THE PROVERB "THE BLACK OX HAS NOT
TROD ON HIS FOOT" IN RENAISSANCE LITERATURE*
The proverb "The black ox has not trod
on his (or: her) foot" was familiarly used by English
writers of the Renaissance and was, we may be sure, readily
understood in its general tenor, but it has almost
completely disappeared from
use, and the Renaissance examples do not indicate its origin. The
proverb has the following closely related
meanings, which I arrange in the order of their appearance:
1. He has not known trouble in the
1546. It was yet but
honeymoone: The black oxe had not trode on his or her
foote. J. Heywood, ADialogue conteinyng...
proverbs, 1, ch. vi.
1557. I think he passeth not xxiii,
the blacke oxe neur trode on hys fote. Erasmus, Amery dialogue, Il. 749-51, fol.
16v-17r (see facsimile ed. in H. de
Vocht, The Earliest English translations of Erasmus'
Colloquia, Oxford U. Press, 1928). The original is:
nondum novit, quid sit esse patremfamilias.
1573. See the quotation from
Tusser, below § 4.
1575. They never prove stayed until
the blacke oxe hath trodden on their toes. G. Gascoigne, Glasse of Government in The Complete Worksof George Gascoigne, ed. J. W. Cunliffe
(Cambridge, 1910), II, i, p. 81, v. 6.
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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.
2. He is inexperienced, has not known
sorrow or care.
1580. The blacke Oxe neuer
trode on your foote yet, you neuer came where it grewe.
Anthony Munday, Zelanto, the fountain of fame, p.
1581. Till the blacke oxe tread
upon his toes, and neede make him trie what mettle he is
made of. Mulcaster, Positions, XXXVI (1887),
1589. I hope his Canterburinesse
will looke to this geare, and suffer them to haue liberty
neither to write, nor to dispute, the blacke Oxe hath
troden on his foote, he hath had some trial by woful
experience, what smal credite... there is to be had,
either in writing or disputing with these fellows. Marprel. Tr., Epitome, B ii b.
1590. They travelled by the space
of two or three days without seeing any creatures, being
often in danger of wild beasts, and pained with many
passionate sorrows. Now the black oxe began to tread on
their feet. T. Lodge, Rosalynde (ed. W. W. Greg,
London, 1931), pp. 34-35.
1590. Sonne, as yet thou hast not
eaten bread with one tooth, nor hath the blacke Oxe
trodden upon thy foote. Robert Greene, Mourning
Garment (ed. 1616), p. 6.
1605. At last the black ox trod o'
my foot, / And I saw then what long'd unto't. J. Marston, Eastward Ho, V, v, 80 (ed. Bullen, III,
1610. ... when men feele the Reines
of liberty on their necke and may take a course without
controlement, ... then when the black Oxe hath trod vpon
their feete, ... in the end they come home by weeping
crosse. Samuel Rowlands, Martin Marke-all his
Apologie, Works, II (Glasgow: Hunterian Club, 1880),
separately paged, p. 29, Il. 5ff.
1611. Tis true as your father said,
the black ox hath not trode upon that foot of yours.
Robert Tailer, The Hog Hath Lost His Pearl (Dodsley's Old Plays, 1744), II, i, p.
The continental European parallels to
"The black ox has not trod on his foot" offer much the same
picture as do the English examples. In Germany, the proverb
names either a black ox or a black cow, but as in the case
of the pronouns "he" and "she," we cannot find anything
significant in the
variation. An important and curious early German example of our proverb
occurs in Nicolaus Herman's verses on the Prodigal Son which
were published in 1562. A similar context is seen in Samuel
Richardson's allusion: "The common phrase of wild-oats, and
black oxen, and such-like
qualifiers." After the Prodigal Son has squandered his substance in
riotous living, he suffers distress:
Do jn so tratt die schwartze
Kam der alt Reul vnd bisz mit
This obscure passage has been
satisfactorily explained as a reference to Reuel (penitence)
as a dog. A confusing variant:
In des so trat jn auch die
Kam der alte keil auch
is probably a misreading of "der alt
Reul." There is an occasional example of the proverb of the
black ox in later literary use, e.g., "Wissens auch nicht,
weil ihre augen gut und gesund sein, und keine augenbrechen
gehabt noch versucht haben, oder wie man zu sagen pfleget,
welche die schwarze kue noch nicht getreten
hat,'' "auf die letzt trat mich zwar die schwarze kuh, aber zu
spät,'' "er hat sich viel Unglücks genietet, die schwarze Kuh
hat ihn oft getreten," and "jedes rauschend Blatt ist ihm
ein geharnischter Mann, die schwarze Kuhe hat ihn zu oft
have the meanings familiar in English.
*Reprinted from Wolfgang
Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer
Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp.
