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The Durham Proverbs is a collection of 46 mediaeval proverbs from various sources. They were written down as a collection, in the eleventh century, on some pages (pages 43 verso to 45 verso, between a hymnal and a collection of canticles) of a manuscript that were originally left blank. The manuscript is currently in the collection of Durham Cathedral, to which it was donated in the eighteenth century. The Proverbs form the first part of the manuscript. The second part, to which it is bound, is a copy of Ælfric's Grammar (minus its glossary).[1][2][3] Each proverb is written in both Latin and Old English, with the former preceding the latter.[4] Olof Arngart's opinion is that the Proverbs were originally in Old English and translated to Latin, but this has since been disputed in a conference paper by T. A. Shippey (Shippey 1989).[1]


While Richard Marsden's introduction in The Cambridge Old English Reader discusses the essentials of the Durham Proverbs, there is still more to be learned.[5] The Durham Proverbs are held in a manuscript that is kept in the library of Durham Cathedral, which is why they are named the "Durham" Proverbs.[6] The original home of the manuscript is thought most likely to have been in Canterbury.[7] The original manuscript of the Durham Proverbs contains copies of Ælfric's own work.[7][6] Several of the proverbs also appear in later works of the thirteenth-century. Considering the repetition of their use, during later times and in future works, stresses their importance from the eleventh-century society. For every one of the Durham Proverbs, there is a Latin version. The commonalities between the Latin version of the proverbs and the Old English version, in more than one manuscript, suggest that there was a common source from which the Durham Proverbs were created in Old English from Latin.[8]

Background and history

The Durham Proverbs are considered to have been used to document everyday business of the people of Anglo-Saxon England. The proverbs were used in monastic schools to teach text along with other texts such as the Disticha Catonis (also known as the "Dicts of Cato") and a Middle English collection titled the Proverbs of Hendyng. Several of the proverbs have parallels within other proverbs listed below, as well as the Old English Disticha Catonis and the Proverbs of Hendyng. Despite their use, the source of these proverbs is largely debated and still considered unknown.[citation needed]

Olof Arngart's notes on the Durham Proverbs say that some of the proverbs have a biblical reference. The book of Proverbs in the Bible resembles the Durham Proverbs by providing teachings on morals for a society of its time. The "Dicts of Cato" were also influenced by the Durham Proverbs, which in turn, influenced Christianity.[9] The first of the Durham Proverbs can even be seen in the Dict of Cato 23.[10]


The Durham Proverbs comprise a mixture of true proverbs and maxims, and are clearer in this regard, according to linguist and Anglo-Saxon anthropologist Nigel Barley (Barley 1972), than the collection of Old English poems entitled the Maxims are — the latter's status being comparatively unclear.[11] According to the Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages a maxim is a short statement that (as Laingui puts it) "sets out a general principle", that briefly expounds a liturgical, legal, moral, or political rule as a short mnemonic device.[12] The Durham Proverbs are called proverbs because the collection has what Marsden calls "transferability" to man.[5]

The Durham Proverbs are not as serious as some of the Old English maxims and can even be considered humorous in some areas. The proverbs are similar to fables or parables seen in Modern English. Each proverb has a lesson to teach, as do the fables and parables. It is important to note the proverbs' resemblance to Old English poetry. Using alliteration and rhythm, the proverbs show some of the earliest uses of words and phrases, such as "cwæþ se (þe)" which translates to "quoth he who", and is later seen in more Middle English sources.[13] In addition to their importance of gaining knowledge of the Old English history, the proverbs include many words that are not seen anywhere else in Old English writings. Arngart suggests that the study of the proverbs "furnishes insights into contemporary folklore and social life".[14]

The proverbs themselves

The proverbs have their roots in gnomic poetry, and show a relationship in some places to the Disticha Catonis and other works of the surviving Anglo-Saxon corpus. The Old English versions are sometimes (but not always) alliterative, or in verse form, and employ the same formulae with "sceal" and "byþ" as other works do. However, they have a distinctive flavour of their own, one outstanding characteristic of which is the humorous expression that they embody (as in number 11, for example) — a quality that is lacking in the gnomes.[15][16] A yet more distinctive feature is how often the proverbs echo the verse of other works, such as the echo of The Wanderer in number 23.[16]

Below are the first 25 Durham Proverbs:

Geþyld byð middes ēades.
Frēond dēah feor ge nēah: byð near nyttra.
Æt þearfe mann sceal freonda cunnian.
Nafað ǣnigmann frēonda tō feala.
Beforan his frēonde biddeþ, sē þe his wǣdel mǣneþ.
Gōd gēr byþ þonne se hund þām hrefne gyfeð.
"It is a good year when the hound gives to the raven."
Oft on sōtigum bylige searowa licgað.
Hwīlum æfter medo menn mǣst geþyrsteð.
Æfter leofan menn langað swīðost.
Nū hit ys on swīnes dōme, cwæð se ceorl sæt on eoferes hricge.
Ne swā þēah trēowde þēah þū teala ēode, cwæþ sē þe geseah hægtessan æfter hēafde geongan.
"Nonetheless, I would not trust you though you walked well.", said he who saw a witch passing along on her head.[16][17]
Eall on mūðe þæt on mōde.
Gemǣne sceal māga feoh.
Man dēþ swā hē byþ þonne hē mōt swā hē wile.
Ne saga sagan, cwæð sē gesēah hwer fulne hēalena sēoþan.
Marsden suggests there is a word that has been omitted here, and thus there is an unclear translation that could hold various meanings. When Marsden attempted to compare this to the Latin version, it was quite different. Marsden says, "So far, we must accept defeat on this one".[18]
Eaðe wīs man mæg witan spell and ēac secgan.
Blind byþ bām ēagum, sē þe brēostum ne starat.
Ðā ne sacað þe ætsamne ne bēoð.
Ne dēah eall sōþ āsǣd ne eall sār ætwiten.
It does no good (for) all truth (to be) told nor all wrong imputed.[19]
For subsequent variations on this same proverb, from Chaucer to Horman's Vulgaria, see Whiting & Whiting 1968, pp. 533.[19]
Gyf þū well sprece, wyrc æfter swā.
Earh mæg þæt an þæt he him ondræde.
A coward can do only one thing: fear.[20][18]
"earh" means coward here and is glossed as such in contemporary works ("timidorum militum" in Aldhelm's De Virginitate being translated as "eargra cempana"), although the more general meaning of the word in O.E. was "sloth" or "sluggard".[21]
Nē sceal man tō ǣr forht nē tō ǣr fægen.
One should be neither too soon fearful nor too soon glad.[16]
The proverb has echoes of The Wanderer ("nē tō forht nē tō fægen", 150).[16][22] The twain have been variously translated. T. A. Shippey, who writes the O.E. of the Proverbs as "ǣrforht" and "ǣrfægen", explains "glad-too-soon" as meaning optimistic. The Latin version of the proverb, it should be noted, is "nec ilico arrigens", which translates as "nor quick to rouse" rather than the "glad" or "happy" usually ascribed to the O.E. form.[22] (For further exploration of the Latin by Arngart see Arngart 1983.[23])
Hwon gelpeð se þe wide siþað.
A little boasts he who travels widely.[24]
This proverb echoes sentiments expressed in Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða, namely that travel abroad, where one is treated as an adult, spurs young men to self-confidence, thinking themselves "greater than chiefs" upon their return home.[25]


  1. ^ a b Milfull 1996, pp. 34.
  2. ^ Hollis & Wright 1992, pp. 34.
  3. ^ Springer 1995, pp. 129.
  4. ^ Hollis & Wright 1992, pp. 35.
  5. ^ a b Marsden 2004, pp. 302–303.
  6. ^ a b Marsden 2004, pp. 302.
  7. ^ a b Arngart 1981, pp. 288.
  8. ^ Arngart 1981, pp. 289–290.
  9. ^ Treharne 2003, pp. 470–471.
  10. ^ Treharne 2003, pp. 468.
  11. ^ Poole 1998, pp. 207.
  12. ^ Laingui 1997, pp. 929.
  13. ^ Arngart 1981, pp. 289.
  14. ^ Arngart 1981, pp. 290.
  15. ^ Greenfield, Calder & Lapidge 1996, pp. 100.
  16. ^ a b c d e Fulk, Cain & Anderson 2003, pp. 167.
  17. ^ Arngart 1981, pp. 296.
  18. ^ a b Marsden 2004, pp. 306.
  19. ^ a b Robinson 1982, pp. 4,262.
  20. ^ Arngart 1981, pp. 293.
  21. ^ Abels 2006, pp. 34–35.
  22. ^ a b Gwara 2008, pp. 94.
  23. ^ Hollis & Wright 1992, pp. 47.
  24. ^ Sánchez-Martí 2008, pp. 218.
  25. ^ Sánchez-Martí 2008, pp. 217.


