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The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers: Introduction


1 Several early recension manuscripts of the Confessio include a marginal note between lines *34 and *35 on Gower's method of compiling his text that includes poetarum philosophorumque dictis, or "sayings of poets and philosophers," as one of his primary sources. Since no Middle English translation is known to exist this early, the reference must surely refer to the Latin predecessor of Dicts and Sayings, Liber Philosophorum Moralium Antiquorum. See Confessio Amantis, ed. Peck, vol. 1, p. 287.

2 For an excellent study of how the tradition of wisdom literature influenced Chaucer's writing, see Whiting, Chaucer's Use of Proverbs.

3 As Bühler notes, this presupposes that the controversial Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum, dated 17 December 1468, is in fact a misprint, most likely for 1478 (Dicts and Sayings, ed. Bühler, p. ix).

4 There are many variations to this basic design, from the advice of a ruler to his subjects to the advice of parent to his or her child. This kind of arrangement is meant to underscore the speaker's superior intellectual (or moral) position, thereby enhancing the perceived veracity of the speaker's statements.

5 Louis, "Proverbs, Precepts, and Monitory Pieces," p. 2977.

6 Louis, "Proverbs and the Politics," p. 183.

7 Louis, "Proverbs and the Politics," p. 178.

8 Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases, p. xi.

9 Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases, p. xiv.

10 For uses of the Distichs in English, see Brunner. She notes, among other things, that the Distichs were a major source for the twelfth–century poem The Proverbs of Alfred; that Caxton published no fewer than four editions of the Distichs during his printing career; and that Benjamin Franklin produced a translation and printed edition, and used the Distichs as a source for Poor Richard's Almanac.

11 Louis, "Proverbs, Precepts, and Monitory Pieces," p. 2973.

12 Louis, "Concept," p. 179. Louis also notes, however, that while the Church may have appropriated the folk proverb in its development of sentential literature, it never truly succeeded in supplanting the proverb: "What we may see . . . is an attempt by the church to take possession of a powerful linguistic instrument in an attempt to maintain its control over the minds of the people. The fact that the folk proverb seems to have managed a continuous line of survival from the beginning of the Middle Ages to the present day suggests that the religious establishment failed quite miserably" (p. 183).

13 Sidrak and Bokkus, ed. Burton, p. xxi.

14 Sidrak and Bokkus, ed. Burton, p. xxxviii.

15 A good introduction to the genre of Old English wisdom literature can be found in Shippey's Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English, which also provides edited Old English texts and translations.

16 Hansen, Solomon Complex, p. 33.

17 Cavill, Maxims in Old English Poetry, p. 185.

18 Louis, "Authority," p. 101.

19 Louis, "Authority," p. 115.

20 For a discussion of the kinds of sources that would have been available to medieval Muslim writers on the subject of philosophy, see Alon, Socrates in Mediaeval Arabic Literature, pp. 12-22.

21 Marmura, "Medieval Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition," p. 21.

22 Marmura, "Medieval Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition," pp. 22-23.

23 Druart, "Philosophy in Islam," p. 100.

24 Druart, "Philosophy in Islam," p. 97.

25 Scrope, Dicts and Sayings, ed. Schofield, pp. 24-25.

26 Scrope, Dicts and Sayings, ed. Schofield, p. 25.

27 Dicts and Sayings, ed. Bühler, p. x.

28 Dicts and Sayings, ed. Bühler, p. xi.

29 Dicts and Sayings, ed. Bühler, p. xviii.

30 Shillinglaw, Review of Dicts and Sayings (ed. Bühler), p. 185.

31 Scrope, Dicts and Sayings, ed. Schofield, p. 30.

32 Scrope, Dicts and Sayings, ed. Schofield, p. 32.

33 Dicts and Sayings, ed. Bühler, p. xlvii.

34 This manuscript is known by many names. I refer to it as the Helmingham Hall Manuscript, but it is also known informally as Lord Tollemache's Manuscript, and as Pierpont Morgan Library Manuscript G.66 — the official designation of its current owner.

35 Shillinglaw, Review of Dicts and Sayings (ed. Bühler), p. 186.

36 Shillinglaw, Review of Dicts and Sayings (ed. Bühler), p. 187.

37 Louis, "Proverbs, Precepts, and Monitory Pieces," p. 2978.

38 Bunt, Alexander the Great, p. 36.

39 Burley, sometimes spelled "Burleigh," is also known by the Latin form of his name, Gualterus Burleaus.

40 Bühler, "Greek Philosophers," p. 443.

41 Bühler, "Greek Philosophers," p. 448.

42 Bühler, "Greek Philosophers," p. 454.

43 For one example of how this text did influence English literature, see Bühler, "Survival from the Middle Ages." Bühler argues that the Dictes [sic] and Sayings of the Philosophers, the version translated by Anthony Woodville (Earl Rivers), was a major source for William Baldwin's A Treatise on Morall Phylosophie, a compendium of philosophical quotations that appeared in twenty–three editions between 1547 and 1651 (pp. 76-77).

