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Make We Merry More and Less

 | 
Jane Bliss
, 
Douglas Gray

Chapter 7

Proverbs and Riddles

Texte intégral

The proverb and the riddle are two very ancient forms of ‘wisdom literature’, found in the ancient near East (there are examples of both forms in the Bible) and in pre-Conquest Britain (Old English gnomic verses and maxims, and riddles). And both are found throughout the world. The forms of the two seem to be related. It has been suggested that they have the same ‘deep structure’: the proverb is, as it were, an ‘answer’ to the riddle’s unspoken enigmatic and covert question. Certainly they sometimes share the same image or topic: a French riddle asks ‘which of all the household utensils is always readily available?’ [a candlestick], and a proverb remarks ‘a candlestick is always ready for any candle.’ Neither proverbs nor riddles are well-known or frequently used in modern Western societies (at least outside the world of children), but in the Middle Ages they were esteemed and commonly used.

  • 1 Gray writes ‘Alfred’ in quotation marks; one might as well put such quotes around other na (...)
  • 2 Whiting I 160.
  • 3 At no. 3, Cornmarket St; there are other similarly inscribed walls in the vicinity, for ex (...)
  • 4 A reference to English carvings (there is a similar proverb in French): one is among the c (...)

The proverb, ‘a short pithy saying in common recognised use… some homely truth expressed in a concise and terse manner’ (OED), is constantly used by medieval authors, and often appears in manuscript collections. Proverbs are sometimes attributed to wise sages like Solomon or ‘Alfred’,1 sometimes said to be in common use, ancient, the property of peasants and rustics. They seem to have existed in both an oral and a written tradition, and to have moved easily from one to the other. Some seem to have had their origin in the ‘folk’, others apparently have a ‘literary’ origin (often from the Bible or Aesop). As in modern ‘traditional’ societies, they seem to have had a variety of social and rhetorical uses: in argument and oratory, as a means of making generalisations, as ‘normative’ vehicles of satire, as expressions of social discontent. Some characteristics of the proverb probably appealed to sophisticated authors. For all its firmness in generalising, the proverb’s ‘truth’ does not always prove to be absolute. It often seems to need, or invite, some contextualisation or interpretation. Quite often we find proverbs which express opposing views: dreams are true / dreams are false, for example. This fluidity and flexibility was exploited by writers such as Chaucer. There was a body of ‘proverbial similitudes’ (warm as wool, etc); these as well as common (and perhaps overused) proverbs could be enlivened or revivified by writers, thus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (2. v. 1276) Pandarus ‘felte iren hot, and he bigan to smite’.2 The examples in this section have been chosen to illustrate briefly some of the characteristics and literary potential of proverbs. We begin with some Early Middle English examples, attributed to figures of wisdom, like King Alfred, then further examples from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The use of proverbs in literary texts is illustrated by the Owl and the Nightingale. There was obviously an interest in poems of general wisdom and instruction: moral proverbial verses were sometimes painted as tituli in secular buildings like the Percy castles at Leconfield and Wressel, and the sixteenth-century ‘Painted Room’ in Oxford contained a set of the ‘precepts in –ly’ (for example, ‘in the mornynge earlye serve God devoutlye’).3 I have illustrated this briefly with a couple of moral carols. The vividness of some proverbs seems to call for visual depiction. England cannot rival the achievement of the Netherlandish artists, but there is a nice depiction of ‘shoeing the goose’ (that is, performing useless and nonsensical tasks).4 We continue with proverbs in epitaphs and end with an extract from the proverb contest between Solomon and Marcolfus, which illustrates many of the qualities of the proverb tradition: its oppositions, and its combination of high-minded wisdom with a crude and vulgar realism.

  • 5 The story of Turandot, famous because of Puccini’s opera, was based on part of a twelfth-c (...)
  • 6 Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64) contributed to European history and culture notably by his writ (...)

The Riddle, ‘a question or statement intentionally couched in a dark or puzzling manner, and propounded in order that it may be guessed or answered, especially in pastime; an enigma or dark saying’ (OED), seems to imply a kind of contest: an audience is challenged by a questioner. It is not surprising to find that riddle contests are common throughout the world’s traditional societies, and in the history of literature. A riddle will usually have only one answer, though some are ambiguous, encouraging the audience to think of a possible obscene solution (see no. xiv), and perhaps sometimes ‘doubly ambiguous’ with the more literal solution returning to shame the obscene thoughts of the audience? In some of the early riddle-contests ‘pastime’ gives way to a very grim context: the forfeit for failure is death, as in the story of the princess Turandot, who tested her suitors with riddles.5 There is a vestige of this remaining in our nos xv & xvi (although, in xv, the threatening fiend is seen off by the maid with some briskness). However, in most, ‘pastime’ seems ever present: the riddles are genuinely ‘demandes joyous’ (see D, below). And there is some delight in the artful and playful strategies which mislead the audience, making a riddle the verbal equivalent of those trick pictures in which a duck may be a rabbit, depending on how we interpret the ‘signs’. Lurking behind the riddle is the rhetorical figure of ‘enigma’ which seems to have fascinated some writers — and some preachers and theologians — presenting the ‘paradoxes of the faith’ or reflecting, like Nicholas of Cusa, on ‘learned ignorance’.6

  • 7 Whiting E 22.

Our selection illustrates something of the nature of the riddle. We begin with examples from manuscripts and early prints, some of them demonstrating that riddles, like proverbs, can have an amazing longevity. In manuscripts, riddles are not recorded in the very large numbers that proverbs are, but they are obviously ‘there’, as is a liking for puzzles (see nos xiii & xiv). Examples of riddle-contests are followed by a number of ‘riddling’ poems, one of which (no. xvii) sounds rather like a nursery rhyme — but has an ‘adult’ conclusion. The religious examples are especially interesting: they include a witty riddling poem on ‘earth’ (no. xxi; compare ‘Remember O man that thou art dust… ’, and the proverbial ‘Earth must to Earth’),7 and a very interesting example (no. xxii) of an enigmatic presentation of a traditional devotional image, the significance of which is gradually revealed by the central figure. We end with a brief example of the way in which enigma was used in narrative.

