Old English Wisdom
As well as my personal Twitter account, I run an account called Old English Wisdom, tweeting proverbs, maxims, and other miniature bits of wisdom and advice from Old English poetry and prose. Anglo-Saxon literature abounds in such pithy statements, ranging from wry proverbs about mead-drinking and money to practical advice about moderate behaviour, from a warrior's code of conduct to profound reflections on how one acquires wisdom and the benefits it can bring. I'm intrigued by how well this ancient tradition seems to work within the brand-new medium of Twitter, when they are (except in their fondness for brevity) almost exact opposites: Twitter thrives on the knee-jerk reaction and the swift reply, while wisdom literature is a genre which grows slowly, out of years, lifetimes, and centuries of human experience. But what medium and message have in common is the idea that something of value deserves to be shared: Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan, one poem famously says, 'Wise men should exchange sayings'.
The Anglo-Saxon wisdom tradition is rich, diverse, and multilingual (although I mostly post English texts, for practical reasons). Some of the texts I'm quoting from are dedicated collections of proverbs and maxims, in poetry or prose, while some are single instances from longer texts; some are translations or versions of Latin texts, others have no known source; some are paralleled in later medieval English proverbs, some in other languages such as Old Norse. Some are so culturally specific that they may seem to offer nothing more to a modern audience than a historical curiosity. But others have much to say about subjects which are timeless: friendship, love and family; the right and wrong ways to use speech, strength, skill or knowledge; how to teach and how to learn; the experience of grief, loneliness, joy, and companionship; the value of patience, self-restraint, loyalty, and a generous heart. They celebrate both the riches which can be learned from books and the wisdom which can be earned through the simple act of living.
The picture which serves as the face of this little project is a Victorian statue of Alfred the Great, from his birthplace at Wantage. I chose Alfred because he is closely associated, in history and legend, with teaching, translation, and the tradition of English 'wisdom': among his other achievements as king, Alfred arranged for the translation of - or perhaps even translated himself - a range of religious and philosophical texts into English, many of which have interesting things to say about how wisdom is to be gained and used. As Alfred's famous Preface to the Pastoral Care explains, he believed that learning in England had gone into serious decline in his own days, and that to restore it would be to repair the 'wealth and the wisdom' of the kingdom both together. As a result of these educational endeavours there was a great deal of myth-making about Alfred's wisdom, and by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period he was already regarded as an image of the wise king, that ever-potent symbol. His very name prepared him to be an expert in ræd ('counsel, advice'), and later in the medieval period he was spuriously credited as the author of a collection of proverbs, cited in texts like The Owl and the Nightingale as an impeccably wise authority, England's own Solomon. So although he's responsible for only a few of the texts I'm tweeting about, he makes an apt figurehead for it.
This page serves a practical function (providing fuller sources than is possible on Twitter, and listing the hashtags I've chosen) but will also serve as a growing archive of the quotations I've posted. Although sources are indicated where relevant, all translations are my own.
This is a collection of forty-six proverbs in Durham Cathedral, MS B. III. 32, where they appear in both English and Latin versions. They are edited in Olof Arngart, 'The Durham Proverbs', Speculum 56:2 (1981), 288-300.
(1) Geþyld byþ middes eades.
Patience is half of happiness.
(2) Freond deah feor ge neah; byð near nyttra.
A friend is useful, far or near; the nearer the better.
(3) Æt þearfe mann sceal freonda to cunnian.
In time of need, a man finds out his friends.
(4) Nafað ænig mann freonda to fela.
No one can have too many friends.
(5) Beforan his freonde biddeþ, se þe his wædle mæneþ.
He who bemoans his poverty should seek help from his friends.
(6) God ger byþ þonne se hund þam hrefne gyfeð.
It's a good year when the dog gives to the raven.
(8) Hwilum æfter medo menn mæst geþyrsteð.
Sometimes men are thirstiest after drinking mead.
(9) Æfter leofan menn langað swiðost.
People long most for a loved one.
(10) Nu hit ys on swines dome, cwæð se ceorl sæt on eoferes hricge.
It’s up to the pig now, said the man sat on the boar’s back.
(12) Eall on muðe þæt on mode.
All in the mouth that's in the mind.
(13) Gemæne sceal maga feoh.
Wealth should be shared by kinsmen.
(14) Man deþ swa he byþ þonne he mot swa he wile.
A man acts what he is when he may do what he will.
(16) Eaðe wis man mæg witan spell and eac secgan.
Easily may a wise man understand a story, and tell it too.
(17) Blind byþ bam eagum se þe breostum ne starat.
He is blind in both eyes who does not look with the heart.
(18) Ða ne sacað þe ætsamne ne beoð.
They do not quarrel who are not together.
(19) Ne deah eall soþ asæd ne eall sar ætwiten.
It does no good to tell all truths or blame all wrongs.
(20) Gyf þu well sprece, wyrc æfter swa.
If you speak well, act accordingly.