44 Dicts and Sayings, ed. Bühler, p. xxxviii. See pp. xxviii-xxix for a complete physical description.

45 Dicts and Sayings, ed. Bühler, p. lxii.

The tastes of modern readers have to some degree skewed our understanding of the literary likes and dislikes of people in the Middle Ages. This tendency is perhaps best exhibited by the genre of wisdom literature, a general designation for texts that claim to compile important information (proverbs, precepts, etc.) for the moral and practical edification of their audience. Many modern readers find this sort of material monotonous and pedantic, for it often entails long lists of adages and instructions presented in no apparent order, with little or no narrative context. While the twenty–first–century reader can relate to a variety of medieval genres — such as the romance, the sermon, the chronicle, and so forth — he or she is likely to be put off by the very nature of wisdom literature; repetitive and unsystematic, it is at odds with our modern penchant for logical organization, categorization, suspense, and patterned discovery.

In the Middle Ages, however, wisdom literature was highly esteemed, and not just by members of the Church, who saw the usefulness of this material for didactic purposes. The laity too was drawn to wisdom literature, as evinced by the prominent placement of these texts in medieval manuscripts; Cameron Louis, in an article entitled "Manuscript Contexts of Middle English Proverb Literature, " argues that wisdom literature, or "proverb literature" as he calls it, was
seen very much as part of the canon of respected mainstream literature which was read by aristocrats and wealthy members of the middle class. The proverbial material, even when it consists of very short texts, does not appear in these anthologies as random jottings or space fillers or pen–trials, but rather as texts that are as respectfully recorded as other genres of writings, like romances and religious narratives. (p. 223)
In fact, wisdom literature was popular enough to influence a host of later medieval works, including John Gower's masterpiece, Confessio Amantis,1 and Chaucer's Tale of Melibee. 2 While the impact of the wisdom tradition was not limited to great poets and their audiences of the elite — oral folk culture abounded with mnemonic lists and proverbial anecdotes — the primary consumers of this information were the middle class and aristocracy, and the texts clearly were written with these social classes in mind.

At the forefront of the medieval wisdom tradition was The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers, a long prose text that purports to be a compendium of lore collected from biblical, classical, and legendary philosophers and sages. Dicts and Sayings was a well–known work that traveled across many lands and was translated into many languages. It became popular in England in the fifteenth century, and cemented its place in English literary history on 18 November 1477, when William Caxton printed an edition of Dicts and Sayings that was perhaps the first book ever printed in England.3

Dicts and Sayings is characteristic of medieval wisdom literature in form and content. Like many such works that have any kind of narrative structure, Dicts and Sayings is presented as a series of truisms handed down from a wise speaker to a receptive audience.4 The text introduces its audience to a long series of eminent wise men, with each philosopher's words of wisdom being preceded by a biographical story that ranges from a few words to several manuscript pages. The prefatory biographical sketches tend to become more elaborate as the work progresses, and many of these narratives could easily stand alone as individual tales. These biographies are culled from well–known medieval traditions and legends about the sages, but the actual sayings of the philosophers are designated almost completely arbitrarily.5 Their words of advice make up a consistent brand of wisdom that today we would call "proverbial."

Proverbs and Sentences

Exactly what, however, is a proverb? Why do proverbs play so large a role in folk culture and its interface with literate culture? Archer Taylor, one of the twentieth century's leading parmeniologists (proverb scholars) opens his seminal study The Proverb with this dispiriting admission: "The definition of a proverb is too difficult to repay the undertaking" (p. 3). Proverbs are indeed nebulous phrases that resist easy categorization, but it will be useful to put forth some working definitions. First and most obviously, the proverb is a brief, pithy statement of common sense wisdom that remains more or less fixed in its wording over long periods of time. The proverb is also associated with popular speech rather than learned discourse. In Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases from English Writings Mainly before 1500, Bartlett Jere Whiting defines the proverb as "an expression which owes its birth to the people and testifies to its origin in form and phrase" (p. xiv). Therefore the proverb, at least initially, is oral and popular — although, needless to say, all the historical examples cited by Whiting were collected from textual sources.

