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B. J. Whiting’s statement: "Happily no definition (of the proverb) is necessary since we all know what a proverb is" may sound like an anecdote, but it is so usually quoted in texts that deal with paremiological problems (paremiology - scientific discipline whose main interest are the proverbs) that it may soon become a proverb by itself. Generaly speaking, what is mutualy accepted as well known and thus never defined, can either be extremely simple, or so complicated that it can not even be verbalized. In the case of the proverb, a phrase that is often heard is that as a genre it is characterized by a ‘relative simplicity’. However, as one goes through the actual paremiological material and research, it is exactly its relative simplicity that one becomes aware of. Linguists, folklorists, psychologists, sociologists, they all seem to deal more with ‘operational’ definitions that serve the purposes of their own research in the frames of their disciplines, while there is a minority of the ones who dare going into a combat with the goast of the proverb’s ‘incommunicable quality’, of the ones trying to rationalize and articulate the supposedly common knowledge of what a proverb is. Thus, a proverb is sometimes defined as ‘a moral advice based on experience...a practical as well as moral wisdom’, it is a ‘form of informal teaching’ which draws strategies for behavior based on normative standards set by the ‘group consensus’ - it is a rhetoric tool used for shaping actions, social control and conflict resolution. Sometimes it is a linguistic entity with its own structure, a particular text which is a subject of certain language rules in general, but at the same time it is a folklorist item, a part of the tradition. The most accurate definition seems to be the one which combines it all. Proverb’s apparent polyfunctionality, heterosituativity and polysemanticity is a real challenge for the scientific ‘treasure hunters’, and although some of it has been dug out of the depths, there is still a lot of it lying under our feet.

What was the past and what is the present situation of the possible connection between historical research and proverbs? As one of the rare texts dealing with this issue notes - "proverbs did not receive much attention from historians by now, especially compared to the number of references of proverb research done by folklorists, literary scholars and psychologists"1. According to the author, one of the reasons for this situation is the general anti-proverb prejudice that has haunted educated classes (among which historians as educated people) for some (long) time. Since proverb is a folkloristic item after all, its popularity among historians may have shifted as these two disciplines (history and folklore) experienced their development: "Even those historians who are interested in popular culture and peasant customs have long neglected the data provided by folklore, perhaps because they felt incapable of judging its value by means of ‘historical criticism’. Despite their interest in the past, folklorists, for their part, have frequently considered folklore to lie outside the study of history. Though historians and European ethnologists have been conversing and working together for several years now, the problem of the relationship between folklore and the prevailing culture remains difficult to resolve and is rarely studied", wrote Jean-Louise Flandrin in 1981. The more current investigations make it clear though that this kind of interdisciplinary approach is not only valuable but is a must: "Folklorists need history to help them understand the process of change in folk culture; social historians need folklore to help them understand the role of the folk in history"2 . What is meant is that, among other things, social history, i.e. historical anthropology as a type and/or approach of social history, which is considered to be a ‘new historical paradigm’, needs and can use folklore material as a source, as one of the ‘new’ sources for a ‘new’ history, besides employing images, statistics, reading of the official records in new ways, as well as paying more attention to physical objects belonging to material culture. However, from the traditional point of view, these new sources, for example the ones which belong to oral tradition and these include the folk proverbs, have been for a long time considered as ‘ the understudy of the written documents diva in the historic opera’. Official sources were preferred and the oral data presented an alternative, second best or worse kind of source, and they were tolerated in cases where there is no writing. But as Jan Vansina and other rhetoricians of oral sources have showed, the oral data (Vansina was interested primarily in oral naratives but this can be applied to all 'new' data used for historical research) "serve to check other sources as they serve to check it...they also can give minute detail which is otherwise inaccessible and may thus stimulate the historian to reanalyze other data in fresh ways".3


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Being born in certain hour, day or month was also significant and presented a good or a bad omen. In that sense the Alsatian proverb "Sunday’s child is a lucky child" is used to illustrate the belief that Sunday was a lucky day to be born, it is the day of the sun and of the Resurrection as opposed to the bad fortune of being born on Friday, the day of Christ’s death. Some months also brought bad luck to a newborn child - "Month of August, desired by none" and "Nothing born in May is worth a thing", it was said, thus reflecting the common belief that fortune never smiled on children born in August, while May children were even supposed to be idiots. Unfortunately, the author does not give us the origins of those beliefs. The belief in good/bad fortune is reflected also in another proverbial phrase - "To be born with a caul" is a proverbial description for someone who is born lucky, like "born under a lucky star". The caul is in fact a part of the amniotic membrane which covers the head of some newborn babies and which was believed to have supernatural beneficent powers. Gelis this time gives us a wider social and ethnographic explanation of the origin of this belief and consequently the origin of the proverb, starting with the Roman midwifes who stole the precious caul and sold it to lawyers to help them in court, to the myth of the Benandanti, a sort of brotherhood whose members were distinguished by having been born with a caul and thus able to communicate between the world of the ones ‘dead before their time’ and the living, and that were at the same time considered as protectors of the harvest. Finally, the proverbs from Alsace "Wie der Acker, so dir Reuewe" (‘As the field, so the turnips’) or the popular in many languages "De Apfel fallt nit wid vom Baum" (‘The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree’)9 which has its version in "Like father like son", are quoted to stress upon the recognized (genetic) fact of heredity from parents to children (when positive, but also when negative characteristics are in question), and maybe by recognizing this similarity reassure the father that he is really the ‘creator’ of the child.