(21) Soþ hit sylf acyþeð.
Truth will make itself known.
(22) Earh mæg þæt an þæt he him ondræde.
A coward can only do one thing: what he fears.
(23) Ne sceal man to ær forht ne to ær fægen.
One should not be too soon fearful nor too soon joyful.
(26) Ne byð þæt fele freond, se þe oþrum facn heleð.
He who harbours treachery against another is not a faithful friend.
(27) Swa cystigran hiwan, swa cynnigran gystas.
The more generous the household, the more noble the guests.
(28) Gyfena gehwilc underbæc besihþ.
Every gift looks backwards.
(29) Ne wat swetes ðanc, se þe biteres ne onbyrgeð.
He never knows the pleasure of sweetness, who never tastes bitterness.
(30) To nawihte ne hopað, se to hame ne higeð.
He hopes for nothing, who does not think about home.
(31) Eall here byþ hwæt þonne se lateow byþ hwæt.
The whole army is brave when the general is brave.
(35) Leana forleosaþ, se þe hit lyþran deð.
He who gives to an unworthy person wastes his gifts.
(36) Seo nydþearf feala læreð.
Necessity teaches many things.
(37) Betere byþ oft feðre þonne oferfeðre.
Better to be often loaded than overloaded.
(38) Cræfta gehwilc byþ cealde forgolden.
Every deceit will be coldly repaid.
(39) Ciggendra gehwilc wile þæt hine man gehere.
Everyone who shouts out wants to be heard.
(40) Weard seteð, se þe wæccendum wereð.
He who guards against the watchmen sets a guard.
(41) Ne sceall se for horse murnan, se þe wile heort ofærnan.
He who wants to catch a hart must not worry about his horse.
(42) Swa fulre fæt, swa hit mann sceal fægror beran.
The fuller the cup, the more carefully it must be carried.
(43) Ne mæg man muþ fulne melewes habban and eac fyr blawan.
No one can have a mouth full of flour and also blow on a fire.
(44) Wide ne biþ wel, cwæþ se þe gehyrde on helle hriman.
Things are bad everywhere, said the man who heard wailing in hell.
(46) Hwon gelpeð, se þe wide siþað.
Little boasts the one who travels widely.
Guthlac (#GuthA and #GuthB)
Two poems in the Exeter Book about St Guthlac, hermit of Crowland (d.714).
Ellen biþ selast þam þe oftost sceal
dreogan dryhtenbealu. (Guthlac B, 1348-9)
Courage is best for one who must very often suffer great evils.
Forst and snaw
mid ofermægne eorþan þeccað
Frost and snow with overpowering force wrap earth in winter garments.
The Wanderer (#OEWan)
One of the most famous poems in the Exeter Book; here's the whole poem with a translation.
Wyrd bið ful aræd. (5)
Fate is greatly fixed.
Ne mæg werig mod wyrde wiðstondan,
ne se hreo hyge helpe gefremman. (15-16)
A weary mind cannot withstand fate, nor a sad heart offer help.
Domgeorne dreorigne oft
in hyra breostcofan bindað fæste. (17-18)
Those eager for glory often bind sorrowful thoughts fast within the heart.
Wat se þe cunnað
hu sliþen bið sorg to geferan. (29-30)
He who has experienced it knows how cruel a companion sorrow is.
Sorg ond slæp somod ætgædre
earmne anhogan oft gebindað. (39-40)
Sorrow and sleep both together often bind the wretched solitary person.
Swa þes middangeard
ealra dogra gehwam dreoseð ond fealleð;
forþon ne mæg weorþan wis wer ær he age
wintra dæl in woruldrice. Wita sceal geþyldig,
ne sceal no to hatheort, ne to hrædwyrde,
ne to wac wiga, ne to wanhydig,
ne to forht ne to fægen, ne to feohgifre,
ne næfre gielpes to georn ær he geare cunne. (62-9)
So this earth declines and falls, every single day;
And so a man cannot become wise
before he has his share of winters in the world. A wise person should be patient,
should not be too hot-hearted, nor too hasty with words,
neither too weak a warrior, nor too reckless,
neither too fearful, nor too quick to rejoice, nor too greedy,
nor ever too eager to boast before he knows for sure.
Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa? (92)
Where is now the horse? Where the young prince? Where the treasure-giver?
A poem from the Exeter Book, framed as advice from a wise father to his son. For the text of this poem, Maxims I and II, and Solomon and Saturn II, see T. A. Shippey, Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English (Cambridge, 1976).
Wene þec þy betran,
efn elne þis a þenden þu lifge. (7-8)
Train yourself for the better way, ever with courage as long as you live.
Wes þu þinum yldrum arfæst symle,
Be respectful to your elders always, speaking fair words.
[Læt] þine lareowas leofe in mode
þa þec geornast to gode trymmen. (13-14)
Hold your teachers dear in mind, who eagerly urge you to good.
Ne aswic sundorwine, ac a symle geheald
Do not betray a dear friend, but always hold to the right way.