Despite its roots among the common people, the proverb can be used as a means of social control. This occurs when a person invokes a proverb to convince someone else to accept his or her position. Since the speaker's words are meant to produce a specific effect in the listener, those words can be said to possess "illocutionary force," to use the terminology of the pioneering language philosopher J. L. Austin. Cameron Louis argues that the force of the proverb is linked to authority; that is, speaking a proverb is an act performed from a position of superior cultural wisdom, since the speaker is invoking a commonly accepted source of truth. When the proverb is seen as "common sense," it becomes simply a verbal reflex that discourages diverging opinions.6 Used in this way, the proverb can be "a linguistic device that attempts to marshal the norms and history of a society in order to enforce certain norms of behavior. As such, many embody conservative values and perspectives and encourage respect for authority."7

Louis makes an excellent case for the political function of the proverb, but he takes this argument too far by suggesting that the proverb is always, or almost always, an instrument of social control. What he sees as an authoritarian "verbal reflex" might well be turned around into a liberating "verbal stimulus" that incites people to think critically about the issue at hand. For instance, today the utterance of a proverb like "A woman's place is in the home" might well spark a spirited denunciation of the patriarchal values of earlier generations. The notion of the proverb as a verbal stimulus is perhaps even more appropriate for the Middle Ages, when people so often obtained information in an oral — and, significantly, public — context. One individual reciting a proverb for the purpose of 'proving' the rightness of his position might well have found himself under siege by those with far different opinions on the meaning of that particular verbal formula. What Louis does not adequately consider, then, is the interface between learned and popular culture, and the ensuing potential for multiple (and subversive) interpretations of proverbs by ordinary people.

In contrast to the proverb, Whiting argues, is the "sentence," which has its roots not in oral culture but in writing.8 Moreover, the wisdom of a sentence does not appear in the kind of concrete, unchanging verbal formula in which we find the proverb. Whiting describes a sentential statement as "a piece of wisdom which has not crystallized into specific current form and which anyone feels free to rephrase to suit himself."9 Thus if proverbs are fixed in form and popular in origin while sentences are fluid in form and learned in origin, medieval wisdom literature should be considered "sentential" rather than "proverbial." The "sentence" they offer is the direct, straightforward moral guidance we find in fiction such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or Gower's Confessio, but also in philosophical treatises such as Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. In allegorical and exemplary traditions, distinctions are made between the notions of sentence (wisdom) and solaas (pleasure, entertainment), a convention so commonplace that even the bombastic innkeeper Harry Bailly may be mindful of it as he proposes a tale–telling contest for the pilgrims' journey to Canterbury. He decrees:
And which of yow that bereth hym best of all—
That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas
Tales of best sentence and moost solaas —
Shal have a soper at oure aller cost
Heere in this place, sittynge by this post,
Whan that we come agayn fro Caunterbury. (CT I[A]796-801)
For Harry, the ideal tale is one that blends sentence and solaas, imparting wisdom to the audience while entertaining them at the same time. Harry's own remarks throughout the Tales, while often sententious, are also laced with folksy proverbs, demonstrating another form of interface between learned and popular culture.

It is not difficult to discern the ultimate roots of sentential literature like Dicts and Sayings. The Church is the obvious source for much of the wisdom literature of the Middle Ages, for it had a vested interest in the propagation of moral precepts, specifically those that reinforced orthodox Christian ideology. Biblical passages provided clerical authors with their most prolific source of sentential wisdom; the Old Testament books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs especially were mined for the aphorisms of wisdom they contain. Latin works from the first few centuries of the Common Era also provided material for sentential wisdom, and the most important of these was the Disticha Catonis (The Distichs of Cato), a third–century compilation of wise sayings attributed (spuriously, as is the custom for medieval wisdom literature) to the Roman moralist Cato the Censor. Despite its harsh, world–weary outlook, The Distichs of Cato was a very popular work throughout the Middle Ages, and was translated into a number of languages, including Old and Middle English.10 These later vernacular translations also Christianized the content to some degree, incorporating advice that applied to Christian virtues, such as patience.11 The Distichs achieved its popularity chiefly as a result of its widespread use in the schools, where it served the dual function of providing a basic Latin text for translation and study as well as a manual of advice for the moral betterment of its readers. Even Chaucer's Miller is mindful of it as he scolds John the Carpenter in The Miller's Tale because "He knew nat Catoun, for his wit was rude, / That bad man sholde wedde his simylitude" (CT I[A]3227-28).

