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20 English Proverbs that originated in the Middle Ages


We are all familiar with proverbs – simple sayings that are meant to provide a little wisdom. You can find them in every language, with some going back to ancient times, while others were coined only a few years ago. Medieval people had many proverbs and sayings, some of which have survived and still popular today.

The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs has over a thousand sayings in its list, and traces many of them back to the Middle Ages. Here is our 20 favourite English proverbs that have medieval origins.

After a storm comes a calm – this dates back to the Ancrene Riwle from the mid-13th century: ‘Blessed are you Lord, who makes a calm after the storm’.

When the cat’s away, the mice will play – an early 14th century line is ‘where there is no cat the rat is king,’ while another line found in a manuscript from c.1470 says ‘The mows lordchypythe ther a cat ys nawt.’

Clothes make the man – ‘Euer maner and clothyng makyth man’ is a line that dates back to c.1400

The voice of the people is the voice of God – this line can be traced back to Alcuin in the 8th century, who wrote: ‘They often say: the voice of the people is the voice of God.’

Ask a silly question and you get a silly answer – an English Legendary from c.1300 includes this phrase: ‘Ffor-sothe thou axest as a fol, and swich ansuere me schul the yive.’ Later on, in William Caxton’s version of Aesop in 1484, is the line: ‘And thus they wente without ony sentence For to a folysshe demaunde behoueth a folysshe ansuere.’

It is better to give than to receive – The Confessio Amantis by Gower, c. 1390, has this: ‘Better is to yive than to take.’

Let sleeping dogs lie – In his work Troilus & Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer writes: ‘It is nought good a sleypng hound to wake.’

Big fish eat little fish – an early thirteenth century version of Old English Homilies has this line: ‘The more fishes in the se eten the lasse’

Strike while the iron is hot – this line can be found in the 13th century: ‘One must strike the iron while it is hot’.

Look before you leap – a version of this line dates back to mid-14th century: ‘First loke and aftirward lepe.’

Blood is thicker than water – a version of this line is found in the 12th century: ‘I hear it said that kin-blood is not spoiled by water.’

All good things must come to an end – the Partonope of Blois, c.1440 has this line: ‘Ye wote wele of all things moste be an ende.’

Children should be seen and not heard – this dates back to a line from c.1400: ‘Hyt ys an old Englysch sawe: A mayde schuld be seen, but not herd.’

Misery loves company – a 14th-century line is similar: ‘It is a comfort to the wretched to have companions in woes.’

Do as I say, not as I do – an 11th-century text includes this line: ‘Although I do worse than I teach you, do not do as I do, but do as I teach you if I teach you well.’

All roads lead to Rome – in the Middle Ages the saying goes by ‘a thousand roads lead man for ever towards Rome.’ Geoffrey Chaucer’s version is a little different: ‘Right as diverse pathes leden diverse folke the righte way to Rome.’

Every man for himself – Geoffrey Chaucer also has this line from the Knight’s Tale: ‘At the kynges court, my brother, Ech man for himself, there is noon oother.’

All that glitters is not gold – this line can be found in a text from c.1220: ‘ Nis hit nower neh gold al that ter schineth.’

A friend in need is a friend indeed – a proverb from c.1035 say this: ‘Friend shall be known in time of need.’

All’s well that ends well – a line from the mid-13th century is similar: ‘Wel is him te wel ende mai.’ Meanwhile, Henry Knighton’s Chronicle from the late 14th-century one can read: ‘ If the ende be wele, than is alle wele.’

You can read more in the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, edited by Jennifer Speake. Click here to buy it from Amazon.com

See also: Medieval Proverbs from The Well-Laden Ship

See also: Ten Old Norse Proverbs: Wisdom from the Hávamál

See also: Fake Medieval Proverbs (from the Middle Ages) 

Top Image: Cats and mice in British Library MS Royal 12 C XIX   f. 36v

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