A. Proverbs recorded in Manuscripts and Prints

i) Proverbs of Alfred8

  • 8 These are in Hall’s Selections (vol. 1, pp. 20 & 23; notes in vol. 2).

‘Maxims’ were used and collected in pre-Conquest times, and are found in Early Middle English versions. The Anglo-Saxon king was remembered as a wise and learned sage, but there is no evidence that the historical ruler ever produced a collection of proverbs. His name seems to be used rather to confer a certain authority. Alfred’s name is sometimes attached to individual proverbs. The collection (not absolutely fixed), known as the Proverbs of Alfred, is early (perhaps from the twelfth century).

  • 9 MED gives ‘seventy’, citing this text among six other quotations.
Thus quethº Alvred,
‘Wythute wysdome
Is weoleº wel unwurth; º
For thei o mon ahteº
Huntseventiº acres,
And he hi hadde sowenº
Alle mid readeº golde,
And that gold greowe
So gresº doth on eorthe,
Nere heº for his weoleº
said
wealth worthless
though a man possessed
seventy9
had sown them
red
as grass
he would not be for his wealth
Never the [w] urther, º
Buteº he him of frumtheº
Freond iwrche, º
For what is gold bute stonº
Bute if hit haveth wis mon?’º
better off
unless from the beginning
he makes friends
but stone
unless a wise man possesses it
… Thus queth Alvred,
‘Ne schal tuº nevere thi wif
By hire wlyteº cheose, º
For nevere none thinge
That heo to the bryngeth, º
Ac leorne hire custe, º
Heo cutheth hi wel sone’º… .
thou must not
beauty choose
which she brings to you (= a dowry)
but learn her qualities
she makes them known very quickly

ii) From The Book of St Albans10

  • 10 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 309. This and the next (iii) are cited i (...)

Too wyves in oon hous, Too cattys and oon mous,

Too doggis and oon boon: Theis shall never accorde in oon.

iii) From MS Balliol 354, the early-sixteenth century book of Richard Hill11

  • 11 EETS ES 101, in section VI Proverbs ― a long treasury of proverbs in English and Latin, pp (...)

4. It is a sotill mowse, that slepith in the cattis ere
6. A bird in hond is better than thre in the wode
24. Mani hondis makith light werke
23. When the stede is stolen shit [shut] the stable dore
31. Between two stolis [stools] the ars goth to ground

iv) Miscellaneous Proverbs

  • 12 Whiting D 387, 388.

To trust myche in dremes is ful gret abusion12

  • 13 Charles of Orleans, Poems, EETS OS 215 (EETS OS 220 contains the notes). The verse appears (...)

And alle be hit that sum folkis say To truste on dremys nys but triffle play, Yet oon may mete the dreme wel yn his s [w] evyn As afterward that shalle bifalle him evyn13

  • 14 Whiting S 583.

For al is noght trewe that faire spekyt14

  • 15 A well-known proverb that appears in a number of collections. See Richard Hill’s book, p.  (...)

Hunger makth hard beanes sweete15

  • 16 Ibid. p. 130. Whiting C 251.

Tharfor men seye, and wel ys trowed, ‘The nere [nearer] the cherche, the fyrther fro God’16

  • 17 Cited (inter al.) in Owst, Literature and Pulpit, p. 43.

As it is seide in olde proverb — ‘pore be hangid be the necke, a riche man bi the purs’17

  • 18 Spoken by Understanding in an early English morality (Mind, Will and Understanding, aka Wi (...)

Wo [who] wyll have law, must have monye18

  • 19 A common proverb (Whiting Y 30), 1151 in the Index of Middle English Verse.

He that in yowthe no vertu wyll yowes [use] In aege al honor shall hym refuse19

B. Proverbs in Literary Texts

v) The Owl and the Nightingale

The Owl’s answer to the Nightingale’s criticisms (see above, ch. 6, xxvi); vv. 625–38