Such precepts and maxims provided medieval wisdom literature with its proverb–like quality. Indeed, it easy to see why sentences are so often mistaken for proverbs, or at least referred to informally as proverbs. Many modern scholars of medieval wisdom literature, in fact, still refer to works like Dicts and Sayings and The Distichs of Cato as collections of proverbs. While writers in the Middle Ages apparently did not think much about these distinctions, differentiating between the two does not amount to splitting hairs: sentential adages and folk proverbs have different characteristics, and also serve different purposes.

The Catholic Church recognized that wisdom could disseminate orally by means of the proverb, but there was no way to control the content of that wisdom. Since the folk–based nature of the proverb could lead to the spread of heterodox beliefs, the Church needed to fix appropriate pieces of wisdom into a more permanent medium. "The goal, of course, was to combat the ambiguous, potentially subversive content of the folk proverb with dogma that was more certainly expressed and more serviceable to its interests."12 The sentences we find collected in medieval wisdom literature, then, exist primarily as tools for instilling and reinforcing officially sanctioned beliefs in readers (or listeners, as these texts were likely read aloud, as well). Sentences exercise this social control in a number of ways. First, the sentence represents words of authority; just as the oral proverb can be used as a means of control, the sentence is likely to be designed for this function. The writer of a sentence puts himself or herself in a position of power over his or her audience, for the audience is expected to accept the validity of the claim or tenet contained in that sentence. To this end, sentential works often are given a basic narrative framework in which the narrator is a parent, a priest, a renowned wise man, or some other person of authority who is cast in a role superior to that of the reader. As was the case for the oral proverb, the wisdom put forth in sentential literature is concise and circumscribed, leaving little room for varying interpretations.

I do not mean to imply, however, that all churchmen were employing sentential wisdom for the purpose of social control. Consider scholasticism, the theological movement that sought to reconcile faith and reason. The heyday of scholasticism was the thirteenth century, when Franciscan and Dominican teachers at the University of Paris and other schools expounded upon the place of rational thought within orthodox Catholic belief. The greatest philosopher of this movement was St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who drew heavily upon Aristotelian logic (Thomas can be said to have "Christianized" Aristotle) and argued that reason is separate from faith, but each fully complements the other. In the intellectual activity of the scholastics — especially in their "questions" that are answered by argument and evidence — we see a rising advocacy for empirical thinking, the very opposite of Louis' conception of sentential wisdom as an authoritarian instrument of control. This move toward empiricism is reflected famously in the writings of Chaucer. His Tale of Melibee and Parson's Tale are both deeply Christian works and replete with sentences, but they in no way attempt to limit interpretive possibilities; on the contrary, these works encourage readers or listeners to engage in the very empirical activity of self–analysis.

Just as in the case of proverbs, then, sentences can be employed for repression or liberation. Likewise, they too can function as a site of interface between learned and popular culture. One sentential work that illustrates this interface particularly well is the Middle English Sidrak and Bokkus, a "verse adaptation of an Old French prose book of knowledge, cast in question–and–answer form, enclosed within a framing adventure story."13 Although the date and authorship of the original are unknown, Sidrak was widely popular from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries. The text consists primarily of a question–and–answer session between the powerful King Bokkus and the wise man Sidrak — identified with the biblical Shadrach, who refused to worship a golden idol erected by Nebuchadnezzar (see Daniel 3). Bokkus asks and Sidrak answers, and the topics range from theology to politics to science. Sidrak and Bokkus, may be didactic and catechistic, and Bokkus never questions the wise man's answers, but the point of the text is clearly to entertain. Sidrak appropriates a format common to learned sentential texts (a wise speaker handing down wisdom to a receptive learner) to provide a popular audience with entertaining factoids. The drive for social control that Louis sees in sentential wisdom is entirely absent in this work that editor T. L. Burton refers to aptly as "infotainment."14

Wisdom Literature in Medieval England

There is a long tradition of wisdom literature in medieval England, beginning with some of the earliest works in the English language. Wisdom literature was very popular in England before the Norman Conquest, as suggested by the sheer number of extant Old English works that fall into this diverse category. The mysterious Rune Poem, for instance, presents a catalogue of Christianized proverbial statements organized around the Anglo–Saxon runic characters. Most examples of wisdom literature in Old English, however, are contained in a single manuscript, the renowned Exeter Book (c. 975), a huge compendium of all kinds of Old English poetry, including works by the poet Cynewulf, heroic poems like Deor and Widsith, elegies such as The Wanderer and The Seafarer, two large sets of riddles, and religious works like Phoenix and the two poems about St. Guthlac. The Exeter Book's collection of wisdom literature includes the following: the Maxims, lists of pithy, gnomic statements about the nature of the world; Gifts of Men, a description of the various abilities and aptitudes that God has given to humans; Fortunes of Men, similar to Gifts in that it lists the talents people can have, but it also catalogues the many ways that people can die according to the fate that God has ordained; and Vainglory, in which the narrator contrasts the evils of pride and the virtues of humility.15 The kind of wisdom these works tend to impart, as Elaine Tuttle Hansen has argued, centers on the moral theme of the "distinction between the righteous and the wicked. Most sayings define the practical ways that wisdom is found and the rewards of righteousness achieved."16