Druncen beorg þe ond dollic word. (34)
Guard against drunkenness and foolish words.
Wes þu a giedda wis,
wær wið willan, worda hyrde. (41-2)
Be ever wise in speech, watchful against desire; guard your words.
Ongiet georne hwæt sy god oþþe yfel,
ond toscead simle. (45-6)
Keenly perceive what is good or evil, and always distinguish them.
Feorma þu symle in þinum ferðe god. (51)
Always foster in your heart what is good.
Seldan snottor guma sorgleas blissað. (54)
Seldom does a wise man rejoice without sorrow.
Wærwyrde sceal wisfæst hæle,
breostum hycgan. (57-8)
Wary with words, a wise man should meditate in his heart.
Leorna lare lærgedefe,
wene þec in wisdom. (61-2)
Learn lessons fit for learning, train yourself in wisdom.
Hafa a soð to syge, þonne þu secge hwæt. (64)
Always have truth as your goal, whatever you say.
Yrre ne læt þe æfre gewealdan. (83)
Never let anger have mastery over you.
Hæle sceal wisfæst
ond gemetlice, modes snottor. (86-7)
A man should be firm in wisdom and moderate, prudent in mind.
Ne beo þu no to tælende, ne to tweospræce. (90)
Do not be too quick to disparage, nor too double-tongued.
The Seafarer (#Seafarer)
One of the most famous poems in the Exeter Book - full text here.
A hafað longunge se þe on lagu fundað. (47)
He ever has a longing who sets out on the sea.
Nearon nu cyningas ne caseras
ne goldgiefan swylce iu wæron. (82-3)
There are not now kings nor caesars nor gold-givers as there once were.
Dreamas sind gewitene,
wuniað þa wacran ond þæs woruld healdaþ. (86-7)
Joys are departed; weaker ones now live and hold the world.
Eorþan indryhto ealdað ond searað,
swa nu monna gehwylc. (88-9)
The glory of earth ages and grows sere, as now every man does.
Eadig biþ se þe eaþmod leofaþ; cymeþ him seo ar of heofonum. (107)
Blessed is he who lives humbly; mercy comes to him from heaven.
Stieran mon sceal strongum mode, ond þæt on staþelum healdan. (109)
One must steer a strong mind, and keep it steady.
Scyle monna gehwylc mid gemete healdan
a wiþ leofne ond wið laþne. (111-12)
Every man should act with moderation both to friends and foes.
Wyrd biþ swiþre,
Meotud meahtigra, þonne ænges monnes gehygd. (115-16)
Fate is stronger, the Lord mightier, than any man's thoughts.
A poem from the Exeter Book, cataloguing kings, heroes and peoples.
Sceal þeodna gehwylc þeawum lifgan. (10)
Every ruler ought to live virtuously.
The Fortunes of Men
A poem from the Exeter Book enumerating the various courses human life can take.
God ana wat
hwæt him weaxendum winter bringað. (8-9)
Only God knows what the years will bring the growing child.
A wide-ranging poem from the Exeter Book, exploring many aspects of Anglo-Saxon life and society.
Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan. (4)
Wise men should exchange sayings.
Þing sceal gehegan frod wiþ frodne. (18-19)
Wise men should hold meetings with the wise.
Beam sceal on eorðan
leafum liþan, leomu gnornian. (25-6)
A tree on the earth must lose its leaves; the branches mourn.
Fus sceal feran, fæge sweltan. (27)
Those who are ready must go, the doomed die.
Meotud ana wat
hwær se cwealm cymeþ, þe heonon of cyþþe gewiteþ. (29-30)
Only God knows where plague goes when it departs from a place.
Snotre men sawlum beorgað, healdað hyra soð mid ryhte. (36)
Wise men guard their souls, uphold their integrity with justice.
Eadig bið se þe in his eðle geþihð. (37)
Fortunate is he who prospers in his homeland.
Bliþe sceal bealoleas heorte. (39)
Happy is the guiltless heart.
Lef mon læces behofað; læran sceal mon geongne monnan. (45)
A sick man needs a doctor; a young man should be taught.
Styran sceal mon strongum mode; storm oft holm gebringeþ. (50)
A strong mind must be steered; the sea often brings a storm.
Cyning biþ anwealdes georn. (58)
A king is eager for power.
Widgongel wif word gespringeð, oft hy mon wommum bilihð. (64)
A far-wandering woman causes talk; often she is accused of sins.
Sceomiande man sceal in sceade hweorfan; scir in leohte geriseð. (66)
A shamed man must go in the shadows; the pure belong in the light.
Forst sceal freosan, fyr wudu meltan,
eorþe growan, is brycgian. (71-2)
Frost must freeze, fire melt wood, earth grow, ice form bridges.
Winter sceal geweorpan, weder eft cuman,
sumor swegle hat. (76-7)
Winter shall turn, good weather come again, summer, bright and hot.
