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In 1934, Bartlett J. Whiting published "Proverbial Material in the Popular Ballads." [Whiting 1947] Based on a chapter in his 1932 disseration, this article is the only extended statement about proverbs in the Child ballads and an important study in the proverb and folk song interpretative tradition.2 Since Whiting's pioneering efforts in this area, however, there has been a proliferation of Child variants and significant advances in paremiology. In light of both achievements it is time to reexamine Whiting's findings, retest his assertions, and revise, if necessary, the scope of his research.

"Proverbial Material in the Popular Ballad" was based on the Herculean task of noting every proverb, every proverbial comparison and phrase, and all the sententious remarks in Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) and in nine additional publications containing Child variants. Whiting found 272 proverbial comparisons ("a blood red rose"; "The fryer was glad as a fox in the nest."), fifty-four general proverbial phrases or "omnium gatherum" as Whiting called them ("Falsing neuer doht well"; "There's no comfort for the comfortless, and honey for the bee."), twenty-one literary, i.e., nonpopular comparisons ("The skin that was on our bride's breast/Was like a saffron bag;" "her feet as white as sleet."), and twenty proverbs.

In the opening paragraph, Whiting states the specific purpose of his study: to "see how far the folk chose to utilize this minor product [the proverb] of their creative genius in the composition of their major literary achievement, namely, the ballad." [Whiting 1934:22] Obviously the answer to "how far" is not far at all since he identified only twenty proverbs in hundreds of ballad variants. Whiting concluded that "proverbs and sententious remarks are relatively rare, and that in few cases is their occurrence so widespread among the different versions as to indicate the presence of the saying in the original form of the ballad." [Whiting 1934, 40] But why so few? Whiting suggested two reasons: "the very nature of the ballad tends to preclude anything which would interfere with the action of the story," and "proverbs were too closely bound up with the ordinary life of the folk for them to care to use them in poetry through which they sought to escape from the dullness of everyday life." [Whiting 1934, 40]

Whiting's findings based on the Child material were not unique to Scottish and English balladry. He noted that the same paucity of proverbs had been found in the popular ballads of Denmark, France, and Germany. For example, "the evidence afforded by the German ballads shows clearly that, like the English, the German folk do not care to intersperse their ballads with proverbs." [Whiting 1934, 43] More recently, Wolfgang Mieder surveyed a late nineteenth century three-volume collection of 2,175 German songs, Deutscher Liederhort, wich contained 220 ballads. Twenty-one proverbs appeared in the ballads, giving a frequency of one proverb per 10.5 ballads. [Mieder 1978a, 44-45] Whiting's count of proverbs in the Child ballads provides a frequency of about one proverb per 15.25 ballads.

Whiting's article, however, poses some nagging problems. He simply listed the proverbs and cited the ballad in which each appears. He presented no corroborative support that particular statements he listed as proverbs were in fact traditional proverbs. Nor is there any discussion of context or function of the various proverbial statements. Of the twenty proverbs Whiting cited, some of them cannot be found in proverb collections. Others are interesting variations of traditional proverbs adapted to fit the narrative context of the ballad text. And still others are only allusions to traditional proverbs or proverb structure. In fact, of the twenty proverbs, only twelve are expressly found in proverb collections, and the remaining eight are variants of traditional proverbs, allusions to them, or cannot be proven to have any circulation beyond a ballad and its variants. Finally, in reviewing the ballad texts printed in Bronson [1959-72], I discovered statements which might be considered proverbs and should be added to Whiting's list.

For my analysis, I will divide Whiting's list of twenty "proverbs" into three categories. First are the true proverbs because each of them is accepted as such in standard proverb collections. [Skeat 1910; Tilley 1950; Whiting 1968; Wilson 1970] The second category includes statements that contain parts of recognized proverbs, but either vary enough from standard wordings or have been so modified by the narrator to conform to the context of the ballad that the statements might be considered allusive rather than formally proverbial. The final category includes the remaining statements which may parallel traditional proverbs in structure, or are suggestive of known proverbs, but lack a known currency beyond the isolated texts in which Whiting has noted them. If proof of currency beyond a single example is paramount in identifying a statement as a traditional proverb, the items in this category cannot be called proverbs.