The Old English wisdom tradition was not limited to specifically sentential poems. Sentences crop up in a variety of other works, including some of the best–known Anglo–Saxon poems. In The Battle of Maldon, for instance, Paul Cavill notes that the use of maxims helps motivate the doomed East Anglian warriors and the poem's audience alike.17 Sentential wisdom is also crucial to Beowulf, as Susan E. Deskis argues in Beowulf and the Medieval Proverb Tradition. Deskis examines the sentential sources and analogues of Beowulf, such as The Distichs of Cato, and demonstrates that the poem reflects an attitude toward this wisdom that "may be described in brief as a respect for and appreciation of the uses of traditional wisdom" (p. 140).

The popularity of wisdom literature continued throughout the Middle English period, as well. Many texts take the loose narrative framework of a parent speaking to his or her child; among the better known are How the Wise Man Taught His Son and How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter, stanzaic rhyming poems that convey both moral and practical advice. Louis notes that these poems often overlap with medieval courtesy books, particularly concerning matters of practical information.18 Other texts, like The Distichs of Cato — several distinct versions of which exist in Middle English — are attributed to a historical person but are almost never the work of that individual. Perhaps the most famous of these today is the twelfth–century Proverbs of Alfred, a catalog of advice and moral sayings attributed to King Alfred the Great (849-99), but based heavily on the Distichs. Another such text, widespread in its day, is the ABC of Aristotle, which organizes its moral advice around the letter of the alphabet with which each statement begins.

Similar to these works that speciously ascribe authorship to a historical figure are texts that claim to be compilations of the wisdom of several or many historical persons. The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers, the best–known work from this category, features a motley crew of biblical, mythological, classical, and medieval thinkers, each offering more or less the same brand of moral advice. As is the case for many works of sentential literature, the use of these august philosophers as narrators leads one "to suspect that intellectual or religious authority in general is being invoked to bolster the credibility of the sayings—historical accuracy seems not to have been a major concern."19

The Dicts And Sayings Of The Philosophers

For a text with virtually no regard for historical accuracy, Dicts and Sayings itself has a fascinating history, one that spans many lands, languages, and centuries. This text was born into a medieval Islamic world that was increasingly fascinated by the study of philosophy, especially the work of the ancient Greeks; the Arabic word falsafa ("philosophy"), in fact, is a simple transliteration of the Greek philosophia.20 As Michael Marmura argues, "medieval Islamic philosophy, as we know it, was a direct result of the translations of Greek philosophy and science into Arabic. It is rooted in Greek philosophy."21 Plato's writings were known to Muslim thinkers only through Arabic translations of summaries and paraphrases (such as Galen's Synopsis of the Platonic Dialogues), but Aristotle's work, Marmura notes, was widely available.22 Aristotle was held in high esteem by Muslim philosophers, who dubbed him "the first teacher." Greek–based falsafa and Islamic theology had a complex relationship, for, as Thérèse–Anne Druart explains, falsafa was considered foreign to this world "formed at its deepest levels, both politically and culturally, by the Qur'an and the law based on it."23

The relationship between faith and philosophy can best be illustrated by considering three of the most prominent philosophers of the medieval Islamic world. The first was al–Farabi (d. 950), of Baghdad and Aleppo, who reconciled Aristotle with Islam (his close association with Aristotelian teachings earned him the moniker "the second teacher"), but, as a rationalist, he believed that ultimately religion should be subordinate to philosophy. Avicenna (980-1037), or Ibn Sina in Arabic, was a Persian whose treatises entitled Canon of Medicine and Book of Healing helped him surpass Galen as the most famous and prominent physician of the Middle Ages. Avicenna was also a distinguished philosopher who was influenced by al–Farabi, but, as Druart argues, he "Islamicized" his predecessor's strict Aristotelianism.24 A third distinguished Islamic thinker, though one whose life postdates the original composition of Dicts and Sayings, was the Spaniard Averroës (1126-98), or Ibn Rushd in Arabic. Like Avicenna, he was a physician as well as a philosopher. In his commentaries on Aristotle, he argued that the truth of reason (found in the tenets of the "first teacher") and the truth of Islamic theology had no need for reconciliation because they were separate but equal truths that did not conflict with one another.

