QotW (#66): 04 February 2019

Tilley Morris PalmerThis week finds me in a sombre, reflective mood.  Maybe it’s the continuation of Dry January (day 35 without alcohol, thanks very much).  There will, mind, be ‘more cakes and (especially) ale‘, at some stage, but not for a few weeks yet.  Apparently, I was ‘more fun’ when I was drinking, so bear with me.

Then, today is my younger son’s birthday: 18 today.  If that doesn’t give a man pause for thought on how time passes and how he has spent his life, I don’t know what will.

Which brings me to Morris Palmer Tilley.  Until recently a footnote in my life, and possibly that or less in yours …

dictionary-english-proverbs-16th-17th_1_4acbb2ff99908a6d2531e569b53cbb00My late self-congratulatory observations on 300 blog posts ring a little hollow in comparison to Tilley’s dedication to Shakespeare.  What you might not know, unless you look carefully at the notes in your plays, is that he compiled a dictionary of the proverbs that would have been current in Shakespeare’s time.  Why on earth would anyone do that?

Here’s the man himself:

In this Dictionary I have given especial prominence to Shakespeare, not only because of his unchallenged position but also because he knew the proverb more thoroughly than anyone else.  Proverbs reflected the common beliefs of the time, they were the small change of conversation.  It is obvious that Shakespeare observed the speech habits of those around him with careful attention. […] The proverb was everyone’s weapon.

‘The proverb was everyone’s weapon’: I love that last sentence, and I think we see that in every ‘battle of wits’ in the plays – be that the banter of lovers, the verbal jousting of young blades or the more serious political confrontations.  It’s also there in contemporary works, such as the pamphlets I’m currently working my way through …

So, whilst that is, effectively, my QotW, I also found myself curious about the kind of person that produces such a comprehensive and useful resource.   It feels churlish, especially at the moment, to pull a quotation out of the air and pillage Tilley’s work without pausing and reflecting,  I thought this tribute from his friend and colleague, Hereward T. Price, needed to accompany the post:

‘Tilley gave to his book thirty years of steady hard work […] . It is tragic that after spending so many arduous years upon his work Tilley should not have had the triumph of seeing it in print [having died the year before].

Tilley was not a dry-as-dust pedant, collecting sapless specimens for collection’s sake.  His work gave him a huge delight.  He chuckled over the humor of the proverbs and he admired their wisdom, their saltiness, and the frequent beauty of their form.  He hopes that other men would enjoy the rich feast he had prepared for them and that his labors might help the proverb to come into its own again.  Above all, he felt a deep responsibility to Shakespeare.’

If my experience as a teacher is anything to go by, Tilley would be a little disappointed.  I don’t believe the proverb has ‘come into its own again’ – I have to explain almost every one we come across, and there’s very little pithy wisdom in the conversations between my students, sadly.


Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, (University of Michigan Press:  Ann Arbor, 1950)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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