I will expand Whiting's study by adding more proverbs to his list and by citing additional variants. Under "Source," I cite sources noted by Whiting; under "Add" are additional sources not noted by Whiting. Unless stated otherwise all source and add entries refer to the Child collection, but full bibliographic information is included among References at the end of the paper.


Each of these proverbs has a currency beyond that cited in the ballad since each of them can be found in standard proverb collections. In addition, these statements typically exhibit proverb characteristics such as personification, binary construction, alliteration, metaphor, and so forth. [Abrahams, 119] Even in those cases where the narrator has slightly modified the proverb to fit the ballad story, the integrity of the proverb's wording remains intact. Simple adjustments to a common wording of the proverb do not radically change the proverb's structure.

  1.  When bale is att hyest, boote is att next.

    Source: Child 59, "Sir Aldinger," A30, A34
    Verification: Skeat, 34; Tilley, 28;
    Wilson, 28

  2. A faint heart neer wan a fair ladie.

    Source: Child 187, "Jock o the Side," B20, C16
    Verification: Tilley, 300; Wilson, 185.

  3. Now faire words makes fooles faine.

    Source: Child 176, "Northumberland Betrayed by Douglas," a44, a46. 23
    Verification: Tilley, 754; Wilson 241. 

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.

  2. There's just three things that the devil can't drive-/A hog, and a woman, and bees into a hive.

    Source: Child 278, "The Farmer's Curst Wife," Bronson [1972]: 184 (13:12).
    Verification: Wilson, 637.


Fourteen proverbs appear in sixteen ballads, or at a frequency rate of one proverb per 18.5 ballads. They are found in a total of 46 variants. Except for one case--no. 13--I would agree with Whiting that there is not enough evidence to suggest that any of the proverbs were constituent elements of the original text. [Whiting 1934: 40]

The task of successfully incorporating a proverb into a ballad while at the same time preserving the integrity of each form demands verbal sophistication.

The balladeer must consider that the wording of the traditional proverb is relatively stable and that the ballad has certain formal characteristics which limit variations. By examining closely several of the proverbs in this category, it should be possible to recognize some of the options that the balladeers found successful.

The most common technique--used in every case but two (nos. 6 and 14)-- embedded the proverb in dialogue. All but two were spoken by a character in the narrative. By doing this, the balladeers avoided making asides which would hinder the action of the ballad, and they continued to maintain their apparent objectivity by having one of the characters speak the wisdom of the proverb.

Number 6, "A man may buy gold too dear," in the ballad "Earl Bothwell" is an exception to this technique. A rare text--the only printed one is in the Child collection--it deals with the murder of Lord Darnley by Earl Bothwell. Mary, Queen of Scots, invited the young, irresponsible Darnley to Scotland in order to marry him; he, in return, would become king. In the second stanza of the ballad, the narrator intrudes, commenting that Darnley paid with his life for choosing to come to Scotland, a price too high even for the title of king. Unlike the other ballad proverbs, this exception addressed directly to the audience by the narrator proves the rule that the "the most striking aspect of traditional ballad style (or tone) is impersonality" marked by "little intrusion of editorial comment or sentimentality." [Brunvand 1978: 182]

In most of the ballads, the proverb was not easily overlooked. When asking questions about context and function I was particularly struck by the fact that the proverbs usually occurred at an important moment in the narrative and that they often functioned in complex ways. Some heightened the emotion intensity of dramatic scene; others marked a climax at the end of a crucial scene; others passed judgment on characters.

