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Medieval short narratives, such as anecdotes, cuentecillos or exempla, have a way of wandering between cultures and linguistic groups in a manner that baffles those scholars who insist that literary influences can be established solely on printed sources. One of the most interesting of these narratives is the story of a philosopher invited to a feast, who, rejected when wearing his usual ragged clothes, is welcomed warmly when he returns dressed in finery. He then proceeds to dip his sleeves into soup, explaining that the clothing, not the philosopher, is being honored.

The history of this tale is too complex to trace in its entirety here, but it seems to have originated in some obscure oriental source, Indic probably, since it is still current in oral circulation on the subcontinent of Asia.1 It appears in the West in the late twelfth century in Innocence III’s De contemptu mundi (lib. II, cap. 29), and subsequently in Etienne de Bourbon’s Anecdotes (where the protagonist is Homer) and in Odo of Cheriton’s Parabolae (no. 170).2 Giovanni Sercambi replaced the philosopher with Dante, and that tradition has persisted in Italy until modern times.3 The story has of course been told about many notable figures, including Boccaccio, Peter Abelard, and the German humanist Hermann Busch. The tale spread to Germany about 1475,4 and has since been collected as far afield as Tarpon Springs, Florida, and Veracruz, Mexico.5 It is still current in oral Greek and Turkish tradition because of its association with the trickster figure Hodscha Nasreddin who is its subject in those areas.6

The story of the philosopher arrived relatively late to the Hispanic peninsula, but an unusual thing happened to it there. It became a proverb. About the end of the fourteenth centruy, the author of the Orto do Esposo adapted Innocence III’s version of the anecdote to Portuguese, wherein the unnamed philosopher kisses his clothes and when asked why, explains, "Eu honrro aquella que me honrrou."7 The oldest surviving Spanish version appears in the fifteenth-century Refranes glosados:

Una muger muy atauiada fue conbidada en vn conbite: que entre los otros ataíuos traya grandes mangas de seda: a causa delo qual la pusieron enel lugar más honrrado / la qual conosciendo que por el vestir le hazían an aquella honrra, metió las mangas en vn plato, y dixo: Comed mangas: que por vosotros me hazen honrra.8

From this point on, with few exceptions,9 the only occurrence of the anecdote in Spanish literature is in the form of a proverb. "Comed, mangas, que por vox me hazen honra."10 A Portuguese variant includes a rhyme: "Comei, mangas, aqui, que a vos honrão, não a mim."11 Thus here we have a datable first appearance of a proverb (between 1400-58),12 derived from an ancient anecdote, but becoming proverbial only in the Iberian peninsula; Why the proverb developed only in Spain is open to conjecture, but Spain was the bridge between many oriental proverbs and their western European equivalents.13 It is not so strange then that Spain should spawn a new refrán. What is unusual is that once the proverb developed, the story was relegated to a role of unimportance, except in the case of a few later proverb collections, where it was reintroduced as a means of explaining the proverb. This was of course not the only case where a proverb replaced a tale, a fable, or an exemplum. It happened often at this historical juncture, for the attidude toward proverbs was changing.

The Middle Ages were essentially an era when the oral culture dominated the literary. Despite the popular image of monks sitting in cells copying from a plethora of manuscripts, the majority of people were illiterate. The educated classes were few and even royalty could rarely read. Written manuscripts in fact were little more than memory devices utilized to serve verbalization.14 With the introduction of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, orality gradually gave way to literacy and oral forms yielded to print. The early sixteenth century witnessed a gradual but inexorable reduction of story and anecdote to allusion and proverb.15 Ironically a similar increase in printed litterature in the twentieth century has led to the ultimate in literacy, the almost complete rejection of orality as represented by proverb and cliché. The avoidance of these oral forms is now recognized as evidence of high literary style.


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.

