Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Animal Proverbs

I found Douglas Gray’s observation that “proverbial cats are more numerous and distinctly more interesting than bestiary cats” (195) to be a novel way of looking at animals in culture that had, up to now, not occurred to me. I happen to have a wonderful handbook of proverbs entitled “Ray’s Proverbs,” originally published in the first half of the 18th century and subsequently expanded and catalogued in the 19th. I decided to do a little test and see what  would come up under the heading of a few animals. The first entry I tried was “cat”:
  1. A mewing cat is no good mouser. (Port., Gato meador nunca bom murador)
  2. You can have no more of a cat than her skin.
  3. The cat loves fish, but she’s loth to wet her feet.
  4. The more you rub a cat on the rump, the higher she sets up her tail.
  5. Though the cat winks a while, yet sure she is not blind.
  6. How can the cat help it, if the maid be a fool? (Ital., Che ne può la gatta, se la massara è matta) – refers to not putting valuable things in a secure place where the cat can’t destroy them
  7. When the cat is away, the mice will play.
  8. When candles are out, all cats are grey. – refers to infidelity
  9. The cat knows whose lips she licks.
  10. Cry you mercy, kill’d my cat – “This is spoken to them who do one a shrewd turn, then make satisfaction with asking pardon or crying mercy”
  11. I’ll keep no more cats than will catch mice. – refers to not keeping anyone in the household who will not do their share of work
  12. Who shall hang the bell about the cat’s neck? – refers to a fable in which the mice gather to decide how to deal with the problem of the cat; they agree that to put a bell around its neck would be the best way to incapacitate the cat’s stealthy attack, but then the question comes, who will dare to put the bell on the cat?
Many of the characterizations of the cat that we found in Gray’s and other readings hold true in this sample. I find particularly interesting the “cat’s rump” proverb (#4), which describes, of course, a natural tendency in cats, but if one reads the cat as a stand-in for the devil, it takes on a whole moral dimension that was initially lost to me. Cats are inherently valueless creatures who are only useful as cheap furs or mousers (#1, #2, and #11); cats are dangerous observers, constantly watching you and scheming how to get what they want (#5 and #9); cats, in general, tend towards laziness and self-indulgence (#3, #6, and #8). Interestingly, there are a number of proverbs that seem to sympathize with the mouse, rather than the cat, once again casting the latter in a faintly oppressive or demonic light (#12). While the cat is generally a negative creature in these proverbs, it is interesting there are so many, compared to other creatures who receive much fuller treatment in the bestiaries and encyclopedias. Let us look at the lion, for example:
  1. If the lion’s skin cannot, the fox’s shall. – that which cannot be done by force may be done by stealth
  2. The lion’s not half so fierce as he’s painted.
That’s it. Two. And interestingly, both proverbs question the traditional assumption of the lion being the noblest and bravest of beasts, whereas the cat’s image is rather bolstered by her proverbs. Many other important bestiary species, such as the dove, the eagle, the leopard, the goat, the owl, and the elephant make little or no appearance in the book. It is either common, everyday animals of medieval life that seem to pick up the most “personality,” such as the dog, the horse, the crow, the fox, the ass, the cock, the cow, etc. Many of the livestock phrases seem like husbandry lore passed down in mnemonic devices: May come she early or come she late, she’ll make the cow to quake; A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay, But a swarm in July is not worth a fly; When the cuckoo comes to the bare thorn, sell your cow, and buy you corn. Household animals (either physically like cats, dogs, and horses, or in cultural memory like foxes and bears) have the longest lists of proverbs. Let us look at foxes:
  1. The fox preys farthest from his hole. – Thieves steal far from home, to avoid suspicion
  2. The fox never fares better than when he is bann’d.
  3. When the fox preaches, beware of your geese.
  4. Fire, quoth the fox, when he pissed on the ice. – “This is spoken in derision to those which have great expectation from some fond design or undertaking which is not likely to succeed”
  5. The fox knows much, but more he that catcheth him.
  6. Every fox must pay his own skin to the flayer.
  7. A fox should not be of the jury at a goose trial.
In all these examples, the fox seems to be a pretty close stand-in for a thief, knave, or swindler. Most of the phrases have to do with the need for vigilance against such characters, and the reassurance that sooner or later, their deeds will catch up with them. As for the horse:
  1. ‘Tis a good hose that never stumbles, and a good wife that never grumbles.
  2. A good horse often wants a good spur.
  3. ‘Tis an ill horse will not carry his own provender.
  4. Let a horse drink when he will, not what he will.
  5. The best horse needs breaking, and the aptest child needs teaching.
  6. A galled horse will not endure the comb.
  7. You may know the horse by his harness.
  8. A short horse is soon wisp’d, and a bare ass soon kiss’d.
  9. The horse that draws his halter is not quite escaped.
  10. A running horse is an open sepulchre.
Unlike the fox, the horse proverbs all target the role of good management and rearing, even likening the process to selecting a wife and raising one’s children (this is not uncommon; I remember a Persian manual for kings that has chapters on how to choose a horse, how to choose a wife, and how to buy a slave in subsequent chapters). The horse has no personality, nor does he stand in for a human archetype. He is simply the bearer of a duty, a servant among the servants who can either be well-disciplined and beneficial, or spoiled and unruly. Finally, I’ll look at dogs:
  1. Every dog hath his day, and every man his hour.
  2. The hindmost dog may catch the hare.
  3. He that would hang his dog, give out first that he is mad. – “He that is about to do any thing disingenuous, first bethinks himself of some plausible pretence”
  4. He that keeps another man’s dog, shall have nothing left him but the line. – i.e., he  who bestows a gift upon an ungrateful person loses its cost.
  5. What! keep a dog, and bark myself? – i.e., I have servants, and I must do my own work?
  6. There are more ways to kill a dog than hanging.
  7. Dogs bark before they bite.
  8. ‘Tis an ill dog that deserves not a crust.
  9. A good dog deserves a good bone.
  10. He that lies down with dogs, must rise up with fleas.
  11. Hungry dogs will eat dirty puddings.
The dogs seem somewhere between foxes and horses. They have a lowly, abject, servile personality, yet their loyalty is remarked upon (#4). There is clearly an understood difference of class between the speaker and the dog, and many of the proverbs reflect on dogs as necessary servants (#5, #6, #7, #8, #9). However, dogs can be stand-ins for people in some proverbs, such as #1, #2, and #11, which suggest a glimmer of potential or hope for even the most lowly of creatures. It is finally interesting to see how many proverbs refer to hanging (#3, #6, and there were others, but I didn’t list them because they were redundant)—this is the only animal we’ve seen so far in the world of proverbs that seem to be worthy of being rewarded or punished, thus, perhaps more potentially understood as possessing good and negative character traits.