For example in "Northumberland Betrayed by Douglas" (Child 176), Percy of Northumberland, a fugitive from the English, naively placed his trust in the words of William Douglas, the laird of Lochleven Castle. But Douglas's lies deceived Percy into boarding a ship bound for England, believing instead he is going to Scotland to accompany Douglas at a shooting match. Even though Percy had been warned repeatedly by Douglas's sister of a plot against him, he found Douglas's words more convincing. Once on board the ship, Percy's servant asked Douglas when the ship would arrive in Scotland. Knowing that Percy was his prisoner and that escape was impossible, traitor Douglas answered honestly, if metaphorically: "Now faire words makes fooles faine,/And that may be seene by thy master and thee;/Ffor you may happen think itt soone enoughe/Wheneuer you that shooting see." With this proverb, Douglas correctly characterizes Percy as a fool because he was deceived by fair words. But, the proverb functions here more than as a caustic comment. It marks the emotional climax of the ballad in which the trusting Percy is totally at the mercy of the traitor Douglas and what follows in the narrative--namely the eventual, execution of Percy--is a tragic resolution of Douglas's plot of betrayal.

In Child 200, "The Gypsy Laddie," the wife has deserted her husband and children for a gypsy lover. When the husband eventually catches up with his wife, he asks whether she will return. She replies with the proverb "If I have brewn good beer I will drink of the same." Her answer is given in the climatic scene of the ballad,because now she must reject her husband to his face, stating that she prefers to live with the choice she has made, that is "the good brew" she has brewed. The ballad moves quickly to the dramatic catastrophe during which the husband slays the gypsies' band.

A similar situation--a maiden forsakes her own family for the love of a footman-laddie--appears in a variant of Child 294, "Dugall Quinn." The text cited by Whiting uses a conclusion borrowed from Child 200. In both cases, however, the balladeer has been forced for the sake of the context to modify slightly the proverb and in effect shift its emphasis. The traditional wording "As they brew so let them drink" warns that one must accept the consequences for her choices. By substituting the first person in place of the third, the women willingly accept the consequences of their choices. In both ballads resignation to choices is the climatic statement marking the total rejection of old ties to husband or family and the willing acceptance of new ties.


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 this category, I include statements which are allusion to traditional proverbs, rather than true proverb statements. Following each example, I have listed the proverb to which an allusion is made.

  1.  If I be false to England.../Either in earnest or in iest,/I might be likened to a bird,/...that did defile it nest.

    Proverb: It is an ill (foul) bird that bewrays (defiles, fouls) its own nest.
    Source: Child 180, "King James and Brown," 32.
    Verification: Skeat, 13; Tilley, 49; Wilson, 397-98.

  2. And many ane sings o Robin Hood,/Kens little whare he was born.

    Proverb: Many speak (talk) of Robin Hood that never shot in his bow.
    Source: Child 102, "Willie and Earl Richard's Daughter," A17; B1; C1.
    Add: Bronson [1962]: Child 102, 509 (1:1); [1972] 482 (1.1:1)
    Verification: Skeat, 69; Tilley, 573; Wilson, 761.

    To these noted by Whiting, I would add:

  3. I thinke it was never mans destinye to dye before his day.

    Proverb: No man shall die ere his day.
    Source: Child 118: "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne," stanza 39.
    Verification: Whiting, 383.


This small group is nonetheless interesting. Each example represents an assimilation of traditional proverbial wisdom into a ballad. Enough of the proverb's wording has been retained so that there is no doubt which proverb is intended. Obviously, the proverb itself was so well known that a part of it could stand for the whole. The performer wanted to use the wisdom of the proverb but he did not or could not incorporate the entire proverb sentence into the ballad text.