In the other proverb collections of the sixteenth century, a different intention becomes evident. Between 1527 and 1547, Francisco de Espinosa, a notary in Valladolid, included haphazardly among his writings some 4000 proverbs and phrases,36 probably being inspired to do so by the proverb collections of Erasmus. During the same period, Juan de Valdés, recognizing the linguistic value of the proverb,37 use 177 of them as grammatical illustrations in his Diálogo de la lengua (ca. 1535). Pedro Vallés clearly showed the influence of Erasmus in his Libro de refranes, a collection of some 4300 proverbs published in Zaragoza, 1549. To Vallés, the proverb’s value lay in its rhetorical function as a stylistic device or as an aid in interpreting classical texts: "Si queremos hermosear la oración, qué afeyte más delicado le podremos hazer que de refranes? Aprouechan para entender autores dificultosos de cualquiera lenguaje que sean" (fol. A 2v). Vallés cited numerous serious authors to prove that not only "las viejas usan refranes," but learned men use them as well. Sebastián de Horozco compiled several lengthy collections of proverbs,38 totalling over 10,000 items, about the middle of the sixteenth century, and much of his material remains unpublished. In 1555 the collection of Hernán Núñez, Professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Salamanca, was published posthumously, containing 8200 Refranes o proverbios en romance, including many in Portuguese, Italian, French, and the Spanish regional languages (including one in Basque).

It is worth noting, perhaps, that the Seniloquium and the Refranes que dizen las viejas tras el fuego had both involved some attempt at alphabetization, an element lacking in earlier lists. However each of them listed phrases stricly by first letter without regard to succeeding letters, a factor seen as a result of the new print-oriented spirit of the times (Ong., Orality, p. 124), Vallés was the first to use a purely letter-by-letter aphabetical arrangement. Núñez reverted to the older style, where successive letters are less significant than the initial ones, though Núñez had passed beyond orality, listing together as he does words beginnign with I and J, represented visually (but not phonetically) by the same type-letter. From this time until the twentieth century, most major proverb collections follow a fairly modern system of alphabetization, and most list the phrases without interpretation or analysis, though parallels are occasionally cited.

One final sixteenth-century collection merits attention, that of Juan de Mal Lara, the Philosophía vulgar published in Sevilla, 1568, containing a selection of 1000 refranes, extensively annotated, not in the medieval fashion, but in direct imitation of Erasmus’ method. León de Castro had attributed a similar intention to Hernán Núñez, whose collection he prepared for publication, but Núñez did not live to carry out that intention. The proverb has here moved far beyond the scholastic period, where it was one didactic form among a variety--sententiae, exempla, fabulae--to a point where it is the center of concern for humanistic study, a text to be edited like those of Classical authors.

Nearly every one of the early Spanish humanists who compiled a proverb collection acknowledged a debt to Erasmus, yet most of them were fully aware that the refranes they collected were used "entre viejas tras el fuego, hilando sus ruecas," while the Latin and Greek proverbs in Erasmus’ Adagia "son nacidos antre personas doctas y están celebradas en libros de mucha doctrina" (Valdés, Diálogo, p. 15). Contrary to common opinion this humanist concern with proverbs is not evidence of an interest in the common man. Sixteenth-century collectors were generally attempting to find parallels to these lugares comunes in Classical texts. There is little to show that they believed the phrases really originated with the folk. They held rather that the vulgo "vulgarized" them from cultivated or elite sources. In summary, the proverb during the Middle Ages, like the philosopher at the feast, was not accepted for itself; it had to be dressed in a cloak of didacticism and moralistic parallels to be of value. Later humanists felt a similar need to dress it in academic robes of learned citation and exegesis. But the humanists of the early sixteenth century, recognizing that Cucullus non facit monachum,"The habit does not make the monk," strip away the excess trappings and let the proverb stand for one brief moment in its pristine nakedness.


Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA).
Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp. 1-19.

An early version of this paper was read at a meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association in Charlottesville, Va., October 8, 1983.

1 For a bibliography of oriental sources, see Alexander H. Krappe, "Un viejo cuento mediterráneo entre los indios cora de Méjico," Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, 1 (1928), 275 n., and Stith Thompson and Jonas Balys, The Oral Tales of India (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1958), p. 268, motif J1561.3.