[Wif sceal] leohtmod wesan
rune healdan, rumheort beon. (85-6)
A woman should be cheerful, keep secrets, and have a generous heart.
Lida biþ longe on siþe; a mon sceal seþeah leofes wenan. (103)
A sailor is long away, but still the loved one must be looked for.
Mon sceal... gebidan þæs he gebædan ne mæg. (103-4)
One must wait for what cannot be hastened.
Seoc se biþ þe to seldan ieteð. (111)
The one who eats too seldom will be sick.
Ræd biþ nyttost,
yfel unnyttost. (118-19)
Good advice is the most useful thing, bad the least useful.
Hyge sceal gehealden, hond gewealden. (121)
The mind must be restrained, the hand trained.
Seo sceal in eagan, snyttro in breostum. (122)
The eye must have a pupil, the heart wisdom.
Muþa gehwylc mete þearf, mæl sceolon tidum gongan. (124)
Every mouth needs food; meals should come at the right time.
Gold geriseþ on guman sweorde...
sinc on cwene. (125-6)
Gold is fitting for a man's sword, precious things for a woman.
God scop [geriseþ] gumum, garniþ werum. (127)
It is fitting for a good poet to be among men, and for warriors to fight with spears.
Sceal bryde beag, bec leornere,
husl halgum men. (130-1)
A ring for a bride, books for a student,
the Host for holy men.
Ræd sceal mon secgan, rune writan,
leoþ gesingan, lofes gearnian. (138-9)
One should give counsel, write secrets, sing songs, earn praise.
Wel mon sceal wine healdan on wega gehwylcum. (144)
One does well to keep a friend on every road.
Wineleas wonsælig mon genimeð him wulfas to geferan. (146)
A friendless, unfortunate man takes wolves as his companions.
Wræd sceal wunden, wracu heardum men. (152)
A wound must have a bandage, an unyielding man must have revenge.
Maþþum oþres weorð,
gold mon sceal gifan. (154-5)
One treasure deserves another; gold should be given away.
Treo sceolon brædan ond treow weaxan. (159)
Trees should spread, and faith increase.
Wæra gehwylcum wislicu word gerisað,
gleomen gied ond guman snyttro. (165-6)
Wise words befit everyone; a song for a singer, wisdom for men.
Swa monige beoþ men ofer eorþan, swa beoþ modgeþoncas. (167)
There are as many opinions as there are people on earth.
Longað þonne þy læs þe him con leoþa worn. (169)
He is less troubled by longing who knows many songs.
Hy twegen sceolon tæfle ymbsittan þenden him hyra torn toglide. (181)
Two should sit at a game together, until their troubles slip away.
Werig sceal se wiþ winde roweþ. (185)
Weary shall he be who rows against the wind.
Lot sceal mid lyswe, list mid gedefum. (187)
Cunning goes with corruption, craft with what is right.
Geara is hwær aræd. (191)
A resolute man is always prepared.
Rhyming Poem (#RhymingPoem)
An unusual and difficult poem from the Exeter book, one of the few poems in Old English to make extensive use of rhyme.
Gewiteð nihtes in fleah
se ær in dæge wæs dyre. (44-5)
He flees by night who once was dear in the day.
Eorðmægen ealdaþ, ellen cealdað. (69)
Earth's power grows old, courage grows cold.
For context, see this page.
Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.
That passed away; so will this.
The Wife's Lament (#WifesLament)
Wa bið þam þe sceal
of langoþe leofes abidan. (52-3)
Woe it is for the one who must wait in longing for the beloved.
A short poem from the Exeter Book about the importance of giving alms.
Wel bið þam eorle þe him on innan hafað... rume heortan. (1-2)
Well shall it be for the man who has within him a generous heart.
Homiletic Fragment II (#OEHF2)
A short, fragmentary poem from the Exeter Book.
Heald hordlocan, hyge fæste bind
mid modsefan. (3-4)
Hold close the treasure-chest, bind your thoughts fast within the heart.
Monig biþ uncuþ
treowgeþofta, teorað hwilum. (4-5)
Many a trusted friend will prove to be unknown, will fail at times.
Solomon and Saturn II
From Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 422; see this page.
Bald bið se ðe onbyregeð boca cræftes. (65)
Bold shall he be who tastes of the skill of books.
Yldo beoð on eorðan æghwæs cræftig. (114)
Old age has power over everything on earth.
Nieht bið wedera ðiestrost, ned bið wyrda. (134)
Night is the darkest of weathers, necessity the hardest of fates.
Sorg bið swarost byrðen, slæp bið deaðe gelicost. (135)
Sorrow is the heaviest burden, sleep is most like death.
ðæt beoð ða feowere fæges rapas. (156-7)
Things which have happened: those are the four ropes of the doomed.
Unlæde bið and ormod se ðe a wile
geomrian on gihðe. (173-4)
Wretched and hopeless is he who wants to go on lamenting in sorrow.
Wyrd bið wended hearde. (258)
Fate is hard to change.