Dicts and Sayings first appeared in the midst of this burgeoning of interest in philosophy. It was composed in Arabic (entitled Mokhtâr el–Hikam) by Abu'l Wefa Mubeschschir ben Fatik, identified by contemporary sources as an Egyptian emir and prolific author who was born in Damascus in the eleventh century.25 His sources for Mokhtâr el–Hikam are not known for certain, but "[s]ome of them are probably to be found in the large storehouse of Arabic translations made in the ninth century under the Khalif al–Ma'mon. This Khalif encouraged the work of a sort of college of translators at Baghdad."26 These texts may have included the "genuine" writings of philosophers like Aristotle and Pythagoras, and perhaps also The Secret of Secrets, which was, like Dicts and Sayings, an originally Arabic text.

Mokhtâr el–Hikam proved to be a very popular work. In the first half of the thirteenth century it was translated into Spanish and titled Bocados de Oro. Even a brief perusal of the Spanish version reveals the consistency of the content of this work over its long and circuitous history; for instance, the ordering of the philosophers in Bocados de Oro is nearly the same as what we find in the Middle English versions more than two hundred years later: Sed, Ermes, Catalquius, Tad, Omirus, Solon, Rrabion [sic], Ypocras, Pitagoras, Diogenis, Socrates, Platon, Aristotiles, Alixandre, Tolomeo, Leogenin/Longinen, Enufio, Medragis, Sillus, Galieno, Proteus, Gregorio, Piramus, and finally the miscellaneous philosophers. There are only a few major differences, and these tend to appear in the shorter chapters toward the end of the work (most notably, Assaron is absent in many Spanish manuscripts and his material is added to the end of Tolomeo). Bocados de Oro remained in circulation for centuries, and later was published in a half–dozen early printed editions.27 A Latin translation, called Liber Philosophorum Moralium Antiquorum, appeared in the second half of the thirteenth century, and its popularity is attested by the many manuscripts that survive to this day. Bühler concurs with Ezio Franceschini and Remigio Sabbadini, scholars of the Liber Philosophorum, that the man who translated Bocados de Oro into Latin was most likely the Italian Giovanni da Procida, a doctor in the employ of Emperor Frederick II.28 Giovanni's translation was faithful to the Spanish, and preserved its organization with only minor changes. Here the philosophers are arranged as follows: Sedechias, Hermes, Tac, Machalquin, Homerus, Zalon, Rabion, Ypocras, Pitagoras, Diogenes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotiles, Alexander, Ptholomeus, Assaron, Loginon, Avesius, Macdargis, Thesilus, Gregorius, Galienus, and then the last philosophers. This ordering would be maintained in the subsequent French and English versions. A century after the Latin text appeared, Guillaume de Tignonville (d. 1414), the provost of Paris and a courtier to the king of France, translated the Liber Philosophorum Moralium Antiquorum into French. His version was entitled Dits Moraulx. Guillaume's work was not, however, merely a rote translation of the Latin; he shortened his version considerably, but did not hesitate to insert material of his own creation to the text.29 Over time, his Dits Moraulx achieved great renown throughout Western Europe.30

The journey between Mokhtâr el–Hikam and Dits Moraulx was more about geography than content. The work's basic structure — the names of the philosophers, the order in which they appear, the approximate length of each section, and the general contents of each section — has remained conservative over time, and with each successive translation the text has managed to avoid large–scale interpolation. It has also resisted overt Christianization. Aside from some biblical allusions (see the Explanatory Notes to this edition), the influence of Christianity has been subtle, which seems appropriate for a text that began its life as more generically monotheistic than dogmatically Islamic. In brief, some maxims were added and others deleted, but the text that France exported was substantively the same as its original Arabic ancestor.

Guillaume's Dits Moraulx became extremely popular in England in the second half of the fifteenth century, when there was something of an explosion of interest in works of wisdom literature. Although George Ashby produced a metrical paraphrase of the Latin Liber Philosophorum Moralium Antiquorum, all the other English translations were based on Guillaume's Dits Moraulx. Several independent translations were made between 1450 and 1500, and all of these would come to be known as The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers. They include Stephen Scrope's version from around 1450, William of Worcester's 1472 revision of Scrope, Earl Rivers' translation (the version used by Caxton for what may be the first book ever printed in England), and an anonymous translation from around 1450 (the version used for this edition).

