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The proverb "The black ox has not trod on his (or: her) foot" was familiarly used by English writers of the Renaissance and was, we may be sure, readily understood in its general tenor, but it has almost completely disappeared from use,[1] and the Renaissance examples do not indicate its origin. The proverb has the following closely related meanings,[2] which I arrange in the order of their appearance:

1. He has not known trouble in the married state.

1546. It was yet but honeymoone: The black oxe had not trode on his or her foote. J. Heywood, A Dialogue conteinyng... proverbs, 1, ch. vi.

1557. I think he passeth not xxiii, the blacke oxe neur trode on hys fote. Erasmus, A mery dialogue, Il. 749-51, fol. 16v-17r (see facsimile ed. in H. de Vocht, The Earliest English translations of Erasmus' Colloquia, Oxford U. Press, 1928). The original is: nondum novit, quid sit esse patremfamilias.

1573. See the quotation from Tusser, below § 4.

1575. They never prove stayed until the blacke oxe hath trodden on their toes. G. Gascoigne, Glasse of Government in The Complete Works of George Gascoigne, ed. J. W. Cunliffe (Cambridge, 1910), II, i, p. 81, v. 6.

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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.

2. He is inexperienced, has not known sorrow or care.

1580. The blacke Oxe neuer trode on your foote yet, you neuer came where it grewe. Anthony Munday, Zelanto, the fountain of fame, p. 126b.

1581. Till the blacke oxe tread upon his toes, and neede make him trie what mettle he is made of. Mulcaster, Positions, XXXVI (1887), 139.

1589. I hope his Canterburinesse will looke to this geare, and suffer them to haue liberty neither to write, nor to dispute, the blacke Oxe hath troden on his foote, he hath had some trial by woful experience, what smal credite... there is to be had, either in writing or disputing with these fellows. Marprel. Tr., Epitome, B ii b.

1590. They travelled by the space of two or three days without seeing any creatures, being often in danger of wild beasts, and pained with many passionate sorrows. Now the black oxe began to tread on their feet. T. Lodge, Rosalynde (ed. W. W. Greg, London, 1931), pp. 34-35.

1590. Sonne, as yet thou hast not eaten bread with one tooth, nor hath the blacke Oxe trodden upon thy foote. Robert Greene, Mourning Garment (ed. 1616), p. 6.

1605. At last the black ox trod o' my foot, / And I saw then what long'd unto't. J. Marston, Eastward Ho, V, v, 80 (ed. Bullen, III, 119).

1610. ... when men feele the Reines of liberty on their necke and may take a course without controlement, ... then when the black Oxe hath trod vpon their feete, ... in the end they come home by weeping crosse. Samuel Rowlands, Martin Marke-all his Apologie, Works, II (Glasgow: Hunterian Club, 1880), separately paged, p. 29, Il. 5ff.

1611. Tis true as your father said, the black ox hath not trode upon that foot of yours. Robert Tailer, The Hog Hath Lost His Pearl (Dodsley's Old Plays, 1744), II, i, p. 198.


The continental European parallels to "The black ox has not trod on his foot" offer much the same picture as do the English examples. In Germany, the proverb names either a black ox or a black cow, but as in the case of the pronouns "he" and "she," we cannot find anything significant in the variation.[7] An important and curious early German example of our proverb occurs in Nicolaus Herman's verses on the Prodigal Son which were published in 1562. A similar context is seen in Samuel Richardson's allusion: "The common phrase of wild-oats, and black oxen, and such-like qualifiers."[8] After the Prodigal Son has squandered his substance in riotous living, he suffers distress:

Do jn so tratt die schwartze Kuh,
Kam der alt Reul vnd bisz mit zu.[9]

This obscure passage has been satisfactorily explained as a reference to Reuel (penitence) as a dog.[10] A confusing variant:

In des so trat jn auch die schwartze Kuh,
Kam der alte keil auch darzu.[11]

is probably a misreading of "der alt Reul." There is an occasional example of the proverb of the black ox in later literary use, e.g., "Wissens auch nicht, weil ihre augen gut und gesund sein, und keine augenbrechen gehabt noch versucht haben, oder wie man zu sagen pfleget, welche die schwarze kue noch nicht getreten hat,''[12] "auf die letzt trat mich zwar die schwarze kuh, aber zu spät,''[13] "er hat sich viel Unglücks genietet, die schwarze Kuh hat ihn oft getreten," and "jedes rauschend Blatt ist ihm ein geharnischter Mann, die schwarze Kuhe hat ihn zu oft getreten,''[14]--which have the meanings familiar in English.

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.


