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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XVII. Later Transition English

§ 2. The Proverbs of Hendyng

The Proverbs of Hendyng, “Marcolves sone,” are to be found in the MS. that contains the above lyrics and may, therefore, be mentioned here. They appear to have been collected from older material in their present form before the close of the thirteenth century; and they recall the wisdom literature to which reference has already been made in dealing with Old English proverbs and with the poems attributed to Alfred. These proverbs are obvious summaries of the shrewd wisdom of the common folk, which is as old as the hills, and not confined to any one race or country:

  • Tel thou never thy fo that thy fot aketh,
  • Quoth Hendyng…
  • Dere is botht the hony that is licked of the thorne;
  • and they enshrine many phrases that are still common property:
  • Brend child fur dredeth,
  • Quoth Hendyng;
  • but their main interest for us lies in the form of the stanzas which precede the proverb, and which consist of six lines rimed aabaab; here it is evident that the nebulous outlines of earlier attempts have taken shape and form out of the void, and become the ballad stanza; the unrimed shorter lines are now linked by end-rime, and the reciter from memory is aided thereby.

    The literature of the Middle Ages was of a much more “universal,” or cosmopolitan, character than that of later times—it will be remembered that “the book” in which Paolo and Francesca “read that day no more” was the book of Lancelot and not a tale of Rimini—and one of the reasons for this width of range was that letters were in the hands of a few, whose education had been of a “universal,” rather than a national, type. English literature, in the vernacular, had to compete for many a long year not only with Latin, which, even so late as the days of Erasmus, was thought to have a fair chance of becoming the sole language of letters, but also, though in a rapidly lessening degree, with Norman-French, the language of all who pretended to a culture above that of the common folks. And it is to Latin, therefore, that we have often to turn for evidence of the thoughts that were beginning to find expression, not only among monastic chroniclers and historians, but also among social satirists and writers of political verse. At first the amusement of those only who had a knowledge of letters, the writing of Goliardic verses and political satires in Latin, became models for the imitation of minstrels and writers who set themselves to please a wider circle, and who made themselves the mouthpieces of those who felt and suffered but could not express.