Today the most famous of these English versions of the Dicts and Sayings is the translation made by Scrope, perhaps because of his family's prominence in late medieval England. Stephen Scrope's grandfather was part of the infamous Scrope–Grosvenor dispute (1385-90), the lengthy trial held to determine which family had the right to bear the coat of arms that both sides claimed. After countless depositions from gentlemen of at least the rank of squire (including Geoffrey Chaucer), the court found in favor of the Scropes. Their triumph was short–lived, however, for as strong supporters of King Richard II, the Scrope family suffered greatly when the king was deposed in 1399. Stephen Scrope, born around 1396, was a sickly, miserable man who spent most of his adult life seeking (unsuccessfully) to pry his inheritance from his avaricious stepfather, Sir John Fastolf — one of the inspirations for Shakespeare's Falstaff.

Scrope's translation of Dicts and Sayings is literal and unwieldy. As Schofield characterizes it, "[h]is phrasing is almost always an exact replica of the French, even to the point of making an awkward English construction."31 The revisions made by William of Worcester (Fastolf's secretary and steward) are mainly additions of new material and not corrections or emendations of Scrope's work. Earl Rivers' translation of Dits Moraulx, independent of the Scrope version, is much more readable, but remains a literal rendering of the French and seems to be incomplete, or greatly abbreviated.32 The anonymous translation, independent of Scrope and also of Rivers, is found in only one manuscript (best known as the Helmingham Hall Manuscript), but is by far the most accurate and the most idiomatic English translation of Dits Moraulx.33 For these reasons I have chosen to use the Helmingham Hall version, and not Scrope or Rivers, as the basis for this edition of The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers.34

No matter whose translation one reads, Dicts and Sayings is by no means a work of high art — though, to be fair, it was never intended as such. Instead it is a disorderly, repetitive, almost overwhelming heap of recorded wisdom. The wisdom it contains would not be considered "philosophy," however, as the title might imply; as Arthur Shillinglaw aptly notes, "[i]t goes without saying that an English translation of a French translation of a Latin translation of a Spanish translation of an Arabic text compiled from prior sources is not to be regarded as a serious contribution to philosophy."35 The kind of wisdom that Dicts and Sayings imparts is practical advice for living well. While not overly insightful, the advice proffered by the incessant parade of philosophers is largely sensible and reasonable: "Patience, moderation in desire, honesty and fair dealing are the clues to happiness."36 These virtues are, of course, important Christian virtues, but Dicts and Sayings espouses little explicitly Christian ideology. References to Christ, Mary, and other Christian characters and themes are almost entirely absent, which should not be surprising given that the text was originally a product of the Muslim world. There are many references to God, but always in the context of God as the creator and ultimate arbiter of the universe — that is, God as "law" and "reason."

At first glance, God's presence seems to be one of the few consistent themes that runs throughout this disparate work. Indeed, Cameron Louis, while admitting that the work is composed in the spirit of its times, argues that "there is no overall organizing principle, nor is there any attempt to avoid repetition."37 I would disagree. There is an overall organizing principle in Dicts and Sayings, in that the text is organized around the idea of oppositional logic. Many of the sayings link two contrasting concepts in order to demonstrate a given precept in action: the wise man does X, but the fool does Y. This is perhaps the most common manifestation of the oppositional logic of the text, but there are many other analogous dichotomies, such as good/bad and friend/enemy. With these constructions as the controlling theme of the text, Dicts and Sayings follows many other sentential works in encouraging the kind of binary judgment that discourages free thinking and the questioning of authority.

Finally, how are we to classify Dicts and Sayings? It fits under the broad heading of wisdom literature in its subject matter and purpose (promoting the obedience to intellectual authority), but it is far longer and more encyclopedic than most texts of this sort, such as How the Wise Man Taught His Son. Likewise, with its many exemplary tales and biographical sketches of the philosophers' lives, Dicts and Sayings offers a stronger narrative framework than such texts as The Proverbs of Alfred, which tend to be little more than lists of precepts cloaked in the thinnest veneer of a story. While it has more much in common with a work like Gower's Confessio Amantis — both are immense compendia of wisdom, compiled from a variety of sources, that weave together brief maxims and longer tales — Dicts and Sayings is better grouped with a tradition of works that feature a chronological progression of historical and legendary figures; this tradition dates back at least to the moralizing anecdotes found in Factorum ac Dictorum Memorabilium Libri IX (Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings) of Valerius Maximus (c. 20 BC-c. AD 50), and to the third–century Greek writer Diogenes Laertius and his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, which combines biographical material with long accounts of teachings attributed to each of the philosophers.