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 152-164

  1. My friend Bartlett Whiting gives me two examples from modern English fiction, viz., "She was ready to settle down and let the Black Oxen do their will with her" (Theda Kenyon, Witchtes Still Live [New York, 1929], p. 343) and "The black ox hath trodden on her toe" (Wyndham Lewis, The Apes of God [New York, 1932], p. 593). The plural "oxen" appears again in the title of Gertrude Atherton's Black Oxen (1923). These uses of the proverb appear to have been suggested by acquaintance with a literary rather than an oral tradition and are intended to suggest "atmosphere." Sir Walter Scott's use of the proverb (The Antiquary, Ch. XL; Fortunes of Nigel, Ch. II middle) may, on the contrary, have an origin in oral tradition, for the proverb is said to be current in Scotland; see J. Jamieson, Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1825), new ed., Paisley, 1879, s.v. "black ox"; G. V. Irving, Notes and Queries, 3d Series, XII, 488; T. F. Dyer, Domestic Folk-Lore (London, 1881) as cited in Notes and Queries, CLXVII, 376.
  1. For many of these examples I am indebted to Professor M. P. Tilley, who has generously given them to me. Some instances which are found in proverb collections give no indication of their meaning and serve therefore only to prove that the proverb was known at the time of printing. See, e.g., a manuscript note written about A.D. 1598 in Fergusson, Scottish Proverbs (ed. Beveridge), p. 102; William Camden, Remaines concerning Britain (3d ed., London, 1623), p. 279 (not found in ed. 1614). There are no proverbs in ed. 1 (1605); J. Howell, Paroemiographia (1659), "British Proverbs," p. 23; N. R., Cent., Proverbs (1659), p. 21; Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia (1732), p. 189, No. 4427.

  2. The editor of Tusser's Husbandrie quotes the following from Bernard's Terence: "Prosperitie hangs on his sleeue; the black oxe cannot tread on his foot."

  3. Epigrams (ed. J. S. Farmer, 1908), p. 139, No. 79, "The blacke oxe."

  4. E. Peacock, A Glossary of Words Used in the Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire (English Dialect Soc., LVIII; London, 1889), p. 51.

  5. Countess Cathleen, as quoted in Notes and Queries, CXLIX (1935), 67.

  6. Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon, II, col. 1687, "Kuh," 521 and III, col. 1108, "Ochs," *350, *360, *361. The form varies slightly: "Die schwarze Kuh hat ihn gedrückt" or "Die schwarze Kuh hat ihm auf den Fuss getreten."

  7. Quoted from the New English Dictionary, s.v. "ox."

  8. P. Wackernagel, Das deutsche Kirchenlied, III (Leipzig, 1870), 1210, No. 1413, Stanza 8. For comment see Deutsches Wörterbuch, s.v. "Kuh," 6.

  9. Deutsches Wörterbuch, VIII, col. 835--36. See also F. Koldewey (ed.), B. Wapdis, Streitgedichte (Halle, 1883), p. XVI.

  10. J. Bergmann, Ambraser Liederbuch, "Bibliothek des litterarischen Vereins," XII (Stuttgart, 1845), 147 (No. 128, Stanza 8). The variant reading also appears in the Liederbüchlein (Frankfurt a.M.: N. Basse, 1580), the Liederbüchlein of 1584, and the Gross Liederbuch (Frankfurt a.M., 1599). For description of these texts see C. A. Williams, JEGP, VIII (1909), 489--500. Professor Williams has given me counsel about these texts.

  11. G. Bartisch, img Das ist, Augendienst (Dresden, 1583), 3 as quoted in Deutsches Wörterbuch, s.v. "Kuh," 6.

  12. Christian Weise, Die drei ergsten Erznarren, Ch. 6 as quoted in Deutsches Wörterbuch, s.v. "Kuh," 6.

  13. V. Herzberger, Herz-Postille, I, 780 and Trauerbinden as quoted by G. Schoppe, Mitteilungen der schlesischen Gesellschaft für Volkskunde, XXIX (1928), 300.

  14. A. Schleicher, Litauische Märchen, Sprichwörter, Rätsel und Lieder (Weimar, 1857), p. 174 (the original is not given).

  15. A parallel (German) from Estonia in A. W. Hupel, Idiotikon der deutschen Sprache in Lief- und Ehstland (Riga, 1795), p. 131. Grimm's reference (Deut. Myth., p. 631) to Etner is obscure.

  16. Ipolyi, Zeitschrift für deutsche Mythologie, I (1853), 271. The original is not given. The aberrant form of this Hungarian version suggests that the translation may not be accurate.

  17. J. G. von Hahn, Albanesische Studien (Jena, 1854), II, 154, No. 73.

  18. N. G. Polites, Paroimiai, III (Athens, 1903), 200--201, "Beta," No. 45. The extensive commentary represents the most thorough investigation of the proverb. I am indebted for the reference and other substantial assistance to my friend Richard Jente.

  19. R. Riegler, Die neuren Sprachen, XXXIII (1925), 369--70.

  20. Gemeene Duytsche Spreckwoorden: Adagia oft Proverbia ghenoemt (Campen, 1550), p. 11 = Harrebomée, II, 154 a.
  21. Osmanische Sprichwörter (Bernstein, 3522), pp. 32--33, No. 95.

