Advice comes too late, 1670
Does John have bread and cheese in his head?
In the course of my day job as a freelance editor, I sometimes edit business books for a publisher in that field. A common practice for business writers is to have an epigraph at the start of each chapter, ie. a pithy quote or snippet of wisdom from a well-known name, and there’s a sense of trying to bask in reflected wisdom and build authority by association. The same names come up all the time, which is unfortunate because it then makes these quotes become clichés. And as anyone who has stumbled on an online dictionary of quotations (which many of these authors clearly plunder) will know, there are endless wise maxims attributed to certain individuals in particular – I’d say Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Mohandas Gandhi are top of the list. And if you visit sites such as Quote Investigator, you’ll soon see that many of these attributions are completely false. But all of this stuff, like so many other things, has a long heritage, as we’ll see shortly.
In the latest issue of the long-running archaeology/earth mysteries/antiquarian journal Northern Earth, I read a short piece by the editor John Billingsley where he described coming across an old scrap of paper covering a library book, the scrap adorned with odd proverbs such as “Love locks no cupboards” and “He danceth well to whom fortune pipeth”. This sent me down a rabbit hole as usual, and as far as I can tell the scrap appears to have come from a 17th century collection of proverbs by a man called John Ray, or at least a later edition of his work.
Looking into the history of collections of proverbs – the historical antecedent to those online dictionaries of quotes – I’ve also just learned a new word: paremiography, which is the study of the collection and writing of proverbs (and the related paremiology, the wider study of such expressions). There’s even an annual journal, Proverbium, devoted to international proverb scholarship (it’s free to read). I bet their events have pithy keynote speakers.
How did this genre start? The oldest example in the world appears to be The Maxims of Ptahhotep, composed in ancient Egypt around 2350 BC. Some of its advice (e.g. “If you are a leader, take responsibility in the matters entrusted to you, and you will accomplish things of note”) sounds eerily similar to that in those business books I work on. The Book of Proverbs in the Bible dates to around 700 BC. The earliest collection I can find in some form of English is The Proverbs of Alfred, attributed to the 9th century Saxon superhero Alfred the Great but only compiled in the late 12th century (example: “Hard it is to row against the sea that floweth; so is it hard to work against misfortune.” There’s also a lot of hardcore sexism along the lines of “Do not, ever in your life, take the word of your wife too quickly as counsel”).
But the genre particularly flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries at the same time that English letters were flourishing and the world gave us the most quotable author of all in the form of Shakespeare. Scholar of literary culture in that era Adam Fox says “There were about 12,000 proverbs and proverbial phrases in regular use in England during that time”.1 Enter John Ray (also written Wray), who seems to have been the most notable collector of them.
John Ray (1627–1705) was born in Essex to a blacksmith father and herbalist mother. He studied at Cambridge, and wrote poems in honour of both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II (move with the times, eh?), but gradually his interests evolved from literature to the natural sciences. He was very much the Renaissance man: he wrote about his travels in Europe, was a notable mathematician, developed a system of plant taxonomy (and was the first person to define the biological concept of species) and is regarded as a forefather of natural history in general; many of his works and adventures were aided by his pupil Francis Willughby. And in 1670 he published the first edition of his Collection of English Proverbs, which he expanded in 1678 and was still being reprinted throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
He defined proverbs thus:
A proverb is usually defined, an instructive sentence, or common and pithy saying, in which more is generally designed than expressed, famous for its peculiarity or elegance, and therefore adopted by the learned as well as the vulgar, by which it is distinguished from counterfeits which want such authority.
In his book he devised “a convenient method for the speedy finding any one upon occasion” (basically an alphabetical list by theme) and offered “short annotations” where he felt them necessary. There are many editions to be found online,2 but here’s a small selection of some more entertaining, perspicacious or just plain baffling ones…
He that’s afraid of every grass, must not piss in a meadow.
A covetous man is like a dog in a wheel that roasteth meat for others. [Er?!]
A turd’s as good for a few as a pancake.
They that can cobble and clout, shall have work when others go without.
This rule in gardening never forget, To sow dry, and to set wet.
When a thing is done, advice comes too late.
A true friend should be like a privy, open in necessity.
He who would have a hare to breakfast must hunt over night.
Trade is the mother of money.
That’s not good language that all understand not.
He that hath eaten a bear pie will always smell of the garden.
You may know by a penny how a shilling spends.
[Ray glosses this next dietary proverb with his own extensive reflections…]
After dinner sit a while, after supper walk a mile.
I know no reason for the difference, unless one eats a greater dinner then supper. For when the stomach is full it is not good to exercise immediately, but to sit still awhile; though I do not allow the reason usually given viz.because exercise draws the heat outward to the exterior parts, and so leaving the stomach and bowels cold, hinders concoction: for I believe that as well the stomach as the exterior parts are hottest after exercise: And that those who exercise most, concoct most and require most meat. So that exercise immediately after meat is hurtful rather upon account of precipitating concoction, or turning the meat out of the stomach too soon. As for the reason they give for standing or walking after meals, viz. because the meat by that means is depressed to the bottom of the stomach; where the natural heat is most vigorous, it is very frivolous, both because the stomach is a wide vessel, & so the bottom of it cannot be empty, but what falls into it must needs fall down to the bottom: And because most certainly the stomach concocts worst when it is in a pendulous posture, as it is while we are standing. Hence, as the Lord Verulam [i.e. Elizabethan polymath Francis Bacon] truly observes, galley slaves and such as exercise sitting, though they fare meanly and work hard yet are commonly fat and fleshy. Whereupon also he commends those works or exercises which a man may perform sitting, as sawing with a hand-saw and the like. Some turn this saying into a droll thus.
[And let’s finish with '“proverbial periphrases of one drunk”, i.e. a list of expressions for being stocious (my favourite Scottish synonym for this phenomenon):]
He has got a piece of bread and cheese in his head.
He has drunk more than he has bled.
He has been i’th’ Sun.
He has a jag or load.
He has got a dish.
He has got a cup too much.
He is one and thirty.
He is dag’d.
He has cut his leg.
He is afflicted.
He is top-heavy.
The malt is above the water.
As drunk as a wheelbarrow.
He makes indentures with his legs.
He’s well to live.
He’s about to cast up his reckoning or accounts.
He has made an example.
He is concerned.
He is as drunk as David’s sow.
He has stolen a manchet [a type of loaf] out of the brewer’s basket.
He is very weary.
He drank till he gave up his half-penny, i.e. vomited.
In Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500–1700, OUP, 2002.