… Yet thu me telstº of other thinge,
Of mine bridesº seist gabbinge, º
That horeº nest nis noght clene:
accuse
chicks
their
you speak falsehood
  • 20 See Stanley’s note to this line: the proverb is well known not only in English. His Ap (...)
  • 21 Gray cites this proverb in his introduction to Sir Aldingar, above; Whiting B 18, 22.
  • 22 See Stanley’s notes to vv. 694 & 696: the ‘bag of tricks’ idea is found in several ver (...)
Hit is fale other wighteº imene, º
Vorº hors aº stable and oxe a stalle
Doth al that hom wule thar falle, º
An lutleº children in the cradele
(bothe chorles an ek atheleº)
Doth al that in hore yoetheº
That hi vorleteth in hore dugethe.º
Watº can that yonglingº hit bihede?º
Yif hit misdeth, º hit mod nede.º
A vorbisneº is olde ivurne, º
That nodeº maketh old wif urneº…
to many other creatures common
for in
that will fall from them there
little
churls and also nobles
their youth
give up when they are adults
how child prevent
does wrong it is forced to by necessity
proverb from long ago
need run20
[vv. 679–700]
Acº notheles, yut upe thon, º
Herº is to red wo hine kon, º
Vor never nis wit so keneº
So thaneº red him is a wene; º
Thanne erestº kumedº his yephedeº
Thoneº hit is alre mest on drede.º
For Alveredº seide of olde quideº —
And yutº hit nis of horte islide: º
‘Wone the baleº is alre hecstº
Thane is the boteº alre necst’º
Vor witº westº among his sore, º
An vor his sore hit is the more.º
Vorthiº nis nevere a mon redlesº
Arº his horte bo witles, º
Ac yifº he forlostº his wit
Thonne is his redpursº al toslit: º
Yif he ne kon his wit atholdeº
Ne vint he redº in one volde.º
but as against that
here counsel to him that knows
is wit so keen
as when counsel is in doubt
onlythen comes cunning
when most of all in jeopardy
Alfred a saying
still it is not forgotten
distress highest of all
remedy nearest of all21
wisdom grows sorrows
greater
therefore helpless
before without reason
but if loses
counsel-bag cut open
preserve
does not find counsel fold (of the bag)22
  • 23 See Stanley’s note to v. 762 (and to vv. 769–72): this is also the subject of much pro (...)
Vor Alv [er] id seide, that wel kutheº —
Evreº he spac mid sothe muthe: º
‘Wone the bale is alre hecstº
Thanne is the bote alre nest’º…
[vv. 751–70]
knew
ever true mouth
highest
nearest
… Wi atuitestuº me mine unstrengthenº
An mine ungrete and mine unlengthe,
An seist that ich nam noght strong
why do you reproach lack of strength
Vorº ich nam notherº gret ne long?
Ac thu nostº never wat thu menst, º
Bute leseº words thu me lenst: º
For ich kanº craft, and ich kan liste, º
An tharevore ich am thus thriste.º
Ich kan wit and song mani eine, º
Ne tristeº ich to non other maine; º
Vor sothº hit is that seide Alvred,
‘Ne maiº no strengthe ayen red.’
Oft spetº wel a luteº liste
Thar muche strengthe sholde miste: º
Mid lutle strengthe thurgh ginneº
Castel and burg meº mai iwinne;
because neither
do not know mean
false give
know cunning
bold
one
trust strength
true
can (do)23
succeeds little
fail
through cunning
one
Mid liste me mai walles felle
An worpe ofº horse knightes snelle.º
Uvel strengtheº is lutel wurth,
Ac wisdom [ne wrth never unwrthº]…
cast from strong
brute strength
is never worthless

C. Proverbs in Verses, or Adages

vi) A Balade attributed to Squire Halsham24

  • 24 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse (p. 385, no. 156); a whole poem made from pro (...)
The worlde so wide, th’aire so remuable, º
The selyº man so litel of stature,
changeable
helpless
The grove and groundeº and clothinge so mu
The fire so hoote and subtilº of nature,
The water never in oonº — what creature
That made is of these foure, thus flyttyng, º
May stedfast be asº here in his lyving?º
table.
ethereal
the same
shifting
in respect of
earth
life
The more I goo the ferther I am behinde,
The ferther behind the nerº my waysº ende,
nearer journey’s
The more I seche the worse kan I fynde,
The lighter leveº the lother for to wende, º
The betº y serve the more al out of mynde.º
Is thys fortune, not I, º or infortune?
Though I go lowse, º tyed am I with a lune.º
easier to leave
better
I know not
free
more loath to go
forgotten
leash (for a hawk)

vii) Keep Thy Tongue25

  • 25 This is printed in The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse (no. 198).
  • 26 It is not clear from flower-books what these are. Satin-flower (glossed in the antholo (...)
Kepº thi tunge, thi tunge, thi tunge;
Thi wykyd tunge werkit me wo.
guard, watch
Ther is non gres that growit on ground,
Satenasº ne peny-round, º
satin-flower penny-flower,
sheep’s bane26
Wersse then is a wykkyd tunge
That spekit betheº evyl of frynd and fo.
Kep thi tunge…
both
Wykkyd tunge makitº ofte stryf
Betwyxe a good man and his wyf;
Quanº he shulde lede a merie lyf,
Here qwyteº sydys waxin ful blo.º
Kep thi tunge…
makes
when
white
livid
Wykkyd tunge makit ofte stauns, º
Bothe in Engelond and in Frauns;
Many a man wyt spere and launs
Throw wykkyd tunge to dedº is do.
Kep thi tunge…
dissension
death
Wykkyd tunge brekit bon,
Thow the selfº have non;
Of his fryndº he makit his fonº
In every place qwer that he go.
Kep thi tunge…
itself
friend
foes

Good men that stondyn and syttyn in this halle,
I prey you, bothe on and alle
That wykkyd tunges fro you falle,
That ye mowun to hefne go.
Kep thi tunge…

  • 27 The first of these is in Index of Middle English Verse, no. 765; and see Gray, ‘A Middle E (...)

1viii) Proverbs appear in epitaphs …27

  • 28 Rest Eternal, a phrase from the burial service. Medieval Latin is often incorrect (it woul (...)

Farewell, my frendis! The tide abidith no man:
I moste departe hens, and so shall ye.
But in this passage, the best song that I can
Is Requiem Eternum28 — I pray God grant it me!
Whan I have endid all myn adversite,
Graunte me in Paradise to have a mancyon.
That shede his blode for my redempcion.

ix) Most eloquently in the fictional epitaph of Graunde Amour,29 in Hawes’s Pastime of Pleasure

  • 29 Stephen Hawes, The Pastime of Pleasure (there are a number of editions), in Chapter XLII.

O mortall folke, you may beholde and se
How I lye here, somtyme a mighty kyght.
The ende of joye and all prosperyte
Is dethe at last, through his course and might.
For though the day be never so longe
At last the belles ryngeth to evensonge.

x) Adages as embodiments of ancient wisdom30

  • 30 Erasmus, Adages, trans. Phillips et al. Other editions, of selected Adages, may be consult (...)