Proverbs, as we can see, are a rich resource for thinking about animals as types, symbols, and stand-ins, because it is clear that they figure in a very different way in the public imagination than they do in something like a bestiary. Given that bestiaries were often religious, moralizing works that were more concerned with understanding and teaching truth, proverbs, fables, and fairy-tales may indeed suggest a different world of animal personalities and representations that is perhaps closer to the “popular” imagination of the time than works of philosophy and metaphysics.


Bohn, Henry G. (Henry George), 1796-1884. A handbook of proverbs : comprising an entire republication of Ray's collection of English proverbs, with his additions from foreign languages : and a complete alphabetical index : in which are introduced large additions, as well of proverbs as of sayings, sentences, maxims, and phrases, collected by Henry G. Bohn. London : H. G. Bohn, 1857.

Gray, Douglas. "Notes on Some Medieval Mystical, Magical and Moral Cats." In Langland, the mystics, and the medieval English religious tradition : essays in honour of S.S. Hussey, ed., Helen Phillips. Cambridge : D.S. Brewer ; Rochester, NY, USA : Boydell & Brewer, 1990.


  1. Very interesting analysis! Yes, I had not thought to look at proverbs before reading Gray's article. You do a very nice job of teasing out the assumptions behind the various animal types. It is interesting how proverbs are at once a form of wisdom (as in the Bible) and yet so easily dismissed as insubstantial. I suppose it is because proverbs typically require a fair degree of unpacking before they make sense, despite the fact that when one knows a proverb, it seems so obvious what it means. For example, I have always assumed that "All cats are grey in the dark" referred to the beauty (or lack thereof) of one's sexual partners (particularly women): it doesn't matter what a woman looks like in the dark. But I suppose I could see how it refers to infidelity instead. I also find it interesting how few of these proverbs I had ever heard. Are we now lacking in proverbial wisdom or have we simply replaced the old proverbs with new? It would be interesting if we were able to trace the relative presence or absence of animals in daily life by way of the currency of the various proverbs: once they no longer make sense, does that suggest that their context is no longer available?


  2. I, too, had hardly heard of any of these proverbs. One of the developments of modern American English as spoken by my generation that really bothers me is that poetry and proverbs are pretty much absent from our lexicons, which seems to me a huge deficiency in our range of expression and eloquence. It is especially striking when looking through these old books at the HUGE variety of proverbs that used to distinguish even one English dialect from another. The "cats in the dark" proverb was among those I had never heard, and I simply added (infidelity) afterwards because that was what the book told me it was about.

    I agree, tracing the rise and fall of comprehensible proverbs would be a good way to track how people understand animals. I know that in other languages, many proverbs exist that require a certain background in farming or animal husbandry to make sense, and these in particular have largely fallen by the wayside. Cats, of course, are just as visible in our urbanized lives as they were for our ancestors a few generations back, and while they may exist in or around the home in a very different capacity than they did back then, there is still a common ground based on the observation of "what cats are like" that would render cat proverbs perhaps more intelligible to a modern speaker than those that deal with oxen; or if they were incomprehensible, it would indicate a change in what cats stand for or symbolize, rather than their visibility or absence from modern life.