Homiletic Fragment I (#OEHF1)
A short fragmentary religious poem preserved in the Vercelli Book. It's edited in Christopher A. Jones, Old English Shorter Poems: vol. I, Religious and Didactic (Cambridge, Mass., 2012), pp.120-3.
manig ond mislic in manna dream. (1-2)
Sorrow comes in many and various ways amid the joys of men.
Is nu þes middangeard mane geblonden,
wanað ond weaxeð. (31-2)
Now is this world blended with evils; it wanes and waxes.
A poem in the Vercelli Book about the adventures of St Andrew.
Ofost is selost. (1565)
Haste is best.
Old English Dicts of Cato (#Dicts)
An English translation of the Disticha Catonis, surviving in three manuscripts; text from R. S. Cox, 'The Old English Dicts of Cato', Anglia 90 (1972), 1–42.
(3) Đonne ðu oþerne mon tæle, ðonne geðenc ðu þæt nan mon ne bið leahterleas.
When you criticise another, remember no one is faultless.
(5) Ne flit ðu wið anwilne monn, ne wið oferspræcne; manegum menn is forgifen ðæt he spræcan mæg, swiðe feawum þæt he seo gesceadwis.
Don't argue with a stubborn person, or one who talks too much; many have the power of speech; very few of wisdom.
(6) Wite ðæs maran þanc ðæs ðe ðu hæbbe ðonne ðæs þe ðe monn gehate... ðær lytel gehaten bið, þær bið lytel alogen.
Give more thanks for what you have than for what you're promised... Where little is promised, there's little deception.
(8) Sprec ofter embe oðres monnes weldæde þonne emb ðine agna.
Speak more often about other people’s good deeds than about your own.
(12) Ne hopa ðu to oþres monnes deaðe; uncuð hwa lengest libbe.
Do not hope for another man's death; it is unknown who will live longest.
(13) Đeah þe earm friond lytel sylle, nim hit to miccles þances.
Though a poor friend may give you little, take it with great thanks.
(18) Gif ðu bearn hæbbe, lær þa cræftes, þæt hie mægen be þon libban... Cræft bið bætera þonne æht.
If you have children, teach them a skill, so they can live by it... A skill is better than possessions.
(23) Forbær oft ðæt þu eaðe wrecan mæge.
Forbear often where you might easily take vengeance.
(24) Help ægðer ge cuðum ge uncuþum þær þu mæge.
Help both friends and strangers wherever you can.
(26) Yrre oft amyrreð monnes mod þæt he ne mæg þæt riht gecnawan.
Anger often disturbs a man's mind so that he cannot see the right.
(32) Lyt monna wearþ lange fægen ðæs ðe he oðerne bewrencþ.
Few men rejoice long in what they have got by deceiving others.
(34) Ne do ðu nauðer: ne ðe sylfne ne here, ne ðe sylfne ne leah.
Don't do either of these things: praise yourself or criticise yourself.
(36) Swa mon ma spricð, swa him læs monna gelyfð.
The more a man speaks, the less people believe him.
(37) Gif ðu hwæt on druncen misdo, ne wit ðu hit ðam ealoþe.
If you do something wrong when drunk, don’t blame it on the ale.
(39) Ne wurðe þe næfre to þys wa, þæt ðu þe ne wene betran.
Never become so sorrowful that you do not hope for better things.
(40) Monig mon hæfð micel feax on foran heafde, 7 wyrð færlice calu.
Many a man has plenty of hair on his head, and suddenly goes bald.
(41) Ælces monnes lif bið sumes monnes lar.
Every man's life may be a lesson to someone.
(45B) Hit byð dysig þæt man speca ær þone he þænce.
It’s foolish for a man to speak before he thinks.
(48) Forseoh ðisse worlde wlenca gif ðu wille beon welig on ðinum modo.
Scorn this world’s riches if you want to be rich in your mind.
(55) Gif ðu wille godne hlisan habban, ne fægna ðu nanes yfeles.
If you want to have a good reputation, don't rejoice in any evil.
(56) Leorna a hwæthwugu; ðeah ðe þine gesælða forlætan, ne forlætt þe no þin cræft.
Always be learning something; though your good fortune may abandon you, don't abandon your skill.
(57) Ne beo þu to oferspræce, ac hlyst ælces monnes worda swiðe georne.
Don't speak too much, but listen attentively to everyone's words.
(59) Leorna hwæthwugu æt ðam wisran, þæt þu mæge læran þone unwisran.
Learn something from the wise, so you can teach the ignorant.
(60) Gif ðu wylle hal beon, drinc ðe gedæftlice; ælc oferfyll 7 ælc idel fett unhælo.
Over-indulgence and idleness lead to bad health; if you want to be healthy, drink in moderation.
(61) Ne læt þu no unlofod þæt þu swytele ongite þæt licwyrðe sie.
Do not leave unpraised anything you know well to be worthy.
(62) Bilwitne monn ne forsioh [þu]; oft stille wæter staðu breceð.