  22. H. Massmann, Kaiserchronik (Quedlinburg, 1854), III, 951--54; F. Liebrecht, Des Gervasius von Tilbury Otia Imperialia (Hanover, 1856), p. 126; E. L. Rochholz, Schweizersagen (Aarau, 1856), II, 21--22; Brothers Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, III (Göttingen, 1856), 298; R. Köhler, "Eine Sage von Theodorichs Ende in dem 'Libro de los Enxemplos," Germania, XVIII (1873), 147--52 = Kleinere Schriftcn, II (Berlin, 1900), 266--72; Heiberg, "Theodorich som den vilde Jaeger," Dania, IX (1903), 239-40; J. Bolte and G. Polivka, Anmerkungen, IV (Leipzig, 1930), 140--41. Compare Herman Schneider's explanation of the story in Germanische Heldensage, I (Berlin, 1928), 278--82.

  23. Neuer Büchersaal der schönen Wissenschaften, VI (1748), 449--58. Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon, II, col. 687, "Kuh," *521 cites J. G. Bock, Idioticon prussicum (Königsberg, 1759), pp. 38--39, but this contains nothing pertinent. A. M. Hyamson, A Dictionary of English Phrases (London, 1922), p. 49, offers the same explanation and adds that the phrase means "He is henpecked."
  24. Deutsche Mythologic, 1st ed., p. 631, n. 1 (4th ed., p. 554, n. 1).

  25. Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon, II, col. 1687, "Kuh," *521. This positive assertion is typical of ideas prevalent about the middle of the nineteenth century.

  26. Deutsche Mythologie, III, 467, No. 887.

  27. Des Gervasius von Tilbury Otia Imperialia (Hanover, 1856), p. 92. The Oláfspáttr Geirstadaâlfs may be found in Fornmannasögur, X, 209--15. The pertinent passage is conveniently reprinted in G. D. Kelchner, Dreams in Old Norse Literature and Their Affinities in Folklore (Cambridge, 1935), p. 127.

  28. Eugen Mogk in Paul's Grundriss dur germanischen Philologie,2 II, i (Strassburg, 1901--9), 824.

  29. R. Riegler, "Zur Redensart: Die schwarze Kuh hat ihn gedrückt (getreten)," Die neueren Sprachen, XXXIII (1925), 368--70. See also G. Schoppe, "Sprichwörtliche Redensarten," Mitteilungen der schlesischen Gesellschaft für Volkskunde, XXIX (1928), 300, who independently offers the same explanation.

  30. Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon, III, col. 1108, "Ochs," *350.

  31. London, 1832. See p. 106. According to Archdeacon Nares, the proverb signifies the burdens of old age, but he offers no comment. See A Glossary or Collection of Words (New ed., London, 1901), II, 625.

  32. Comte A. de Laborde, "La Mort chevauchant un boeuf," Comptes rendus des seances de l'Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 1923, pp. 100--13; Alois Bernt and Konrad Burdach (eds.), Der Ackermann aus Böhmen (Berlin, 1917), pp. 237--52, "Das römische Bild des Todes und die bildhaften Elemente der Todesvorstellung im 'Ackermann,'" especially pp. 248--49; Istvan Kozáky, Anfänge der Darstellungen des Vergänglichkeitsproblems ("Bibliotheca humanitatis historica, I; Budapest, 1936), passim. Kozáky's important study is the first of three volumes on the origin, development, and modern forms of the Dance of Death. The high merits of the first volume have not been adequately noticed in any review that has come to my attention.

  33. A. Bernt and K. Burdach, Ackermann, pp. 248--49; Kozáky, p. 184.

  34. Kozáky, p. 229.

  35. De Laborde, p. 106. These pictures supply a better explanation of the French and Breton traditions of death symbolized by vehicles drawn by black oxen than does Riegler's theory. A painting suggested by Petrarch's Trionfi and belonging to an artist of the school of Mantegna hangs in the Metropolitan Museum (New York). I am indebted to Mr. Harry B. Wehle of the Museum for confirming my recollection of the painting. For iconographic parallels see E. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (New York, 1939), p. 11, n. 58.

  36. See Kozáky, p. 185. On Blindman's Buff see Groschuff, "Gedanken über das in Deutschland übliche Blindekuhspiel," Neuer Büchersaal der schönen Wissenschaften, VI (1748), 431--58; F. M. Böhme, Deutsches Kinderlied und Kinderspiel (Leipzig, 1897), p. 628; J. Lewalter and G. Schläger, Deutsches Kinderlied und Kinderspiel (Kassel, 1911), p. 406, No. 98. Kozáky would have found support in S. Singer's remarks in Zeitschrift des Vereins für Volkskunde, XIII (1903), 50.

  37. See Kozáky, pp. 185, 266, 337.


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