Wise Sayings from Medieval Ireland – The Maxims of King Aldfrith of Northumbria

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One popular genre in medieval Irish literature were Wisdom Texts, which would contain precepts telling us what would be good behaviour. These texts date as far back as the seventh-century, with some of them written as advice for kings, while others were aimed for a more general audience. Among the works in the second group is Briathra Flainn Fhina Maic Ossu, which is the Maxims of King Aldfrith of Northumbria. Although they are attributed to Aldfrith, an Anglo-Saxon king who died in 705, the language of this work is from a later period – the eighth or ninth century. It has 261 lines that offer moral advice.

17th century map of Ireland

Here are some of our favourite portions from this text:

Section 1

Generosity engenders wealth.
Willingness creates one who gives.
Good sense results in fair form.
Lechery leads to disgrace.
Foolishness results in crudity.
Repression results in greater repression.
Hatred engenders reproach.
Abandonment results in slander,
Reluctance leads to [reliance on] conjecture.
Love begets words.
Humility wins good favour.
Decorum results in reciprocal behaviour.
Stinginess is disparaged.
Inhospitability engenders niggardliness.
Wisdom begets fame.
Humility engenders gentleness.
Familiarity fuels strife.
A greedy person acquires possessions.
Arrogance produces disfavour.
Ale results in lechery.
A prostitute’s lot is uncertainity.
A timid person’s lot is uncertainity.
Desire begets perseverance.
Wisdom begets respect.
Age acquires renown.
Foolishness results in risk.

Section 2

Be cautious so that you may not be burdened with debts.
Be thrifty so that you may not be grasping.
Be obliging so that you may be loved.
Be generous so that you may be renowned.
Be hospitable so that you may appear decorous.
Be grateful so that you may experience increase.
Be humble so that you may be exalted.




Section 5

Inquiry is the beginning of knowledge.
Reproach is the beginning of a quarrel.
Lending is the beginning of refusal.
A reproach is the beginning of slander.
Honour-price is the basis of dignity.
Tractability is the beginning of expertise.
Prudence is the basis of good fortune.
Amplitude is the basis of liberality.
Imitation is the basis of devotion.
Gentleness is the beginning of wisdom.
Vain speech is the beginning of evil.
Sickliness is the beginning of old age.
Drunkenness is the beginning of misfortune.
Soberness is the beginning of good fortune.
Gentle speech is the beginning of concord.
Bad association is the beginning of lowly status.
Weariness is the beginning of misery.
Misfortune is the beginning of infirmity.
False-witness is the beginning of a downfall.
A good wife is the beginning of good fortune.
A bad wife is the beginning of misfortune.
Prodigality is the beginning of bad management.
Conversely, moderation is good.

Section 6

It is better to be poorly armed than unarmed,
Better good health than being satiated.
Good fortune is better than wealth.
Better forgiveness than vengeance.
Hospitality is worth more than cattle.
Forethought is better than afterthought.
Better an unfavourable situation than disadvantage.
Better a warm blush than heated passions.
Fame is better than any food.
Peace is better than a successful war.
A friend is better than ale.
Change is better than destruction.

Section 7

Learning is a beneficial occupation.
It makes a king of a poor person.
It makes an accomplished person of a landless one.
It makes an exalted family of a lowly one.
It makes a wise person of a fool.
Its commencement is good.
Its end is better.
It is respected in this world.
It is precious in the next.

You can read the entire text  - Old Irish wisdom attributed to Aldfrith of Northumbria : an edition of Briathra Flainn Fhina maic Ossu - edited and translated by Colin A. Ireland – from Archive.org. You can also read a similar text The Triads of Ireland, from the Corpus of Electronic Texts

Sharan Newman