matter to the duck

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.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

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 creating.

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 all.


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. 277-298. 

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 information.

7 Thanks to Whiting's work, the frequency of proverbial wisdom among the characters is as follows:
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 Sententious Remarks.

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 say. 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 11:2000 & Issue 12:2000, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

19 Krishenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara, "Toward a Theory of Proverb Meaning" in The Wisdom of Many, Eds. Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes (New York: Garland Press, 1981), p. 112.

Ann C. Hall
Center for Medieval and
Renaissance Studies
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio 43210


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