In the Adagia of Erasmus adages (like later emblems) took on the nature of gnomic utterances, darkly and deeply meaningful, ‘often having inner senses far more moral than it would ever occur to a modern reader to give them’.

Know Time31

  • 31 From Taverner’s Proverbs and Adages, cited in Simple Forms, p. 170.

Nosce Tempus: know time. Opportunitie is of such force that of honest it maketh unhonest, of damage avauntage, of pleasure grevaunce, of a good turne a shrewd turne, and contraryewyse of unhonest honest, of avauntage damage, and brefly to conclude it cleane chaungeth the nature of thynges.

xi) Solomon and Marcolfus

  • 32 Brewer tells us that characters such as the Parson of Kalenborowe, and Owlglass, developed (...)
  • 33 For this text, see The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf, eds Bradbury and Bradbury.

In the Old English period the dialogues of the rival sages Solomon and Saturn present a debate. In the late Middle Ages Solomon’s opponent was his parodist, the ugly, churlish Marcolphus, whose earthy proverbs are modelled on the proverbial lore of the peasants, and present a world view quite opposed to that of the king.32 The Latin version appeared in vernacular form; the English version of Leeu was printed at Antwerp in 1492.33

Upon a season heretofore as king Salomon, full of wisdom and richesse, sate upon the kings sete or stole [throne] that was his fadres Davyd, sawe coming a man out of th’Este that was named Marcolphus, of visage greatly myshapen and fowle; nevyrethe lesse he was right talkatyf, elloquend, and wyse. His wif had he wyth hym, whiche was more ferefull and rude to beholde. This Marcolf was of short stature and thykke. The head had he great; a brode forhede rede and full of wrinkelys or frouncys [creases]; his erys hery [hairy] and to the myddys of chekys hangyng; great yes [eyes] and rennyng; his nether lyppe hangyng lyke an horse; a berde harde and fowle lyke unto a gote; the hands short and blockyssh [gross]; his fyngres great and thycke; rounde feet and the nose thycke and croked; a face lyke an asse, and the here of hys heed lyke the heer of a gote. His shoes on his fete were ovyrmoche chorlyssh and rude, and his clothys fowle and dirty; a short cote to the buttockys; his hosyn hinge [hung] full of wrynkelys, and alle his clothes were of the moost fowle coloure…

… Salomon sayde, ‘I have herd of the that thou kanst right wele clatre [chatter] and speke, and that thou art subtyle of wyt, although that thou be mysshapyn and chorlyssh. Lete us have betwene us altercacion. I shal make questyons to the, and thou shalt therto answere.’ Marcolfus answeryd, ‘He that singyth worste begynne furste.’ Salomon: ‘If thou kanst answere to alle my questyons I shall make the ryche, and be named above all other withyn my reaume.’ Marcolphus: ‘The physician promysyth the seeke folke helthe whan he hath no power.’ Salomon: ‘I have juged betwixt two light women whiche dwellyd in oon house and forlaye [smothered] a chylde.’ Marcolphus: ‘Were erys [ears] are, there are causes; where women be, there are wordys.’ Salomon: ‘God yave wysdam in my mouth; for me lyke is none in all partys of the worlde.’ Marcolphus: ‘He that hath evyll neighborys praysyth himself.’ Salomon: ‘The wykkyd man fleyth, no man folwyng.’ Marcolphus: ‘Whan the kydde rennyth, men may se his ars.’ Salomon: ‘A good wyf and a fayre is to hir husbonde a pleasure.’ Marcolphus: ‘A potfull of mylke muste be kepte wele from the katte… ’

[Because of the king’s hostility, Marcolphus flees and hides in an old oven, having made footprints in the snow with the foot of a bear. When these are discovered the king sets out hunting and is led to the oven…]

… The king Salomon discended from hys hors, and began to loke into the oven. Marcolphus laye all crokyd, hys visage from hymwarde; had put downe hys breche into hys hammes that he might se hys arshole and alle hys other fowle gere. As the king Salomon, that seyng, demawnded what laye there, Marcolphus answeryd, ‘I am here.’ Salomon: ‘Wherefore lyest thou thus?’ Marcolphus: ‘For ye have commanded me that ye shulde nomore se me betwixt myn yes. Now and ye woll not se me betwixt myn yes, ye may se me between my buttockys in the myddes of myn arsehole.’ Than was the king sore movyd [provoked]; commanded his servauntys to take him and hange hym upon a tre. Marcolphus so takyn sayde to the kyng: ‘My lord, well it please you to yeve me leve to chose the tre whereupon that I shall hange.’ Salomon sayde, ‘Be it as thou hast desired, for it forcyth not on what tre that thou be hangyd.’ Than the kynges servauntes token and leddyn Marcolph wythoute the citie and through the vale of Josaphath, and ovyr the hyghte of the hylle of Olyete from thens to Jericho, and cowde fynde no tre that Marcolf wolde chese to be hanged on. From thens went they ovyr the flome Jordane, and all Arabye through, and so forth all the grete wyldernesse unto the Rede See, and nevyrmore cowed Marcolph fynde a tre that he wolde chese to hange on. And thus he askapyd out of the dawnger and hands of King Salomon, and turnyd ayen unto hys house and levyd in pease and joye.

D. Riddles

xii) From the Demaundes Joyous (1511)34

  • 34 These are printed in [Solomon] The Dialogue of Salomon and Saturnus, ed. Kemble, pp. 287–9 (...)