Only number one is spoken by a character within the ballad. Titled "King James and Brown" (Child 180), the ballad describes Brown's exploits on behalf of King James. In the last stanzas of the ballad, King James rewards Brown by making him an earl, and Brown in return swears his continuing loyalty to the King by alluding to the proverb: "It is a foul bird which defiles its own nest." The key word in the proverb, of course is "foul," but Brown, knowing that his King--and the balladeer knowing that his audience--is familiar with the proverb can expect the king--audience--to appreciate the allusion. The man who betrays his country is like the bird who defiles its own nest: both are foul.

Unlike the previous two examples, the third one is spoken by the balladeer. "Many a one sings of Robin Hood knows little where he was born" bears a relationship to "Many (talk) speak of Robin Hood, that never shot in his bow," this is, many people talk about something of which they know little. Used in the introductory stanza of the B and C variants and in the concluding lines of A, the proverb encourages the listener to trust the balladeer and believe the account he is about to give. In two of Child's sources, Jamieson's Popular Ballads and Buchan's Ballads of the North of Scotland, this ballad is titled "The Birth of Robin Hood." But Child rejected that title, arguing that "this ballad certainly does not belong to the cycle of Robin Hood [ballads]," even though individual stanzas, namely A17, B1, and C1, may "very well have belonged to some Robin Hood ballad." [Child 2:412) It is a touch of artistic irony that a ballad which has nothing to do with the Robin Hood cycle and is titled "The Birth of Robin Hood" would begin or end with an allusion to a proverb that criticized those who knew not what they were talking about. Ironically the balladeer has set himself up for such criticism.

The final example derives from "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne," a ballad which I have already noted as containing proverb. This time, however, the balladeer, instead of retaining a more common wording of the proverb rephrased it slightly probably to fit the meterical demands of the ballad form. Robin Hood was fighting with Sir Guy and having trouble. For an instant, Robin Hood prayed to the Virgin Mary: "'A deere Lady!' said Robin Hoode,/'Thou art both motherand may!/I thinke it was neuer mans destinye/To dye before his day.'" Robin Hood, seeking supernatural aid, invoked help from the Virgin with a variant of "No man shall die ere his day."

  1.  And it is sayd, when men be mett,/Six can doe more than three.

    Source: Child 118, "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne," 19.

  2. For he that bears his head so high,/He often-times falls into thee dyke.

    Source: Child 179, "Rookhope Ryde," 36


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.

The remaining statements in this category equally have no bases for being called traditional proverbs. While "Deeds will prove the man" may be related architecturally to "Clothes make the man" it does not have any currency in tradition. The idea of "Pride will have a fall" may be expressed clearly in "For he who bears his head so high, he often times falls into the dyke" but the concept is not expressed in these or closely similar terms. "There'll nae man die but he that's fie" may be close to "No man shall die ere his day," but even Whiting, who alone recognizes the latter as a proverb, does not cite the former as a variant. [Whiting 1968, 383]


There is no pattern when a proverb may appear in a ballad. It is impossible to predict when a proverb might be used in a ballad and when it will not be used. The single example of two Robin Hood ballads collected from Mrs. Bell Robertson and both having virtually the same couplet containing a proverb might suggest that the inclusion of a ballad depends more upon the composing techniques of the balladeer rather than on a text of the ballad itself. Moreover, where there are multiple variants of a ballad, not all the variants retain the proverb, thus indicating that the proverb was not essential to the ballad, but something which the balladeer could add if he chose. Such a suggestion about the proverb agrees with James Jone's conclusions about the role of commonplaces in the ballad: "That commonplaces belonged not to the ballads but to the singers is suggested by the fact that they are not always used in all versions of the same ballad or in similar situations in other ballads. They were not so much a part of the 'integral mechanism of the ballad' as they were part of the basic method of the singer." [Jones 1961, 105]

I am unwilling to state as assertively as Whiting did the reasons why balladeers did not use more proverbs in their compositions. The fact that there are few does not suggest any reason for the paucity. But when a proverb was incorporated into a ballad text, it was usually done with a great deal of artistic care and was not ismply a superficial addition to the text.