Don't scorn a gentle person; often still water breaks at the shore.
(66) Đeah þe þin eald gefera abelge, ne forgit þu gif he þe... ær gecwemde
If an old friend angers you, don’t forget he once pleased you.
(69) Þeah ðe monig mon herige, ne gelyf ðu him to wel.
Though many people praise you, do not believe them too readily.
(71) Liorna manega bec 7 gehyr monig spell; wite ðeah hwylcum þu gelyfan scyle.
Read many books & hear many tales, but know which to trust.
(75) Beo a getreowra ðonne ðe mon to gelyfe.
Always be truer than people believe you to be.
(76) Se ðe him ealne weg ondræt, se bið swylce he sy ealne weg cwellende.
He who is always afraid is like one who is always dying.
(C) On ælcere ea swa wyrse fordes, swa betere fisces.
In every river, the worse the ford the better the fish.
(E) Wa þære þeode þe hæfð ælðeodigne cyng.
Woe will come to the nation which has a foreign king.
Pastoral Care (#OEPastoralCare)
From the English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, associated with the educational programme of Alfred the Great.
ðone wisdom ðe ðe God sealde ðær ðær ðu hiene befæstan mæge, befæste.
Wherever you can use the wisdom God gave you, use it. (Alfred's injunction to his bishops in the Preface)
ðy mara wisdom on londe wære ðy we ma geðeoda cuðon.
There would be more wisdom in the land, the more languages we knew.
Se cræft þæs lareowdomes bið cræft ealra cræfta.
The art of teaching is the art of all arts.
Oft for ðæs lareowes unwisdome misfaraþ ða hieremenn.
Often because of the leader’s folly, the followers go astray.
Onwald mæg wel reccean se þe ægðer ge hiene habban con ge wiðwinnan.
He wields power well who can both hold and resist it.
Old English Boethius (#OEBoethius)
An English translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, also associated with Alfred the Great.
Se anweald næfre ne biþ god, buton se god sie þe hine hæbbe.
Power is never good, unless the one who possesses it is good.
Getreowan freond... deorweorðeste ðyng eallra þissa woruldgesælþa.
True friends are the most precious of all this world’s joys.
Wiþ swiþe mænige biternesse is gemenged seo swetnes þisse worulde.
With much bitterness is mingled the sweetness of this world.
þa þurfon swiþe lytles, þe maran ne willniaþ þonne genoges.
They need very little who desire no more than enough.
Se þe micele welan hæfþ, he him ondræt monigne feond.
He who has great riches dreads many an enemy.
Ne mæg non mon nænne cræft forþbringan butan wisdom.
No one can accomplish any skill without wisdom.
Eall þæt mon untidlice onginþ, næfþ hit no æltæþne ende.
Anything begun at the wrong time will never have a good end.
Ne nanwuht ne byð yfel, ær mon wene þæt it yfel seo.
Nothing is misery unless one thinks it is misery.
Metres of Boethius (#OEMet)
A version of the metrical sections of the Consolation of Philosophy in English poetry.
Æghwilc ðing þe on þys andweardan
life licað lænu sindon.
Everything which is pleasing in this present life is on loan.
þæt hi on ðis lænan mægen life findan
The unwise think they can find true joy in this transitory life.
From the works of the homilist Ælfric, one of the greatest (and certainly most prolific!) writers of Old English prose.
Preface to Latin Grammar:
Ælc mann þe wisdom lufaþ biþ gesælig.
Everyone who loves wisdom is blessed.
Þæt folc bið gesælig... and gesundful þurh gesceadwisne reccend.
A people is made happy and prosperous by a wise ruler. (CH II, 21)
Lange sceal leornian se þe læran sceal.
Long must he study who is to teach. (CH II, 21)
Needs no explanation!
in mægþa gehwære man geþeon. (24-25)
By praiseworthy deeds shall one prosper among peoples everywhere.
Scearp scyldwiga [sceal] gescad witan
worda ond worca. (288-9)
A sharp warrior must know the difference between words and deeds.
Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel. (455)
Fate ever goes as it must.
Wyrd oft nereð
unfægne eorl þonne his ellen deah. (572-3)
Fate often saves an undoomed man, when his courage is good.
Gemyne mærþo, mægenellen cyð,
waca wið wraþum. (659-60)
Think of glory, show great courage, keep watch against the foe.
A mæg God wyrcan wunder æfter wundre,
wuldres hyrde. (930-1)
God may ever work wonder after wonder, the Guardian of glory.
Bið andgit æghwær selest,
ferhðes foreþanc. (1059-60)
Understanding is everywhere best,
forethought in mind.
Ure æghwylc sceal ende gebidan
worolde lifes; wyrce se þe mote
domes ær deaþe. (1386-8)
Each of us must await the end of life in this world; let him who can achieve glory before death.
