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De Proverbio - Electronic Journal of International
Proverb Studies. Proverbs, Quotations, Sayings, Wellerisms.
"IT IS GOOD FISHING IN TROUBLED (MUDDY) WATERS"*
This intensive study of a single
proverb is intended to show the variety and difficulty of
the problems that arise in investigating even a single
text. It owes a great deal to the kindness of friends,
who are gratefully remembered. Because the problems are
difficult and because many books have not been within my
reach there is much yet to be done. Yet one can say, "It
is good fishing in muddy waters."
Perhaps the first western record of our proverb is found
in Walter Map, De nugis curialium, which was written
not long before 1200 in England. Here it has the form "In
aqua turbida piscatur uberius.'' This is much the same as "Piscatur in aqua turbida" without
an adverb, which Burton E. Stevenson cites as a "proverbial
Latin phrase" without giving a source. This and its source will be discussed later. Our proverb is
reported again about the same time as Map was writing as
"Vulgo enim dicitur, aqua turbida piscisior" (Oxford) in the writings of Peter of Blois, who was archbishop of
Bath by Henry II's appointment. Our proverb did not win a
place in contemporary school collections and other
anthologies of moralizing proverbs. We find it only once in
a late medieval collection and then in the very different
form, "Flumen confusum reddit piscantibus usum." Jakob Werner and after him Hans Walther quote this from a
continental European anthology that calls for special study.
Its sources are obscure and its connections remain to be
discovered. While it would be interesting to go farther and
attempt some comparison of the number and nature of proverbs
derived from fishing and those derived from hunting, the
task would lead us somewhat afield. I shall say only that
the first category rarely identifies the species of fish and
the latter category almost always identifies the animal.
From the beginning the adjective "troubled" (turbida) or "muddy" is standard English usage. It implies a
contrast with fishing in clear water or fishing in the sea.
In 1509 John Fisher described this manner of fishing but did
not actually cite the proverb:
Lyke as fysshers do whan they be
aboute to cause fysshe to come into theyr nettes or other
engyns, they trouble the waters to make them avoyde and
flee from theyr wonte places.
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The full text of this
article is published in De
Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue
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A second very old Greek reference that must be discussed
here is the Aesopic fable,
The Fisherman Who Beat the Water
A fisherman was fishing in a river. When he had laid his
nets and cut off the stream from bank to bank, he tied a
stone to a piece of cord and began to beat the water so
that the fish would make a reckless attempt to get away
and become entangled in the mesh. One of the men who
lived thereabouts saw him doing this and complained of
his roiling the river and preventing them from drinking
clear water. The fisherman said, "Well, if the river
isn't troubled like this, I'll die of starvation ."
Moral: So it is with demagogues in politics. They
accomplish the most when they lead their states into
Although this was included in the oldest collection of
Aesopic fables, it does not often appear in the Renaissance
and modern excerptings. This fact has no doubt contributed
to a general unfamiliarity with it. Yet it has obviously had
a large share in the origin and dissemination of the
proverb. It is found, for example, in the proverbs collected
and published by Petrus Godofredus in 1555. These were
extracted and published in some subsequent editions of
Erasmus, Adagia. Thus, we find it in the edition
published in Paris in 1579, col. 1320:
Piscatur in aqua turbida
De eo, qui, dum alij inter se rixãtur, ipse sibi
& suis commodis consulit: quem nihil morantur, sed
iuuant potius aliorum incommoda. Piscatores turbidam
aquam obseruare solent. vt ex ea decipuli magis nesciam
facilius captent praedam. Huc spectat Erasmi pro.
Anguillas captare, & apologus AEsopi de eo qui aquam
turbabat vt plures caperet pisces.
Here Godofredus is citing "Piscatur in aqua turbida" as a
proverb and mentions that Erasmus had already commented on
it and that it is an Aesopic fable. Here is the source of
Stevenson's description of "Piscatur in aqua turbida" as
"The proverbial Latin phrase," a description which is not
quite correct and is easily misunderstood.
*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp.
- W. G. Smith and Janet E. Heseltine, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. 2nd ed.
rev. by Sir Paul Harvey, Oxford, 1948, pp. 207--208. This
will be subsequently cited as Oxford. Other titles
will be similarly abbreviated.
Burton E. Stevenson, Thc Home Book
of Proverbs . . ., New York, 1948, p. 821.
Jakob Werner, Lateinische
Sprichwörter und Sinnsprüche des Mittelalters, 2d ed., Heidelberg, 1966, F 53. In the first edition
it is F 33. See also Hans Walther, Proverbia
sententiaeque latinitatis medii aevi, 5 vols.,
Göttingen, 1963-1967, II, 140, No. 9684, citing this
and an additional version with the reading "praestat" for
"reddit". I do not fully understand Walther's remarks
about the second collection called Pictaleon (which may be a corruption of Dicta leonina; see I, pp. xix and xxiv).
The English Works of John Fisher, ed. John E. B. Mayer, E.E.T.S., Extra Series, 27
(1876), Treatise 78. 34-9.1. This is cited from B. J.
Whiting's forthcoming collection of English proverbs
before 1500. Here it is F242. I am indebted to him for
the reference and other kindnesses.
Oxford; Stevenson; Morris P.
Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the
Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Ann Arbor, 1950,
F. A. Stoett, Nederlandsche
spreekwoorden ..., 2 vols., 4th ed., Zutphen, 1923,
1925, II, 482-483, No. 2529.