3) Who was Adams moder? (the earth)

4) What space is from the hyest space of the se to the deepest? (but a stone’s cast)

6) How many calves tayles behoveth to reche from the erthe to the skye? (one, if it’s long enough)

9) Whiche parte of a sergeaunte love ye best towarde you? (his heels)

11) Which is the moost profitable beest, and that men eteth leest of? (bees)

12) Which is the broadest water and leest jeopardye to passe over? (dew)

15) Why dryve men dogges out of the chyrche? (because they make no offering)

16) Why come dogges so often to the churche? (because they think the altar-cloth is a table-cloth, for dinner)

19) What beest is it that hath her tayle bytweene her eyen? (a cat washing its bottom)

25) Wherfore set they upon chyrche steples more a cocke than a henne? (if a hen laid eggs up there, they would fall)

41) Which was first, the henne or the egge? (the hen, when God made her)

42) Why doth an ox or a cowe lye? (because it cannot sit)

45) What tyme in ther yere bereth a gose moost feders? (when the gander is on her back)

xiii) A Puzzle

  • 35 That is, Yssabel: Ice and Abel; in The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 332 ii.

Water frosen, Caines brother; So hight my leman, and no other.35

xiv) A Riddle with ambiguous solution36

  • 36 Cited, with references and solution (a sheath) in Simple Forms, p. 185.

I have a hole above my knee And pricked yt was and pricked shal be And yet yt is not sore And yet yt shal be pricked more.

E. Riddle Challenges

xv) The Devil and the Maid37

  • 37 Inter diabolus et virgo, Child no. 1. Gray follows the version in Oxford, Bodleian Library (...)
Wol ye hereº a wonder thynge
Betwyxt a mayd and the foule fende?
do you want to hear
Thys spake the fend to the mayd:
‘Beleve on me, mayd, today.
Mayd, mote yº thi lemanº be,
Wyssedom y wolle teche the:
if I might lover
All the wyssedom off the world,
Hyf thou wolt be true and forwardº holde,
agreement
What ys hyer than ys [the] tre?
What ys dypperº than ys the see?
deeper
What ys scharpper than the thorne?
What is loderº than the horne?
louder
What [ys] longger than ys the way?
What ys raderº than ys the day?º
redder dawn (of day)
What [ys] betherº than is the bred?
What ys scharpper than ys the dede?º
better
death
What ys grenner than ys the wode?
What ys sweeter than ys the note?º
nut
What ys swifter than ys the wynd?
What ys richer than ys the kynge?
What ys yeluerº than ys the wex?º
What [ys] softer than ys the flex?º
yellower
flax
wax
Butº thou now answer me,
Thou schalt for sotheº my leman be.’
unless
you must in truth
‘Jesu, for thy myld [e] º myghth,
As thu art kynge and knight,
gentle
Leneº me wisdom to answere here ryghth,
And schylde me fram the foule wyghth.º
grant
creature
Heweneº ys heyer than ys the tre,
Helle ys dypper than ys the see.
heaven
Hongyr ys scharpper than [ys] the thorne.
Thonder ys lodder than ys the horne.
Loukyngeº ys longer than ys the way,
Synº ys rader than ys the day,
expectation
sun
Godys flesseº ys betur than ys the brede,
Payne ys strenger than ys the dede.º
flesh
death
Gras ys grenner than ys the wode,
Love ys swetter than ys the note.
Thowtº ys swifter than ys the wynde,
Jesus ys richer than ys the kynge.
thought
Saferº ys yeluer than ys the wexs,
Selke ys softer than ys the flex.
saffron
Now, thu fende, stylº thu be;
Nelle ichº speke no more with the! ’
silent
I will not