The questions I raise regarding the traditional proverb in the Child ballads are, of course, ones related to text, texture, and context, [Dundes 1964] or what Shirley Arora has discussed as the perception of "proverbiality." [Arora 1984] How closely must the text and texture of the statements under question reflect the traditional texts and textures of a particualr proverb? Because the traditional proverb, one of the shortest forms of traditional expressions, possesses a relatively stable surface structure, it seems reasonable to regard as proverbs those statements which closely mirror proverbs recognized as traditional and reject those which do not. It is not sufficient to argue that a statement is a proverb if it "sounds" proverbial or architecturally appears to be modeled along the lineaments of other proverbs or is prefaced with such introductory remarks as "it is said." It is the responsibility of the researcher to provide convincing evidence that a particular statement is proverbial and traditional.

Finally, it is necessary to do more than simply create another list of proverb discoveries. Understanding the creativity of the balladeers and the product of their art extends beyond lists. How balladeers incorporated proverbs into their texts, made allusions to proverbs, and imitated proverbial patterns is the beginning of the serious study of proverbs in the ballad. It calls for an exploration of the artistry which went into the composition of the ballad text.



Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp. 233-256.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA).  

1 A shorter version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society, San Diego, California, in October, 1984. I wish to thank Professor Wolfgang Mieder for his valuable comments.

2 For additional titles in proverb-ballad scholarship, see Mieder, 1982, especially under ballads and folksongs.


Abrahams, Roger D. 1972. Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions. In Folklore and Folklife, edited by Richard M. Dorson, 117-27. Chicago.

Arora, Shirley L. 1984. The Perception of Proverbiality. Proverbium 1:1-38.

Barry, Phillips, and Fannie H. Eckstrom and Mary W. Smyth. 1929. British Ballads from Maine. New Haven.

Bronson, Bertrand Harris. 1959-1972. The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. 4 vols. Princeton.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1978. The Study of American Folklore. An Introduction. Second edition. New York.

Campbell, Olive Dame and Cecil J. Sharp. [1917] 1966. English Folksongs from the Southern Appalachians. London. 

Child, Francis James, ed. [1882-1898] 1965. The English And Scottish Popular Ballads. New York.

Cornelius, Roberta D. 1931. A New Text of an Old Ballad. PMLA 46: 1029.76-7.

Dundes, Alan. [1975] 1981. On the Structure of the Proverb. The Wisdom of Many. Essays on the Proverb, edited by Wolfgang Mieder and Alan Dundes, 43-64. New York.

Flander, Helen Hartness. 1960-65. Ancient Ballads Traditionally Sung in New England. 4 vols. Philadelphia.

Greig, Gavin and Alexander Keith. 1925. Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads. Aberdeen.

Jones, James H. 1961. Commonplace and Memorization In the Oral Tradition of the English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Journal of American Folklore 74:97-112.

Mackenzie, W. Roy. 1928. Ballads and Sea Songs from Nova Scotia. Cambridge, Mass.

Mieder, Wolfgang, 1978a. Das Sprichwort im Volkslied. Eine Untersuchung des Deutschen Liederhortes Von Erk/ Bohme. Jahrbuch des Osterreichischen Volksliedwerkes 27:44-71.

____. 1978b. Introduction. Proverbs in Literature: An International Bibliography. Berne.

____. 1982. International Proverb Scholarship. New York.

Skeat, Walter William. [1910] 1976. Early English Proverbs. Norwood, Pa.

Thompson, Stith. 1964. The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography. Second edition. FF Communications No. 184. Helsinki.

Tilley, Morris Palmer. 1950. A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Ann Arbor. 

Whiting, Bartlett Jere. 1934. Proverbial Material in the Popular Ballads. Journal of American Folklore 47:22-44

____. Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases form English Writings Mainly Before 1500. Cambridge. 

Wilson, F. P. 1970. The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. Third edition. Oxford.

Richard Sweterlitsch
Department of English
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405

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