My friend Bartlett Whiting gives
me two examples from modern English fiction, viz., "She
was ready to settle down and let the Black Oxen do their
will with her" (Theda Kenyon, Witchtes Still Live [New York, 1929], p. 343) and "The black ox hath
trodden on her toe" (Wyndham Lewis, The Apes of God [New York, 1932], p. 593). The plural "oxen"
appears again in the title of Gertrude Atherton's Black Oxen (1923). These uses of the proverb
appear to have been suggested by acquaintance with a
literary rather than an oral tradition and are intended
to suggest "atmosphere." Sir Walter Scott's use of the
proverb (The Antiquary, Ch. XL; Fortunes of
Nigel, Ch. II middle) may, on the contrary, have an
origin in oral tradition, for the proverb is said to be
current in Scotland; see J. Jamieson, Etymological
Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1825), new ed.,
Paisley, 1879, s.v. "black ox"; G. V. Irving, Notes
and Queries, 3d Series, XII, 488; T. F. Dyer, Domestic Folk-Lore (London, 1881) as cited in Notes and Queries, CLXVII, 376.
For many of these examples I am
indebted to Professor M. P. Tilley, who has generously
given them to me. Some instances which are found in
proverb collections give no indication of their meaning
and serve therefore only to prove that the proverb was
known at the time of printing. See, e.g., a manuscript
note written about A.D. 1598 in Fergusson, Scottish
Proverbs (ed. Beveridge), p. 102; William Camden, Remaines concerning Britain (3d ed., London,
1623), p. 279 (not found in ed. 1614). There are no
proverbs in ed. 1 (1605); J. Howell, Paroemiographia (1659), "British Proverbs," p. 23; N. R., Cent., Proverbs (1659), p. 21; Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia (1732), p. 189, No. 4427.
The editor of Tusser's Husbandrie quotes the following from Bernard's Terence: "Prosperitie hangs on his sleeue; the
black oxe cannot tread on his foot."
Epigrams (ed. J. S. Farmer,
1908), p. 139, No. 79, "The blacke oxe."
E. Peacock, A Glossary of Words
Used in the Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham,
Lincolnshire (English Dialect Soc., LVIII; London,
1889), p. 51.
Countess Cathleen, as
quoted in Notes and Queries, CXLIX (1935),
Sprichwörter-Lexikon, II, col. 1687, "Kuh," 521
and III, col. 1108, "Ochs," *350, *360, *361. The form
varies slightly: "Die schwarze Kuh hat ihn gedrückt"
or "Die schwarze Kuh hat ihm auf den Fuss
Quoted from the NewEnglish Dictionary, s.v. "ox."
P. Wackernagel, Das deutsche
Kirchenlied, III (Leipzig, 1870), 1210, No. 1413,
Stanza 8. For comment see Deutsches Wörterbuch, s.v. "Kuh," 6.
Deutsches Wörterbuch, VIII, col. 835--36. See also F. Koldewey (ed.), B.
Wapdis, Streitgedichte (Halle, 1883), p.
J. Bergmann, Ambraser
Liederbuch, "Bibliothek des litterarischen Vereins,"
XII (Stuttgart, 1845), 147 (No. 128, Stanza 8). The
variant reading also appears in the Liederbüchlein (Frankfurt a.M.: N. Basse,
1580), the Liederbüchlein of 1584, and the Gross Liederbuch (Frankfurt a.M., 1599). For
description of these texts see C. A. Williams, JEGP, VIII (1909), 489--500. Professor Williams has given
me counsel about these texts.
G. Bartisch, Das ist, Augendienst (Dresden, 1583), 3 as quoted
in Deutsches Wörterbuch, s.v. "Kuh,"
Christian Weise, Die drei
ergsten Erznarren, Ch. 6 as quoted in Deutsches
Wörterbuch, s.v. "Kuh," 6.
V. Herzberger, Herz-Postille, I, 780 and Trauerbinden as quoted by G.
Schoppe, Mitteilungen der schlesischen Gesellschaft
für Volkskunde, XXIX (1928), 300.
A. Schleicher, Litauische
Märchen, Sprichwörter, Rätsel und Lieder (Weimar, 1857), p. 174 (the original is not
A parallel (German) from Estonia
in A. W. Hupel, Idiotikon der deutschen Sprache in
Lief- und Ehstland (Riga, 1795), p. 131. Grimm's
reference (Deut. Myth., p. 631) to Etner is
Ipolyi, Zeitschrift für
deutsche Mythologie, I (1853), 271. The original is
not given. The aberrant form of this Hungarian version
suggests that the translation may not be accurate.
J. G. von Hahn, Albanesische
Studien (Jena, 1854), II, 154, No. 73.
N. G. Polites, Paroimiai, III (Athens, 1903), 200--201, "Beta," No. 45. The
extensive commentary represents the most thorough
investigation of the proverb. I am indebted for the
reference and other substantial assistance to my friend
R. Riegler, Die neuren
Sprachen, XXXIII (1925), 369--70.