2 Frederic C. Tubach, Index Exemplorum, Folklore Fellows Communications, No. 204 (Helsinki, 1969), no. 1113.

3 Giovanni Sercambi, Venti Novelle, ed. A. D’Ancona (Bologna, 1871), p. 70; Giovanni Papanti, Dante secondo la Tradizione e i Novellatori (Livorno: Vigo, 1873), pp. 65-73. Cf. however T. F. Crane, Italian Popular Tales (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885), p. 296 (where the story is related to the simpleton, Giufà), and Italo Calvino, Fiabe italiane (Torino: Einaudi, 1979), II, 787.

4 For a bibliography of Germanic examples, see Hermann Österley, ed., Johannes Pauli, Schimpf und Ernst (Stuttgart: Litterarischer Verein, 1866), p. 520.

5 Krappe, art. cit.; Stanley Robe, Tales and Legends from Veracruz (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1971), no. 32.

6 Albert Wesselski, Hodscha Nasreddin (Weimar, 1911), I 222, No. 55; Dorothy Lee, "Greek Tales of Nastradi Hodjas," Folk-Lore, 57 (1946) 190-191; Robert A. Georges, "Greek-American Folk Beliefs and Narratives," Ph. D. thesis, Indiana, Univ., 1964, p. 119; Ethelyn G. Orso, Modern Greek Humor (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1979), p. 78, No. 120.

7 Liv. IV, cap. 64; ed. Bertil Maler (Rio de Janeiro: Ministério ed Edução y Cultura, 1956), I, 326.

8 Refranes famosíssimos y prouechosos glosados (Burgos: Fadrique Alemán, 1509), fol. a 7v.

9 E.g., Gaspar Gómez, Tercera parte de la tragicomedia de Celestina, ed. Mac E. Barrick (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1973), p. 107. Rafael Boira (El libro de los cuentos [Madrid, 1862], III, 249-250) reprints the story without the proverb.

10 Eleanor S. O’Kane (Refranes y frases proverbiales españolas de la Edad Media [Madrid: Real Academia Española, 1959], pp. 152-153) lists two fifteenth-century examples. For sixteenth-century occurrences, see Gómez, Tercera Celestina, ed. cit., p. 440, n. 250.

11 Hernán Núñez (Refanes o proverbios en romance [Salamanca: Juan de Canova, 1555], fols. 25v and 75) lists Spanish and Portuguese variants. Cf. also Gómez, p. 440.

12 The proverb appears in the Refranes que dizen las viejas tras el fuego attributed to the Marqués de Santillana. Though Santillana died ca. 1458, the collection was not published until ca. 1490.

13 Cf. Barrick, "The Dust of the Sheep," Proverbium, 9 (1967), 214-215. The earliest occurrence of a large number of English proverbs is in collections, dictionaries, grammars and dialogues which borrowed from Spanish. The history of this process has yet to be written.

14 Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy (London and New York: Methuen, 1983), p. 119.

15 Walter J. Ong ("Oral Residue in Tudor Prose Style," PMLA, 80 [1965], 148) comments on the deficiency of anecdote in languages such as Latin that exist only in written form.

16 Cf. Grace Frank, "Proverbs in medieval Literature," Modern Language Notes, 58 (1943), 508; Francisco de Caro, "Proverbs and Originality in Modern Short Fiction, "Western Folklore, 37 (1978), 30-33.


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.

36 Francisco de Espinosa, Refranero (1527-1547), ed. Eleanor S. O’Kane (Madrid: Real Academia Española, 1968).

37 "Para considerar la propiedad de la lengua castellana, lo mejor que los refranes tienen es ser nacidos en el vulgo" (Valdés, Diálogo de la lengua, ed. José Montesinos [Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1953], p. 15). It is this same value that John Minsheu, John Florio and other composers of dialogues at the end of the sixteenth century recognized in the proverb.

38 "Teatro universal de proverbios, adagios o comunmente llamados refranes vulgares," 3144 proverbs glossed in verse, partially edited by E. Cotarelo in the Boletín de la Real Academia Española, 2-4 (1915-17); "Recopilación de refranes y adagios comunes y vulgares" (only one volume of the original three is still extant, that containing 8311 proverbs).

Mac. E. Barrick
Shippensburg University
Shippensburg, Pennsylvania 17257


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