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Medieval Proverbs from The Well-Laden Ship

Just as today, proverbs in the Middle Ages were popular. One excellent source of medieval proverbs is The Well-Laden Ship, an eleventh-century Latin poem composed by Egbert of Liege. Egbert had written this as a textbook for young students – something that they would enjoy and be able to learn Latin from. He included hundreds of proverbs, along with short stories – see also our post on The Earliest Little Red Riding Hood Tale.

In the opening of his book, Egbert explained, “Many people often say many things in ordinary language, and that wisdom of commoners is proffered in a great many examples that are indispensable to employ.  I drank from this font, thinking to myself that among these things were many that are practical and (if somehow they could be preserved) clear – things which could make listeners of those who were for this reason inattentive : that these things had been written down nowhere to be preserved better in a mindful heart. So, I have gathered up in just two little books whatever things I could think of through the hours of day and night, in single verselets, many times in two, sometimes in three, furthermore interspersing them with some new and popular tales and a few divine ones.”

Here is a list of some of our favourite medieval proverbs from The Well-Laden Ship, including a few that are very similar to modern ones:

No mother-in-law is pleasing to her daughter-in-law unless she is dead.
Non nurui placet ulla suae nisi mortua socrus.

While the cat’s away, the mouse is seen scurrying about.
Dum deerit cattus, dicurrens conspicitur mus.

Calves should not play with an ox since they are outmatched in horns.
Cum bove non ludant vituli per cornua victi.

A boy is consumed by envy, an old man by anger.
Invidia puer et vetulus consumitur ira.

The crow, by not crowing, could have the cadaver for himself.
Corvus non crocitando cadaver solus haberet.

When your neighbour’s house is burning, the fire is getting close to you.
Dum flagrat vicina domus, ibi proximat ad te.

The man who licks a greasy knife gives little to his companion.
Dat modicum comiti, sicam qui lingit inunctam.

Shit smells foully, the more it is stirred up by turning.
Stercus olet foedum, quo plus vertendo movetur.

One bee in the city is preferable to countless flies.
Prestat apes una immensis per moenia muscis.

When a horse is offered for free, you should not open its mouth.
Gratis equo oblato non debes pandere buccas.

It is a sign of great poverty for a king to spend time alone.
Regem aliquem magna est penuria degere solum.

So long as the milk is given to you, why do you burn to know whose cow it is?
Dum tibi lac detur, cuius sit vacca, quid urit?

A sum entrusted to many servants diminishes for the master.
Summa minor domino multis commissa ministris.

A poor man extends his poverty when he has frequent recourse to wine.
Pauperiem dilatat inops, cum vina frequentat.

I’ve never see a wagon go when placed in front of the oxen.
Ante boves versum non vidi currere plaustrum.

Knights are prepared for wars when the foot soldiers are alongside them.
Velitibus iunctis equites ad bella parantur.

The nearer a thing is to fire, the hotter it is.
Tanto plus calidum, quanto vicinius igni.

One ought to strike iron while it’s hot.
Dum calidum fuerit, debetur cudere ferrum.

Today nobody provides his goods unless he sells everything at a higher price.
Nemo hodie sua dat, nisis carius omnia vendat.

A living dog is better than a dead lion.
Defuncto canis est melior vivendo leone.

A kitten roves about, following the straw; even if you are clever, you will scarcely induce an old cat to this trick.
Cattulus inprimis stipulas imitatus oberrat.
ad quam vix veterem sollers produxeris artem.

A good woman is rare. If you should, by chance, find one, she has fallen from the sky,  die with a marvellous marking.
Femina pauca bona est; si forte inveneris ullam,
de caelo cecidit, tessella caractere miro.

The ploughman usually goes to the field in a more timely fashion than the monks are compelled to their morning hymns.
Tempestivius ad sulcum solet ire bubulcus,
quam fratres matutinos cogantur ad ymnos.

The Well-Laden Ship has been just edited and translated by Robert Gary Babcock of the University of North Carolina, and it now published as part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series by Harvard University Press. Click here to visit the Publisher’s website.

See also: These are beautiful words to understand – proverbs from a 14th century merchant

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