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De Proverbio - Electronic Journal of International Proverb Studies. Proverbs, Quotations, Sayings, Wellerisms.



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.''[1] 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.[2] 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."[3] 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.[4]

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The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 3:1996 & Issue 4:1996, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.



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 strife.[22]

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.[23]


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 172-179

  1. 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.
  1. Burton E. Stevenson, Thc Home Book of Proverbs . . ., New York, 1948, p. 821.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. Oxford; Stevenson; Morris P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Ann Arbor, 1950, F334.

  5. F. A. Stoett, Nederlandsche spreekwoorden ..., 2 vols., 4th ed., Zutphen, 1923, 1925, II, 482-483, No. 2529.

  6. Archer Taylor and Bartlett Jere Whiting, A Dictionary of American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases, 1820-1880, Cambridge, Mass., 1958, p. 395.

  7. 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.

  8. Helmi Haapanen, Omayeletumbulo gaawambo, Oniipa, 1958, p. 112.

  9. Bartlett Jere Whiting, "Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings from Scottish Writings before 1600, Part II," Mediaeval Studies, XIII (1931), 151.

  10. 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.

  11. 5 vols., Leipzig, 1867-1880, IV, col. 1808.

  12. 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.

  13. Väinö Solstrand, Finlands svenska folkdiktning, 3. Ordstäv, Skrifter utgivna av Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland, 172, Helsingfors, 1923.

  14. Eduard Mau, Danske ordsprogs-skat, 2 vols., Copenhagen, 1879, I, 223, citing Syv's text without a parallel; Ewald Tang Kristensen, Danske ordsprog, Copenhagen, 1890.

  15. Le Roux de Lincy, Le livre des proverbes français, 2d ed., Paris, 1859, II, 370, citing no parallels.

  16. Die sprichwörtlichen Redensarten der französischen Sprache, 2 vols., Heidelberg, 1930, I, 259--260.

  17. 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. 155).

  18. Aurora Lucas-White Lea, Literary Folklore of the Hispanic Southwest, San Antonio, 1953, p. 237.

  19. See Adagia, Paris, 1579, No. 3679. It first appeared in the edition of 1536, which is the last edition revised by Erasmus.

  20. 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.

  21. 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, 1952.

  22. 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 time.

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