xvi) King John and the Bishop38

  • 38 PFMS, vol i p. 508. Gray gives vv. 1–78 & 87–142.
Off an ancient story Ile tell you anon,
Of a notable prince that was called King John,
In England was borne, with maine and with might;
Hee did much wrong and maintained litle right.
This noble prince was vexed in veretye, º
For he was angry with the Bishopp of Canterbury;
truth
For his house-keeping and his good cheere,
Theº rode post for him, as you shall heare.
they
They rode post for him very hastilye;
The king sayd the bishopp kept a better house than hee:
A hundred men even, as I [heard] say,
And fifty gold chaines, without any doubt,
In velvet coates waited the bishop about.
The bishopp, he came to the court anon,
Before his prince that was called King John.
  As soone as the bishopp the king did see,
‘O, ’ quoth the king, ‘Bishopp, thow art welcome to mee.
There is noe man soe welcome to towne
As thou that workes treason against my crowne.’
‘My leege, ’ quoth the bishop, ‘I wold it were knowne
I spend, your grace, nothing but that that’sº my owne;
I trust your grace will doe me noe deareº
For spending my owne trew gotten geere.’º
what is
harm
property
‘Yes, ’ quoth the king, ‘Bishopp, thou must needs dye,
Eccept thou can answere mee questions three,
Thy head shalbe smitten quite from thy bodye,
And all thy living remayne unto mee.
First, ’ quoth the king, ‘tell me in this steade, º
place
With this crowne of gold here upon my head,
Amongst my nobilitye, with joy and much mirth,
Lett me know within one pennye what I am worth.
Secondlye, tell me without any dowbt
How sooneº I may goe the whole world about;
And thirdly, tell mee orº ever I stinte, º before
What is the thing, bishop, that I doe thinke.
quickly
stop
Twenty dayes pardon thoustº have trulye,
And come againe and answere mee.’
you shall
The bishop bade the king god night attº a word;
He rode betwixt Cambridge and Oxenford,
But never a doctor there was soe wise
Cold shew him these questions or enterprise.
Wherewith the bishopp was nothing gladd,
But in his hart was heavy and sadd.
with
And hyed him home to a house in the countrye,
To ease some part of his melanchollye.
His halfe-brother dwelt there, was fierce and fell,
Noe better but a shepard to the bishoppe himsell;
The shepard came to the bishopp anon,
Saying, ‘My lord, you are welcome home!
What ayles you, ’ quoth the shepard, ‘that you are soe sadd,
And had wonte to have beene soe merry and gladd?’
‘Nothing, ’ quoth the bishopp, ‘I ayle att this time;
Will not thee availe to know, brother mine.’
‘Brother, ’ quoth the shepheard, ‘you have heard itt,
That a foole may teach a wisemane witt;
Say me therefore whatsoever you will,
And if I doe you noe good, Ile doe you noe ill.’
Quoth the bishop, ‘I have beene att the court anon,
Before my prince is called King John.
  And there he hath charged mee
Against his crowne with traitorye.
If I cannott answer his misterye,
Three questions hee hath propounded to mee,
He will have my land soe faire and free.
And alsoe the head from my bodye.
The first question was to tell him in that stead,
With the crowne of golde upon his head,
Amongst his nobilitye, with joy and much mirth,
To lett him know within one penye what hee is worth.
And secondlye to tell him without any doubt
How soone he may goe the whole world about,
And thirdlye to tell him, or ere I stint,
What is the thinge that he does thinke.’
‘Brother, ’ quoth the shepard, ‘you are a man of learninge;
What neede you stand in doubt of soe small a thinge?
Lend me, ’ quoth the shepard, ‘your ministersº apparel,
Ile ryde to the court and answere your quarrel.’º
clerical
dispute
The shepard hee came to the court anon
Before [his] prince that was called King John.
As soone as the king the shepard did see,
‘O, ’ quoth the king, ‘Bishopp, thou art welcome to me.’
The shepard was soe like the bishopp his brother,
The king cold not know the one from the other.
Quoth the king, ‘Bishopp, thou art welcome to me
If thou can answer me my questions three.’
Said the shepeard, ‘If it please your grace,
Show me what the first quest [i] on was.’
‘First, ’ quoth the king, ‘tell mee in this stead,
With the crowne of gold upon my head,
Amongst my nobilitye, with joy and much mirth,
Within one pennye what I am worth.’
Quoth the shepard, ‘To make your grace noe offence,
I thinke you are worth nine and twenty pence,
For our lord Jesus, that bought us all,
For thirty pence was sold into thrall
Amongst the cursed Jewes, as I to you doe showe —
But I know Christ was one penye better then you.’
Then the king laught, and swore by St Andrew
He was not thought to bee of such a small value.
‘Secondlye, tell mee without any doubt
How soone I may goe the world round about?’
Saies the shepard, ‘It is noe time with your grace to scorne,
But rise betime with the sun in the morne,
And follow his course till his oprising,
And then you may know without any leasing, º
And this [to] your grace shall prove the same,
You are come to the same place from whence you came
[In] twenty-four houres, without any doubt.
Your grace may the world goe round about,
The world round about, even as I doe say,
falsehood
If with the sun you can goe the nextº way.’
‘And thirdlye tell me or ever I stint,
most direct

What is the thing, bishoppe, that I doe thinke?’
‘That shall I doe, ’ quoth the shepeard, ‘for veretye,
You thinke I am the bishopp of Canterburye.’
‘Why, art not thou? The truth tell to me,
For I doe thinke soe, ’ quoth the king, ‘by St Marye.’
‘Not soe, ’ quoth the shepeard, ‘the truth shalbe knowne:
I am his poore shepeard, my brother is att home.’
‘Why, ’ quoth the king, ‘if itt soe bee,
Ile make thee bishopp here to mee.’
‘Noe, sir, ’ quoth the shepard, ‘I pray you be still,
For Ile not bee bishopp but against my will,
For I am not fit for any such deede,
For I can neither write nor reede.’

‘Why then’ quoth the king, ‘Ile give thee cleere
A patentº of three hundred pound a yeere:
That I will give thee franke and free; º
licenced privilege
unconditionally

Take thee that, shepard, for coming to me,
Free pardon Ile give, ’ the kings grace said,
‘To save the bishopp, his land and his head;
With him nor thee Ile be nothing wrath;
Here is the pardon for him and thee both.’

[He takes it back to the bishop, whose heart is ‘of a merry cheere’; the shepherd announces that he will no longer ‘crouch nor creep’ before him, nor keep his sheep.]

F. Poetic Uses of Enigma

xvii) I have a yong suster39

  • 39 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 192.
I have a yong suster
Fer beyondyn the se,
Many be the drowryisº
That cheº sente me.
love tokens
she
Che sente me the cherye
Withoutyn ony ston,
And so che dedº the doweº
Withoutyn ony bon.
did dove
Sche sente me the brerº
Withoutyn ony ryndeº
Sche bad me love my lemmanº
Withoute longgyng.
briar
bark
beloved
How shuld ony cherye
Be withoute ston?
And how shuld ony dowe
Be withoute bon?
How shuld ony brer
Ben withoute rynde?
How shuld [y] love myn lemman
Without longyng?
Quan the cherye was a flour,
Than hadde it non ston.
  Quan the dowe was an eyº
Than hadde it non bon.
egg
Quan the brer was onbred, º
Than hadde it non rynd.
Quan the maydyn hath that che lovit,
Che is without longing
unbred (= still in seed)

Religious writings sometimes make use of ‘enigma’.

xviii)40

  • 40 In A Selection of Religious Lyrics, no. 71.
Byhalde merveylis: a mayde ys moder.
Her sone her fader ys and broder;
Lyfe faught with dethe and dethe is slayne;
Most high was lowe — he stygheº agayne.
rose up

xix)41

  • 41 Ibid. no. 72.

A God, and yet a man?
A mayde, and yet a mother?
Witt wonders what witt can
Conceave this or the other.
A God, and can he die?
A dead man, can he live?
What witt can well replie?
What reason reason give?
God, Truth itselfe doth teache it;
Mans witt sinkes too farr under,
By reasons power to reach it —
Believe, and leave to wonder.

xx)42

  • 42 In the Digital Index of Middle English Verse, no. 3379, A Song of the Host.
  • 43 Miraculous mystery.