When Dicts and Sayings was translated into English by several independent writers in the mid–fifteenth century, it joined a parade of kindred texts that were circulating throughout late medieval England. All of these works in some way presented the collected insight (often spuriously attributed, of course) of the wise men of yore, and all tended to borrow material from one another. One early author who made an indelible impact upon this genre was the Dominican cleric Vincent of Beauvais (d. c. 1264), whose colossal mid–thirteenth–century trifecta — Speculum Naturale, Speculum Historiale, and Speculum Doctrinale — was ambitiously intended to be a collection of all mankind's knowledge. It is the Speculum Historiale that contains Vincent's lengthy account of the lives and sayings of wise men. As Gerrit Bunt notes, the Historiale provided the major source for an analogous section in Ranulf Higden's widely popular Polychronicon.38 Higden (d. 1364), a Benedictine, wrote the Polychronicon (c. 1362) as a history of the world from creation until 1327. His text reached an even more extensive audience when it was translated from Latin into Middle English by John of Trevisa (c. 1340- 1402) in 1387, and then again by an anonymous writer in the fifteenth century. Another work that was part of the "Vincent tradition," as Curt Bühler calls it, is Liber de Vita et Moribus Philosophorum (The Book of the Lives and Deaths of the Philosophers), by Walter Burley (1275-c. 1337), who was a disciple of the eminent scholastic philosopher Duns Scotus and tutor to Edward the Black Prince, son of King Edward III (years later, Burley's son Simon was the tutor of Richard II).39 Bühler notes that Burley's Liber is drawn not just from classical sources like Diogenes Laertius "but is largely a re–working (with some additions) of Vincent's compilations" in Speculum Historiale.40 Burley's Liber provided ample source material for late medieval Latin chronicle–writers' accounts of the ancient world, but as Bühler contends, "the influence of Burley's work and what I call the 'Vincent tradition' extended far beyond the chronicles."41 Writers of vernacular works also drew from this tradition; for instance, Bühler's research suggests that Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1367-c. 1426), remembered mainly as a pale imitator of Chaucer, used Burley as a minor source for his Regiment of Princes (1411), a "Mirror for Princes" addressed to the future Henry V.42

Dicts and Sayings, however, never influenced literature in England to the extent that the Vincent tradition did. In fact, despite its being the first book ever printed in England, and despite its popularity in the fifteenth century, this text had almost no impact on later English writings.43 I believe the chief reason is that — then as now — Dicts and Sayings is a very unwieldy text. It exists as a monument to wisdom and as a spur toward the obedience of intellectual authority, but the practical applications of the material contained in this work seem to have been beyond the concerns of its original author and the legions of later redactors.

Notes On This Edition

The unique manuscript that contains the anonymous version of the Dicts and Sayings dates to the 1450s, and most likely is not in the hand of the translator himself.44 Although this translation is superior to all the other English versions, the text of the Helmingham Hall manuscript is defective in its arrangement, perhaps the result of a copyist's carelessness or a misbound French original. Beginning with folio 58r, the latter sections of the work — the text, that is, not the actual folios — are badly disordered. I have followed Bühler in silently restoring the proper order. The folio numbers are identified in the margins, and the breaks are marked in the text with a vertical line. This should assist readers in cross–referencing with other editions of the text.

As for other editorial matters, I have adhered to the standard practices for the Middle English Texts Series. All i/j and u/v spellings are given in modern orthography, the thorns (þ) are transcribed as th, and the few occurrences of the yogh (ʒ) are transcribed in each case to the corresponding modern letter. Often the scribe uses y for initial g, and for these cases I have silently emended to g. Capitalization, word formation, and punctuation are all editorial. I have also added quotation marks because of the sheer amount of spoken dialogue in this work, but my attempts to sort out the speakers from the narrator proved to be more difficult than one might have expected, since the narrative framework of Dicts and Sayings is so loosely maintained that often it is not altogether certain when a speaking character stops and the narrator begins, or vice versa.

Finally, I should note that the manuscript contains a vast number of additional strokes that have not been reproduced here. The scribe regularly places a flourish over the ends of words, and it is not always clear whether these strokes are otiose or genuine abbreviations. When they occur over final consonants they may represent a final e, but, as Bühler points out, some words have a flourish and a final e.45 Bühler, in producing a diplomatic edition, retains these flourishes, but I have not, nor have I expanded any of them into a final e. I also did not reproduce letter variants like the elongated s or the doubled f at the beginning of some words. I have, however, expanded obvious manuscript abbreviations, while treating all other strokes as otiose.

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