Ðys dogor þu geþyld hafa
weana gehwylces. (1395-6)
This day, have patience in every affliction. (Beowulf advising Hrothgar)
selran gesohte þæm þe him selfa deah. (1838-9)
Distant lands are best sought by one who is worthy in himself.
Sceal æghwylc mon
alætan lændagas. (2590-1)
Every man will have to relinquish the days loaned to him.
Sibb æfre ne mæg
wiht onwendan, þam ðe wel þenceð. (2600-1)
Kinship can never in any way be set aside, for one who thinks rightly.
Sinc eaðe mæg,
gold on grunde, gumcynnes gehwone
Treasure, gold in earth, may easily overwhelm any of the human race.
Deað bið sella
eorla gehwylcum þonne edwitlif. (2890-1)
Death is better for any warrior than a life of disgrace.
Oft sceall eorl monig anes willan
wræc adreogan. (3077-8)
Often must many a warrior suffer misery because of the will of one person.
Fragments of a heroic poem; text and translation can be found here.
Ne læt ðin ellen nu gyt
gedreosan to dæge. (6-7)
Do not now allow your courage to fail on this day.
Weorða ðe selfne
godum dædum, ðenden ðin God recce. (22-3)
Bring honour to yourself with good deeds, while God guides you.
The Old English Rune Poem (#RunePoem)
A poem which lists the alphabet of Anglo-Saxon runes, with a short poetic descriptor for each rune, which in language and form have links to Old English wisdom poetry.
Feoh byþ frofur fira gehwylcum,
sceal ðeah man... hyt dælan.
Wealth is a comfort to every man; but one should give it away.
Gyfu gumena byþ gleng and herenys,
wraþu and wyrþscype.
Gift-giving is a glory and ornament of men, a help and an honour.
Wynn bruceþ þe can wana lyt,
sares and sorge.
Happiness is enjoyed by the one who knows little want, sorrow or suffering.
Hægl byþ hwitust corna; hwyrft hit of heofones lyfte.
Hail is the whitest of grains; it whirls down from the heavens.
Nyd byþ nearu on breostan;
weorþeþ hi þeah oft niþa bearnum
to helpe and to hæle.
Need lies heavy on the heart; but it often becomes a help and a healer for the children of men.
Is... glisnaþ glæshluttur, gimmum gelicust,
flor forste geworuht.
Ice glistens glass-clear, gem-like, a floor built by frost.
Man byþ on myrgþe his magan leof;
sceal þeah anra gehwylc oðrum swican.
Man in joy is dear to his kin; but they will have to part.
Dæg biþ dryhtnes sond, deore mannum,
mære metodes leoht.
Day is the Lord's messenger, dear to men, the glorious Ruler's light.
Eþel byþ oferleof æghwylcum men.
Home is very dear to every man.
Yr biþ æþelinga and eorla gehwæs
wynn and weorþmynd,
A bow is to princes and warriors everywhere a joy and an honour.
Ear byþ egle eorla gehwylcun.
The grave is a horror to every man.
wynna gewitaþ, wera geswicaþ.
Fruits fall, joys depart, agreements pass away.
A poem from British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. i.
Cyning sceal rice healdan. (1)
A king should guard a kingdom.
Ceastra beoð feorran gesyne,
orðanc enta geweorc. (1-2)
Cities are seen from afar, the skilful work of giants.
Wind byð on lyfte swiftust,
þunar byð þragum hludast. (3-4)
Wind in the sky is swiftest, thunder is at times the loudest.
Winter byð cealdost,
lencten hrimigost, he byð lengest ceald;
sumor sunwlitegost, swegel byð hatost,
hærfest hreðeadegost, hæleðum bringeð
geres wæstmas. (5-9)
Winter is coldest,
spring frostiest, it is the longest cold;
summer sun-fairest, the sun is hottest,
harvest is most glory-blessed, it brings to men the year's fruits.
fyrngearum frod, se þe ær feala gebideð. (11-12)
An old person is wisest, sage from past years, he who has endured much.
Wea bið wundrum clibbor. Wolcnu scriðað. (13)
Sorrow is strangely clinging. Clouds glide on.
Ellen sceal on eorle; ecg sceal wið hellme
hilde gebidan. (16)
Courage belongs in a warrior; sword against helmet shall face battle
Til sceal on eðle
domes wyrcean. (20-1)
A good man should earn glory in his homeland.
Draca sceal on hlæwe,
frod, frætwum wlanc. (26-7)
A dragon belongs in a barrow, old, proud in its treasures.
Cyning sceal on healle
beagas dælan. (28-9)
A king in the hall should deal out rings.
Treow sceal on eorle,
wisdom on were. (32-3)
Loyalty belongs in a warrior, wisdom in a man.
þyrs sceal on fenne gewunian
ana innan lande. (42-3)
A giant must dwell in the fen, alone in the land.
Tungol sceal on heofenum
beorhte scinan swa him bebead meotud. (48-9)
A star in the heavens must shine brightly, as the Lord ordered it.
Lif sceal wið deaþe, leoht sceal wið þystrum. (51)
Life must be against death, light against darkness.