Mirabile misterium;43
In forme of bred ys Godes Son.

Man, that in erth abydys here,
Thou must beleve withouten d [e] reº
In the sacrement of the auter
That God made hymself at hys soper.
Mirabile
without difficulty
Thowgh yt seme whit, yt ys rede,
Yt ys flesshe, yt semeythº bred,
Yt ys God in his manhed,
As he hong upon a tre.
Mirabile
appears to be
Thys bred ys brokyn for you and me
Which priestes consecrate, as ye may se,
Which, flesshely man in Deite,
Dyed for us upon a tre.
Mirabile

xxi)44

  • 44 In A Selection of Religious Lyrics, ed. Gray, no. 86a; Whiting E 22.
Erthe toc of erthe erthe wyth woh,
Erthe other erthe to the erthe droh, º
Erthe leyde erthe in erthene throh, º
Tho hevedeº erthe of erthe erthe ynoh.º
drew
pit
had
sufficient

xxii) The first sixty lines of a religious visionary poem.45

  • 45 Ibid. no. 43 (pp. 41–5).

The meaning of the enigmatic images gradually becomes clear. This poem also provides an introduction to our following section.

In the vaile of restles mynd
I sowght in mownteyn and in mede, º
Trustyng a treulofeº for to fynd.
meadow
truelove
Upon an hyll than toke I hede, º
A voyse I herd (and nere I yedeº)
In gret dolourº complaynyng tho, º
‘See, dere soule, my sydes blede.
Quia amore langueo.’º
Upon this mownt I fandº a tree,
Under thys tree a man sittyng;
From hede to fote wowndydº was he,
His hert blode I saw bledyng,
A semely man to be a kyng
A graciose face to loke unto.
I askyd hym how he had paynyng, º
He said, ‘Quia amore langueo.
I am treulove, that fals was never.
My sister, mannys soule, I loved hyr thus;
Bycause I wold on no wyse dissevereº
I left my kyngdome gloriouse.
I purveydº hyr a paleis preciouse,
She flytt, º I folowyd, I luffedº her soo
That I suffred thes paynes piteuouse
Quia amore langueo.
took I heed
nearer I went
grief then
because I languish for love
found
wounded
suffering
part
prepared
fled loved
My faire love, and my spouse bryght.
I saved hyr fro betyng, and she hath me bett; º
beaten
I clothed hyr in grace and hevenly lyght,
This blody surcoteº she hath on me sett.
For langyng loveº I will not letº —
surcoat
love-longing
give up
Swete strokys be thes, loo!
I haf loved ever als I hett, º
Quia amore langueo.
as I promised

I crownyd hyr with blysse, and she me with thorne, I led hyr to chamber, and she me to dye;

I browght hyr to worship, º and she me to skorne,
I dyd hyr reverence, and she me velanye.º
honour
shame
To love that loveth is no maystrye, º
Hyr hate made never my love hyr fooº —
Ask than no mooº questions whye,
Quia amore langueo.
is no hard thing
foe
more
Loke unto myn handys, man!
Thes gloves were gevenº me whan I hyr sowght;
given
They be nat white, but rede and wan, º leaden-coloured
Embrodredº with blode (my spouse them bowght!); embroidered
They wyll not ofº — I lefe them nowght! º off I do not take them off
I woweº hyr with them where ever she goo.º woo
Thes hands full friendly for hyr fowght,
Quia amore langueo.
goes
Marvell not, man, thofº I sitt styll — though
My love hath shod me wondyr strayte, º
She boklydº my fete, as was hyr wyll,
wondrously tight
buckled
With sharp nailes (well thow maist waite)º may observe
In my love was never dissaite, º
For all my membres I haf opynd hyr to; º
My body I made hyr hertys baite, º
Quia amore langueo.
deceit
opened to her
bait for her heart
In my syde I haf made hur nest —
Lokeº in me, how wyde a wound is here! —
look
This is hyr chamber, here shall she rest,
That she and I may slepe in fereº… ’
together

G. Enigma in Narrative

  • 46 In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
  • 47 In Huon of Burdeux, ed. Lee, p. 370 ff.
  • 48 It is difficult to decide whether we are dealing with a self-conscious use of enigma invol (...)

Middle English literature provides numerous examples, but it is difficult to illustrate this briefly. In romances, protagonists are sometimes confronted with ‘hard questions’ (like ‘what is it that women most desire?’) which determine the movement of the plot. Romances often have mysterious figures, sometimes with enigmatic names; sometimes nameless, or apparently visitants from the Otherworld or shape-shifters (like the Green Knight);46 they contain enigmatic scenes or events (as in Huon of Bordeux when the ship approaches a mysterious ‘high rock’ surmounted by a thick wood and a high castle with towers of alabaster — which turns out to be the rock of Adamant with the masts of wrecked ships and the bones of their crews).47 We end therefore with a shorter ‘narrative’, in the famous Corpus Christi Carol, where there has been considerable argument over the interpretation.48

xxiii) The ‘Corpus Christi Carol’49

  • 49 In The Oxford Book of Medieval Verse, p. 524 (no. 247). Corpus Christi means Body of Chris (...)
Lully, lulley; lully, lulley,
The fawconº hath born my makº away.
falcon mate
He bare hym up, he bare hym down,
He bare hym into an orchard brown,
Lulley…
In that orchard ther was an hall,
That was hangid with purpill and pallº
Lulley…
rich purple fabric
And in that hall ther was a bede;
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.
Lulley…
And yn that bed ther lythe a knyght,
His wowndes bledyng day and nyght.
Lulley…
And by that bedes side ther kneleth a may, º
And she wepeth both nyght and day.
Lulley…
maid
And by that beddes side ther stondith a ston,
Corpus Christi’ wretyn theron,
Lulley…

Notes

1 Gray writes ‘Alfred’ in quotation marks; one might as well put such quotes around other names such as Solomon. Once a figure has acquired a reputation for wisdom, many sayings are ascribed to him (rarely, her) whether he wrote them or not. Gray explains this further, below.