  • Abels, Richard (2006). ""Cowardice" and Duty in Anglo-Saxon England". In Clifford J. Rogers; Kelly DeVries; John France (eds.). The journal of medieval military history. 4. Boydell Press. ISBN 978-1-84383-267-6.
  • Arngart, Olof Sigfrid (April 1981). "The Durham Proverbs". Speculum. 56 (2): 288–300. doi:10.2307/2846936. JSTOR 2846936.
  • Fulk, Robert Dennis; Cain, Christopher M.; Anderson, Rachel S. (2003). "Wisdom Literature and Lyric Poetry". A history of Old English literature. Blackwell histories of literature. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-22397-9.
  • Gwara, Scott (2008). Heroic identity in the world of Beowulf. Medieval and Renaissance authors and texts. 2. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-17170-1.
  • Greenfield, Stanley B.; Calder, Daniel Gillmore; Lapidge, Michael (1996). "Ælfric, Wulfstan, and other Late prose". A New Critical History of Old English Literature. NYU Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-3088-1.
  • Hollis, Stephanie; Wright, Michael (1992). "Durham and other Proverbs". Old English prose of secular learning. Annotated bibliographies of Old and Middle English literature. 4. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. ISBN 978-0-85991-343-0.
  • Laingui, André (1997). "Maxim". In Andre Vauchez (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. ISBN 978-1-57958-282-1.
  • Marsden, Richard (2004). "The Durham Proverbs". The Cambridge Old English Reader. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-45612-8.
  • Milfull, Inge B. (1996). The hymns of the Anglo-Saxon church: a study and edition of the Durham Hymnal. Cambridge studies in Anglo-Saxon England. 17. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-46252-5.
  • Poole, Russell Gilbert (1998). Old English wisdom poetry. Annotated bibliographies of Old and Middle English literature. 5. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. ISBN 978-0-85991-530-4.
  • Robinson, Fred C. (1982). "Understanding an Old English Wisdom Verse: Maxims II, Lines 10ff". In Benson, Larry Dean; Wenzel, Siegfried (eds.). The Wisdom of poetry: essays in early English literature in honor of Morton W. Bloomfield. Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University. ISBN 978-0-918720-15-3.
  • Sánchez-Martí, Jordi (2008). "Age Matters in Old English Literature". In Shannon Lewis-Simpson (ed.). Youth and age in the medieval north. The Northern World. 42. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-17073-5.
  • Springer, Carl P. E. (1995). "Manuscripts containing fragments, hymns, et al.". The manuscripts of Sedulius: a provisional handlist. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. 85. American Philosophical Society. ISBN 978-0-87169-855-1.
  • Treharne, Elaine M. (October 2003). "The Form and Function of the Twelfth-Century Old English Dicts of Cato". Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 102 (4): 465–485. JSTOR 27712374.

Further reading

Original manuscript and modern republications

  • Durham Cathedral ms B iii. 32 LUA 52; http://www.digipal.eu/digipal/page/1026/
  • Olof Sigfrid Arngart, ed. (1956). The Durham Proverbs: An Eleventh Century Collection of Anglo-Saxon Proverbs. Lunds Universitets årsskrift, N.F., Avd.1, Lunds Universitet. 52. Lund: Gleerup.

Scholarly analyses

  • Arngart, Olof Sigfrid (1956). "A Note on the Durham Proverbs". English Studies. 37: 259.
  • Arngart, Olof Sigfrid (1977). "Further Notes on the Durham Proverbs". English Studies. 58 (2): 101–104. doi:10.1080/00138387708597813.
  • Arngart, Olof Sigfrid (1982). "Durham Proverb 23, and Other Notes on Durham Proverbs". Notes and Queries. 29: 199–201. doi:10.1093/nq/29-3-199.
  • Arngart, Olof Sigfrid (1983). "Durham Proverbs 17, 30, and 42". Notes and Queries. 30: 291–292. doi:10.1093/nq/30-4-291.
  • Cavill, Paul (1999). Maxims in Old English poetry. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 978-0-85991-541-0.
  • Hill, Thomas (2001). ""When the Leader Is Brave..."; An Old English Proverb and Its Vernacular Context". Anglia. 119 (2): 232–236. doi:10.1515/ANGL.2001.232.
  • Papahagi, Adrian (March 2005). "Another Source for the Old English Dict of Cato 73". Notes and Queries. 52 (1): 8–10. doi:10.1093/notesj/gji104.
  • Shippey, T. A. (1994). "Miscomprehension and Re-Interpretation in Old and Early Middle English Proverb Collections". ScriptOralia. 58: 293–311.
    • also published as: Shippey, T. A. (1994). "Miscomprehension and Re-Interpretation in Old and Early Middle English Proverb Collections". In Tristram, Hildegard L.C. (ed.). Text und Zeittiefe. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag. pp. 293–311. ISBN 978-3-8233-4273-1.
  • Shippey, T. A. (1989). The Distichs of Cato and the Durham Proverbs — a Comparison. Fourth conference of the International Society of Anglo-Saxons, Durham, 7–11 August 1989. Anglo-Saxon England. 19. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/S0263675100001551.
  • Shippey, T. A. (2000). ""Grim Wordplay": Folly and Wisdom in Anglo-Saxon Humour". In Jonathan Wilcox (ed.). Humour in Anglo-Saxon literature. Boydell & Brewer. pp. 41 et seq. ISBN 978-0-85991-576-2.
  • Steiner, Arpad (1944). "The Vernacular Proverb in Mediaeval Latin Prose". The American Journal of Philology. 65 (1): 37–68. doi:10.2307/291140. JSTOR 291140.
  • Barley, Nigel (1972). "A Structural Approach to the Proverb and Maxim with Special Reference to the Anglo-Saxon Corpus". Proverbium. 20: 737–750.
  • Whiting, Bartlett Jere; Whiting, Helen Wescott (1968). Proverbs, sentences, and proverbial phrases: from English writings mainly before 1500. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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