Medieval Irish Wisdom, Gnomic Verse, and Memes

Medievalists.net has a feature on short, pithy Irish sayings, like proverbs.  There was one odd pairing:

A prostitute’s lot is uncertainty.
A timid person’s lot is uncertainty.

So … if you’re a timid person, you might as well be a prostitute? That just doesn’t seem right.

When it’s written as verse, this type of writing is often called “gnomic verse” or “gnomic poetry,” and it has been a very popular genre through the ages. It occupied a similar social space to internet memes today — short, little bits of wisdom that are easily transmitted.

A good example of how easily these are transmitted is the advice that Polonius gives Laertes in Act I, Scene 3 of Hamlet.

Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice [….]
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Chances are that if you know any lines beyond “To be or not to be” from Hamlet, you know these sayings.

If you’re interested in more ancient and medieval gnomic wisdom, you can find Proverbs here, or Anglo-Saxon gnomic verse (with some riddles) here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.