2 Whiting I 160.

3 At no. 3, Cornmarket St; there are other similarly inscribed walls in the vicinity, for example in what is now a Pizza Express in the adjoining Golden Cross.

4 A reference to English carvings (there is a similar proverb in French): one is among the choir stalls at Beverley Minster, another at Whaley (Lancs). The latter is captioned: ‘who so melles hym of yat al men dos, let hym cum heir and shoe the gos.’ The feet of geese being driven to market might be dipped in tar to protect them from damage on the road, since they could not be shod. Whiting G 389.

5 The story of Turandot, famous because of Puccini’s opera, was based on part of a twelfth-century Persian epic.

6 Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64) contributed to European history and culture notably by his writings on ‘learned ignorance’.

7 Whiting E 22.

8 These are in Hall’s Selections (vol. 1, pp. 20 & 23; notes in vol. 2).

9 MED gives ‘seventy’, citing this text among six other quotations.

10 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 309. This and the next (iii) are cited in Simple Forms (see the whole chapter, entitled Proverb); at p. 169, where Gray remarks ‘There is no need to catalogue all the Middle English examples’.

11 EETS ES 101, in section VI Proverbs ― a long treasury of proverbs in English and Latin, pp. 128–41. Numbers above are those on Richard Hill’s page 128.

12 Whiting D 387, 388.

13 Charles of Orleans, Poems, EETS OS 215 (EETS OS 220 contains the notes). The verse appears in a poem entitled (on the Contents page) The Dream of Venus and Fortune, p. 159 (v. 4739 ff).

14 Whiting S 583.

15 A well-known proverb that appears in a number of collections. See Richard Hill’s book, p. 133.

16 Ibid. p. 130. Whiting C 251.

17 Cited (inter al.) in Owst, Literature and Pulpit, p. 43.

18 Spoken by Understanding in an early English morality (Mind, Will and Understanding, aka Wisdom) among the Macro Plays published inter al. by EETS.

19 A common proverb (Whiting Y 30), 1151 in the Index of Middle English Verse.

20 See Stanley’s note to this line: the proverb is well known not only in English. His Appendix gives a table of Proverb Literature (pp. 160–3).

21 Gray cites this proverb in his introduction to Sir Aldingar, above; Whiting B 18, 22.

22 See Stanley’s notes to vv. 694 & 696: the ‘bag of tricks’ idea is found in several versions of The Fox and the Cat.

23 See Stanley’s note to v. 762 (and to vv. 769–72): this is also the subject of much proverbial wisdom.

24 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse (p. 385, no. 156); a whole poem made from proverbs and proverbial matter. The note (p. 591) says it may be by Lydgate.

25 This is printed in The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse (no. 198).

26 It is not clear from flower-books what these are. Satin-flower (glossed in the anthology as ‘a poisonous plant’) may be honesty, or chickweed; Peny-round is perhaps pennywort, a plant with rounded leaves (OED). An online search finds only a South American ‘satin-flower’; penny-flower may be honesty, and sheep’s bane a species of pennywort.

27 The first of these is in Index of Middle English Verse, no. 765; and see Gray, ‘A Middle English Epitaph’. They include ‘Time and tide wait for no man’, and ‘End comes to the longest day’.

28 Rest Eternal, a phrase from the burial service. Medieval Latin is often incorrect (it would normally read eternam).

29 Stephen Hawes, The Pastime of Pleasure (there are a number of editions), in Chapter XLII.

30 Erasmus, Adages, trans. Phillips et al. Other editions, of selected Adages, may be consulted.

31 From Taverner’s Proverbs and Adages, cited in Simple Forms, p. 170.

32 Brewer tells us that characters such as the Parson of Kalenborowe, and Owlglass, developed from the Marcolf figure (Medieval Comic Tales, p. xxvi).

33 For this text, see The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf, eds Bradbury and Bradbury.

34 These are printed in [Solomon] The Dialogue of Salomon and Saturnus, ed. Kemble, pp. 287–92; there are fifty-four Demaundes (including these thirteen), with answers. See also The Demaundes Joyous, ed. Wardroper.

35 That is, Yssabel: Ice and Abel; in The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 332 ii.

36 Cited, with references and solution (a sheath) in Simple Forms, p. 185.

37 Inter diabolus et virgo, Child no. 1. Gray follows the version in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MS. D. 328, fol. 174 b, which he may have edited himself.

38 PFMS, vol i p. 508. Gray gives vv. 1–78 & 87–142.

39 In The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, no. 192.

40 In A Selection of Religious Lyrics, no. 71.

41 Ibid. no. 72.

42 In the Digital Index of Middle English Verse, no. 3379, A Song of the Host.

43 Miraculous mystery.

44 In A Selection of Religious Lyrics, ed. Gray, no. 86a; Whiting E 22.

45 Ibid. no. 43 (pp. 41–5).

46 In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

47 In Huon of Burdeux, ed. Lee, p. 370 ff.

48 It is difficult to decide whether we are dealing with a self-conscious use of enigma involving a fusion of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’, or whether it is the result of changes or attempts at clarification which occurred during the transmission of a mysterious poem about the body of a dead knight. Compare the modern variants in our chapter Ballads (ix), Three Ravens, and the Scottish carol in the Appendix (xii).

49 In The Oxford Book of Medieval Verse, p. 524 (no. 247). Corpus Christi means Body of Christ.

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