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Middle French Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases


Middle French Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases. By James Woodrow Hassell, Jr. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1982. Pp. 274.

This excellent and thorough collection of proverbial material from published Middle French works (1300-1515) is a most welcome addition to the field. Similar in format to B. J. Whiting's Proverbs, Sentences and Proverbial Phrases from English Writing Mainly before 1500 (Cambridge, 1968), it offers an alphabetized listing of the proverbs, ordered according to the key word of the lemma. The lemma (the standard form based mainly on the texts of Leroux, Morawski, Whiting and other previous collections) is followed by ample quotations from the body of medieval works, arranged chronologically whenever possible, and an excellent supplement of cross references. These last refer to other citations in the same collection as well as to external references of collection and commentary.

The Middle French works cited, roughly 100 of them, range from the very well-known major writers, such as Christine de Pisan, Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart, Jean Gerson and François Villon, to minor works and writers like Guillaume Crétin, Guillaume de Diguville and Guillaume Coquillart.

The problem of criteria for the included material of course arises. Hassell presents the six-part (with subcategories) classification of Susanne Schmarje (Das sprichwörtliche Material in den Essais von Montaigne [Berlin, 1973]), to which he gives his general approval, but about which he still has some reservations. He points out, as Schmarje did as well, that the categories are not quite clearcut, and that many a proverb or proverbial expression could be fitted into more than one classification. Since the word "Sentences" appears in the title of his work, I would have liked Hassell to indicate what he understands this to mean. I would loosely define it as a proverb stripped of its poetry (alliteration, rhythm et al) to the plainest of truisms, and would call such a sayings as "On doit aider son ami" a sentence.

Many of the entries are extensive enough to include surrounding material when the latter marks the phrase as proverbial. Such identifications include the nouns "proverbe," by far the most common, "aphorisme," "parler," "sentence," "dit" "commune raison," "commune parole," parabole," "mot," as well as the phrases "on dit," "aucuns dient," "jíai ouy dire," and the like. Others have specific attribution to enhance their authority: "Escripture," "ly sages," "Nostre Seigneur par la bouche de l'apostre," "Salomon," "Juvenal" and "mon père." These markers are almost always attached to complete proverbs, and when the proverbial material is a phrase, the writer adds the grammatical units necessary to complete the sentence.

"Compilers of proverb dictionaries tend to be excessively inclusive," says Hassell, and this is indeed the correct direction in which to err, even if it means including entries such as "comme la fumée" and "le bleu et le vert." I will certainly not quibble about that, but I would question entries that, to my mind, present problems both of organization and of definition. For example, consider the collection of quotations found on pages 117-120, nos. F. 121-123, 125, 127, 132-135; there are eleven separate lemmae touching on the instability of fortune. The first two entries under F127, Fortune l'instable, are "Elle n'est point estable" and "Mais riens n'avez dit de Fortune,/ Qui n'est n'onques ne fu seüre,/ Mes quant les siens plus asseüre,/ Ceaus sont qu'elle plus griefment bat/ Et qu'en bas de plus haut abat." (This latter might have better gone under F123: "Fortune fait monter ceuls d'em bas en haut et ceulz d'en haut fait desmonter.") Most of the other quotations among the eleven lemmae on this subject show such a striking difference of expression that entry under one or the other seems arbitrary (and must have presented agonizing problems). When there are differences to such a degree, we are no longer considering clichés of language, the phrases or sentences that flow automatically, and that are in fact "words" composed of many words in a set or nearly set pattern. We are in the area of clichés of thought, and, given the disparities of just this one particular collection, we have clear evidence that, however commonplace the thought was, it gave rise to no (or very few) proverbs in Middle French to express it.

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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.

The objections raised concern primarily details. They should not be understood to question the value of this collection. Hassell's precious work of painstaking gathering and patient sifting has resulted in a rich and exhaustive reference work of high standards. His dictionary will serve present and future scholars very well, and it should certainly serve as a model for future collections of medieval vernacular proverbs.


Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp. 335-338.
Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA). 

Susan Whitebook
Department of Romance Languages
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405


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