A sceal snotor hycgean
ymb þysse worulde gewinn. (54-5)
A wise person should always be thinking about this world's strife.
Is seo forðgesceaft
digol and dyrne; drihten ana wat. (61-2)
The course of the future is hidden and secret; God alone knows.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (#ASChronicle)
Đonne se heretoga wacað þonne bið eall se here swiðe gehindred.
When the general weakens, the whole army is greatly hindered.
(A proverb quoted in the entry for 1003 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS. E), in reference to the cowardly ealdorman Ælfric.)
Wurðe ðe god se ende þonne God wylle.
May the end be good, when God wills.
(A comment in the entry for 1066 in MS. D, in reference to the Norman Conquest.)
The Battle of Maldon (#BattleofMaldon)
A wonderful poem about a battle fought against Danish raiders in 991 at Maldon in Essex.
Ne mæg na wandian se þe wrecan þenceð
He must not hesitate at all who intends to avenge his lord.
Mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað. (313)
Mind must be the greater, as our strength diminishes.
Instructions for Christians (#Instructions)
A poem surviving in one twelfth-century manuscript, Cambridge, University Library, Ii. 1. 33 (on which see this page). It's edited in Christopher A. Jones, Old English Shorter Poems: vol. I, Religious and Didactic (Cambridge, Mass., 2012), pp. 138-155.
Sceal þegna gehwilc geþylde nimon. (28)
Every man must acquire patience.
Eal þæt þu her sceawast hit is sceaduwa gelic,
æll hit gewitað. (37-8)
All that you see here is like a shadow; it will all vanish.
Ne scyle wandian witona ænig
þæt he his ælmessan ofte gesylle. (47-8)
No wise person should hesitate to give alms often.
Se forholena cræft and forhyded gold
ne bið ællunga ungelice. (69-70)
Concealed skill and hidden gold are not entirely unalike.
Þu scealt gelome gelæran and tæcan. (75)
You should be often teaching and instructing.
Onlær þinum bearne bysne goda,
and eac swa some eallum leoda. (79-80)
Teach your child by good example, and all people likewise.
[Leornunge] geeadmodað eghwylcne kyng,
swilce þone earman eac aræreð
and þa saula swa some geclensað
and þæt mod gedeþ mycle ðe bliðre.
And heo eac æþelne gedeð þone ðe ær ne wæs;
eac heo þrah-mælum þeowne gefreolsað. (87-92)
Learning humbles every king;
so too she raises up the poor,
and souls she cleanses,
and makes the mind much the happier;
and she makes a man noble who was not so before,
and many times she sets the handmaid free.
Se ðe ear gifeð and eft oftihð...
bysmer he gewyrceð. (96-7)
He who gives and takes it back again does a shameful thing.
Nis þæt þearfan hand þæt ðe þince her,
ac hit is madmceoste Godes. (188-9)
What seems to you a beggar's hand is God's treasure-chest. (Literally: 'that is not a beggar's hand, which appears to be so to you here; rather it is the treasure-chest of God.)
Hafa ðu geleafa to lifes frumon;
gewuna þar ðu wunodest. (209-10)
Have faith in the creator of life; dwell where you have dwelt.
Wisdom is leoht wera æghwilcum
to habbanne her on weoruldæ.
Hit sceal beon onæled mid eadmodnesse. (229-231)
Wisdom is a light for everyone to have here in this world; it must be kindled by humility.
Ne scealt þu dysilice sprecan...
ymban ænigne eorðbuendra. (241-2)
You should not speak foolishly about any dweller on earth.
Adrian and Ritheus (#AdandRi)
A dialogue in the twelfth-century manuscript BL Cotton Junius A.II.
Hwæt bið betst and wyrst?
Ic ðe secge, mannes word.
What is the best and the worst thing?
I tell you, man's word.
Hwylc bið se leasa freond?
...gefera to beode and na to neodþearfe.
Who is a false friend? A friend at table, not in time of need.
The Grave (#TheGrave)
A short poem from a twelfth-century manuscript, Bodleian Library, Bodley 343; it can be read in full here.
Ðe wes molde imynt, er ðu of moder come.
For you the dust was intended, before you came from your mother.
Apollonius of Tyre (#AofT)
The romance Apollonius of Tyre, perhaps the earliest work of prose fiction in the English language.
Nis naðer ne gold ne seolfor wið godes mannes freondscipe wiðmeten.
Neither gold or silver can compare to a good man's friendship.
Proverbs from British Library, Cotton Faustina A X (#FaustAX)
Se æppel næfre þæs feorr ne trenddeð he cyð hwanon he com.
The apple never rolls so far that it doesn't show where it came from.
Hat acolað, hwit asolað,
leof alaðaþ, leoht aðystrað.
Heat grows cool, white grows dirty,
love grows loathsome, light grows dark.
Æghwæt forealdað þæs þe ece ne byð.
Everything grows old which is not eternal.