Archer Taylor and Bartlett Jere
Whiting, A Dictionary of American Proverbs and
Proverbial Phrases, 1820-1880, Cambridge, Mass.,
1958, p. 395.
Wayland D. Hand, in The Frank C.
Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, 7 vols.,
Durham, N.C., 1952-1964, VII, 474, No. 7776. I am
indebted to Professor Mac E. Barrick for this and the
references to Spanish parallels cited below.
Helmi Haapanen, Omayeletumbulo
gaawambo, Oniipa, 1958, p. 112.
Bartlett Jere Whiting, "Proverbs and
Proverbial Sayings from Scottish Writings before 1600,
Part II," Mediaeval Studies, XIII (1931),
William Rothstein, Men and
Manners, 1872-1900, p. 71. Cited from Burton E.
Stevenson, The Home Book of Quotations, 10th ed.,
New York, 1967, p. 498:11.
5 vols., Leipzig, 1867-1880, IV, col.
P. J. Harrebomée, Spreekwoordenboek der nederlandsche taal, 3 vols.,
Utrecht, 1858-1870, II, 441. The passage in the Bijlage
cited here will be found in III, 359.
Väinö Solstrand, Finlands
svenska folkdiktning, 3. Ordstäv, Skrifter
utgivna av Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland,
172, Helsingfors, 1923.
Eduard Mau, Danske
ordsprogs-skat, 2 vols., Copenhagen, 1879, I, 223,
citing Syv's text without a parallel; Ewald Tang
Kristensen, Danske ordsprog, Copenhagen,
Le Roux de Lincy, Le livre des
proverbes français, 2d ed., Paris, 1859, II,
370, citing no parallels.
Redensarten der französischen Sprache, 2 vols.,
Heidelberg, 1930, I, 259--260.
For parallels in the Romance
languages generally see Walter Gottschalk, Die
bildhaften Sprichwörter der Romanen, 3 vols.,
Heidelberg, 1935--1938, II, 249--250. This is a
compilation based on earlier collections not all of which
indicate the sources of the proverbs cited. For the early
Spanish proverbs see Eleanor S. O'Kane (Sister M.
Katherine Elaine, C.S.C.), Refranes y frases
proverbiales españolas de la edad media, Anejos del Boletín de la Real Academia
Española, 2, Madrid, 1959, pp. 203 (revuelta), 204
(río, río vuelto). Professor Mac E. Barrick
kindly gives me the following additional references:
(1521?) Comedia Thebayda, Madrid, 1894, pp. 88,
471; (1528) Francesco Delicado, La lozana andaluza, Paris, 1950, 179; (1534) Feliciano de Silva, Segunda Comedia de Celestina, Madrid, 1874, pp.
192, 247; (c. 1535) Juan de Valdés, Diálogo de la lengua, Madrid, 1953, p. 107;
(1547) Sancho de Muñon, Tragicomedia de
Lisandro y Rosalia, Madrid, 1872, p. 12 (a servant
indicates that he hopes to gain financially from
knowledge of his master's love-affair); (1554) Juan
Rodrígues Florián, Comedia Florinea, in Menéndez y Pelayo, Origenes de la
novela, III (Madrid, 1910), 179; (1605) Francisco
López de Ubeda, La pícara Justina, ed. J.
Puyol, Madrid, 1912, I, 109; Vna cacuela es escusa
barajas, porque como alli se mete todo confuso, huesso y
pulpa, viene a tener verdad el refran viejo que A rio
buelto, ganancia de pescadores y pescadoras; (1611)
Sebastián de Covarrubias, Tesoro de la lengua
castellana, ed. Martín de Riquer, Barcelona,
1943, s. v. anguilla (p. 120 b): Los que para medrar
inquietan las repúblicas, son comparados a los
pescadores de anguillas, los quales so no enturbian el
agua, no puedan pescar ninguna, por lo qual se dixo: "A
río buelto ganancia de pescadores," para
significar un hombre apartado de todos los demás,
sin trato ni comercio alguno; (1620) H. de Lena, Segunda parte de Lazarillo de Tormes, ed. E. Sims,
Austin, 1925, p. 17; (c. 1625) Gonzalo Correas, Vocabulario de refranes, Madrid, 1924, p. 65a.
Note "Pescare nel Torbido: To fish in troubled waters; to
profit from a questionable deal" Carla Pekelis, A
Dictionary of Colorful Italian Idioms (New York, 1965, p.
Aurora Lucas-White Lea, Literary
Folklore of the Hispanic Southwest, San Antonio,
1953, p. 237.
See Adagia, Paris, 1579, No.
3679. It first appeared in the edition of 1536, which is
the last edition revised by Erasmus.
P. M. Quitard, Dictionnaire . . .
des proverbes et des locutions proverbiales de la langue
française, Paris, 1842, p. 329; T.
Vogel-Jørgensen, Bevingede ord, 4th ed.,
Copenhagen, 1955, col. 236.
Lloyd W. Dal, Aesop Without
Morals, New York, 1961, p. 104, No. 26. For Moral see
p. 270. For the manuscript and printed versions of this
fable see Ben Edwin Perry, Aesopica, I, Urbana,
I leave the identification of the
source of "Est captu facilis turbata piscis in unda" in
Augusto Arthaber, Dizionario comparato di proverbi . .
., Milan, n.d., p. 685, No. 1362 to another