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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Greek: Paroemia
Latin: Adagia
French: Proverbes

Authorities: Menestrier, Tesauro

(What is this?)

     Proverbs were specific elements in the art of Rhetoric and in the fourteen part Progymnasmata, the standard group of set exercises employed in the instruction of Rhetoric in which the stories were used as illustrations in the practice of composition.  Like fables, proverbs have had a wide and ancient history. Many countries in the world have a tradition of proverbs and they go back far into the origins of literary history, back at least to the civilizations of Sumeria and Babylonia in the second millenium BC. In the West, the status of the genre is confirmed by the incorporation of the Book of Proverbs in the canon of the Old Testament. Parts of the biblical Proverbs go back as far as 900 BC and are supposedly derived from the Instruction of Amenemope, the work of an Egyptian Pharoah written for his son as a set of moral instructions.  

     Origen recognized the essentially metaphorical or allegorical function of the proverb in his commentary on the Old Testament Song of Songs where he said: ‘the word proverb denotes that one thing is openly said and another is inwardly meant.’  Cato, the Roman author, also writing for his son, compiled the Moral Distichs, brief two line instructions advocating the virtuous life which survived the Middle Ages and became a standard and extremely popular text book in Renaissance and later times. It is also known as the first book of the Latin classics of which a translation was printed in the United States.  

     By the end of the Middle Ages, the use of proverbs in literature had reached bizarre heights; there were poems which consisted entirely of proverbs (see Huizinga 274); in some cases the proverbs were composed by the author. The second half of the 15th century saw the development of a new genre: books of illustrated proverbs. At least thirty of these have survived and some specialize in a single subject. Other collections included the Motz Dorez by Pierre Grosnet, the compiler and in some cases author of these riddles, ballads, distichs and proverbs many of them bawdy or lighthearted and including some of the first poems printed in vernacular French. The book went through some fifteen editions.

     There is no doubt that the greatest of the collections of proverbs from the time was the Adages of Erasmus, first published in 1500. In this first edition of the Adages, there were 818 proverbs which were unnumbered but in subsequent editions, for instance in the second of 1508 published by Aldus, they were divided into 100’s or centons and 1,000’s or chiliades. This famous book went through twenty-seven editions in Erasmus lifetime and the final edition had 4,251 proverbs and included many of those known today in the West. Each proverb had at least a short commentary, and many had whole essays, discussing their origin and their relevance to contemporary life.

     The first English collection of proverbs was by John Heywood in 1546 and this contained many examples we would recognize today. The story goes that when Heywood presented his collection to Queen Elizabeth, he boasted that it contained all the proverbs then known in English but she immediately, to his great discomfort, quoted one which was not in his book. There was even an anonymous Scottish collection published in 1622 in Aberdeen copied from Erasmus called Adagia in Latine and English contayning five hundreth proverbes. Finally, we can mention the German emblem book, Dreistandige Sinnbilder, Triple Emblems by Franz Knesebeck published in 1643 which was written in conjunction with the language theorist Schotellius to promote the latter’s theory about the ancient origin of proverbs and their importance as an indication of the natural relationship of words to the things they signified.

See also: Apophthegmata