David Warren Sabean is another example of a historian using proverbs in his reasearch. He uses "Don't put young bees into a full hive" as an illustration, while at the same time the proverb acts as a rhetorical device for carrying his narrative. He tries to contextualise it in two of his works - "Property, production and family in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870"10 and in a paraphrased version in "Young Bees in an Empty Hive: Relations between Brothers-in-law in a South German Village around 1800"11. Although from different angles and covering different periods of time, both works stress upon the issues of property and inheritance, and this particular proverb serves as a starting point in explaining the strategies undertaken regarding the relatively complicated process of land devolution in Germany, strategies that were nevertheless embedded in a certain set of rules. The proverb is used however as a reflection of the common wisdom of practice since, as Sabean notes, "generally speaking, the younger generation was provided with just enough land to keep them anchored in the village and tied to the interests of their parents and to the needs of their property-owning elders". Between the marriage of the young couple and the retirement or the decease of the older ones all kinds of arrangements were made to provide the children with property (through gifts, sale, devolution in return for an annual rent etc.) but only after the death of the parents they eventually got a portion of the final inheritance which was assigned to them by the intestate law. This is, according to Sabean, a strategy of parents retaining a good deal of power over their children during the course of their whole life, a way in which "the springs of power were hidden in the ideology of practice".


The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.sssss

Proverbs are not radical historical instruments, nor are they factually oriented. They do not provide us with traditional historical data - but we are overloaded with them anyway. Combined with other sources, they could show us another side of the 'story', how different aspects of life were and are reflected in people's mind, what is considered important in a culture's perception of its micro world and thus remembered and transmitted, how are the 'others' perceived, how is the 'anger' and fear of the difficult times articulated and, as psychologists would say, compensated through that articulation. Proverbs, as this article has hopefully showed, can help the historian who searches for a 'total' image to get at least a glance in that world from the past, to get to understand the yesterday's man who, in the words of E. Durkheim, is a part of each of us.


*This paper was written under the Junior Fellowship project "Proverbs As Relevant Material For Historical Anthropology - Some Comparative Aspects of South Slav Proverbs" which has taken place in Vienna at the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften (IFK) during May 15 - September 1, 1997.


1 Obelkevich, James: "Proverbs and Social History", In: Wise Words, Essays on the Proverb (Ed.), Garland Publishing Inc., New York & London, 1994.

2 Joyner, Charles: "A Tale of Two Disciplines - Folklore and History", In: Folklore and Historical Process (Ed.), Institute of Folklore Research, Zagreb, 1989.

3 Vansina, Jan: "Oral Tradition as History", Madison Wisconsin, 1985, p. 27.

4 Flandrin, Jean-Louis: "Sex in the Western World - The Development of Attitudes and Behaviour", Harwood academic publishers, 1981, p.203.

5 Flandrin, Jean-Louis: "Families in former times - Kinship, Household and Sexuality", Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1976.

6 One of the latest texts on the relation between Cristian and proverbial wisdom is: Matti Kussi, "Christian and Non-Christian", De Proverbio, v.4, n.1, 1998.

7 Flandrin, Jean-Louis: "Sex in the Western World - The Development of Attitudes and Behaviour", Harwood Academic Publishers, 1981.

8 Felis, Jacques: "Fertility, Pregnancy and Birth in Early Modern Europe", Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991.

9 For an extended study of this proverb’s origin and meaning see: Wolfgang Mieder, "The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree - A Historical and Contextual Proverb Study Based on Books, Archives and Databases", De Proverbio, Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies, v. 1, n.1, 1995.

10 Sabean, David Warren: "Property, Production and Family in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870", Cambridge University Press, 1990.

11 Sabean, David Warren: "Young Bees in an Empty Hive: Relations between Brothers-in-law in a South German Village around 1800", in Interest and Emotion, ed. Medick and Sabean, pp. 171-186.

12 Vansina, Jan: "Oral Tradition as History", Madison Wisconsin, 1985, p. 147.

13 Kerewsky-Halpern, Barbara: "Speech as Ritual and Process: Aspects of the Ethnography of Communication in Serbia", Doctoral disertation, 1979.

14 Halpern, Joel M and Kerewsky - Halpern, Barbara: "A Serbian Village in Historical Perspective", Waveland Press, Inc., 1972.

15 Taylor, Archer: "The Study of Proverbs", De Proverbio 2 (1), 1996.

16 The data are derived from: Nikola Gadzesa, "Posedovni odnosi u Vojvodini pred I svetski rat", in: Jugoslovenski narodi pred I svetski rat, Srpska Akademija nauka i umetnosti, posebna izdanja, kn. 61.

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