Gemeene Duytsche Spreckwoorden:
Adagia oft Proverbia ghenoemt (Campen, 1550), p. 11 =
Harrebomée, II, 154 a.
Osmanische Sprichwörter (Bernstein, 3522), pp. 32--33, No. 95.
H. Massmann, Kaiserchronik (Quedlinburg, 1854), III, 951--54; F. Liebrecht, Des Gervasius von Tilbury Otia Imperialia (Hanover, 1856), p. 126; E. L. Rochholz, Schweizersagen (Aarau, 1856), II, 21--22; Brothers
Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, III
(Göttingen, 1856), 298; R. Köhler, "Eine Sage
von Theodorichs Ende in dem 'Libro de los Enxemplos," Germania, XVIII (1873), 147--52 = Kleinere
Schriftcn, II (Berlin, 1900), 266--72; Heiberg,
"Theodorich som den vilde Jaeger," Dania, IX
(1903), 239-40; J. Bolte and G. Polivka, Anmerkungen, IV (Leipzig, 1930), 140--41. Compare Herman
Schneider's explanation of the story in Germanische
Heldensage, I (Berlin, 1928), 278--82.
Neuer Büchersaal der
schönen Wissenschaften, VI (1748), 449--58.
Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon, II,
col. 687, "Kuh," *521 cites J. G. Bock, Idioticon
prussicum (Königsberg, 1759), pp. 38--39, but
this contains nothing pertinent. A. M. Hyamson, A
Dictionary of English Phrases (London, 1922), p. 49,
offers the same explanation and adds that the phrase
means "He is henpecked."
Deutsche Mythologic, 1st
ed., p. 631, n. 1 (4th ed., p. 554, n. 1).
Sprichwörter-Lexikon, II, col. 1687, "Kuh,"
*521. This positive assertion is typical of ideas
prevalent about the middle of the nineteenth
Deutsche Mythologie, III,
467, No. 887.
Des Gervasius von Tilbury Otia
Imperialia (Hanover, 1856), p. 92. The
Oláfspáttr Geirstadaâlfs may be found
in Fornmannasögur, X, 209--15. The pertinent passage
is conveniently reprinted in G. D. Kelchner, Dreams in
Old Norse Literature and Their Affinities in Folklore (Cambridge, 1935), p. 127.
Eugen Mogk in Paul's Grundriss
dur germanischen Philologie,2II, i
(Strassburg, 1901--9), 824.
R. Riegler, "Zur Redensart: Die
schwarze Kuh hat ihn gedrückt (getreten)," Die
neueren Sprachen, XXXIII (1925), 368--70. See also G.
Schoppe, "Sprichwörtliche Redensarten," Mitteilungen der schlesischen Gesellschaft für
Volkskunde, XXIX (1928), 300, who independently
offers the same explanation.
Sprichwörter-Lexikon, III, col. 1108, "Ochs,"
London, 1832. See p. 106.
According to Archdeacon Nares, the proverb signifies the
burdens of old age, but he offers no comment. See A
Glossary or Collection of Words (New ed., London,
1901), II, 625.
Comte A. de Laborde, "La Mort
chevauchant un boeuf," Comptes rendus des seances de
l'Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 1923, pp. 100--13; Alois Bernt and Konrad Burdach
(eds.), Der Ackermann aus Böhmen (Berlin,
1917), pp. 237--52, "Das römische Bild des Todes und
die bildhaften Elemente der Todesvorstellung im
'Ackermann,'" especially pp. 248--49; Istvan
Kozáky, Anfänge der Darstellungen des
humanitatis historica, I; Budapest, 1936), passim.
Kozáky's important study is the first of three
volumes on the origin, development, and modern forms of
the Dance of Death. The high merits of the first volume
have not been adequately noticed in any review that has
come to my attention.
A. Bernt and K. Burdach, Ackermann, pp. 248--49; Kozáky, p.
Kozáky, p. 229.
De Laborde, p. 106. These pictures supply a better explanation of the French and
Breton traditions of death symbolized by vehicles drawn
by black oxen than does Riegler's theory. A painting
suggested by Petrarch's Trionfi and belonging to
an artist of the school of Mantegna hangs in the
Metropolitan Museum (New York). I am indebted to Mr.
Harry B. Wehle of the Museum for confirming my
recollection of the painting. For iconographic parallels
see E. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (New York, 1939), p. 11, n. 58.
See Kozáky, p. 185. On
Blindman's Buff see Groschuff, "Gedanken über das in
Deutschland übliche Blindekuhspiel," Neuer
Büchersaal der schönen Wissenschaften, VI
(1748), 431--58; F. M. Böhme, Deutsches
Kinderlied und Kinderspiel (Leipzig, 1897), p. 628;
J. Lewalter and G. Schläger, Deutsches Kinderlied
und Kinderspiel (Kassel, 1911), p. 406, No. 98.
Kozáky would have found support in S. Singer's
remarks in Zeitschrift des Vereins für
Volkskunde, XIII (1903), 50.