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«Proverbs Speak Louder Than Words»

Wisdom in Art, Culture, Folklore, History, Literature and Mass Media

Wolfgang Mieder

The ten chapters of «Proverbs Speak Louder Than Words» present a composite picture of the richness of proverbs as significant expressions of folk wisdom as is manifest from their appearance in art, culture, folklore, history, literature, and the mass media. The first chapter surveys the multifaceted aspects of paremiology (the study of proverbs), with the second chapter illustrating the paremiological work by the American folklorist Alan Dundes. The next two chapters look at the effective role that proverbs play in the mass media, where they are cited in their traditional wording or as innovative anti-proverbs. The fifth chapter discusses proverbs as expressions of the worldview of New England. This is followed by two chapters on the proverbial prowess of American presidents, to wit the proverbial style in the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams and a discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s apocryphal proverb «Don’t swap horses in the middle of the stream.» The eighth chapter traces the tradition of proverb iconography from medieval woodcuts to Pieter Bruegel the Elder and on to modern caricatures, cartoons, and comic strips. The last two chapters deal with the origin and history of the proverbial expression «to tilt at windmills» as an allusion to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the many proverbial utterances in Mozart’s letters. The book draws attention to the fact that proverbs as metaphorical signs continue to play an important role in oral and written communication. Proverbs as socalled monumenta humana are omnipresent in all facets of life, and while they are neither sacrosanct nor saccharine, they usually offer much common sense or wisdom based on recurrent experiences and observations.

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8. “A Picture Worth More Than a Thousand Words” Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs 251

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Folklorists, philologists, art and cultural historians, literary scholars, and to be sure also paremiologists have shown by way of interdisciplinary and compara- tive studies that the sixteenth century deserves to be called the golden age of proverbs. This fascination with traditional metaphors was evident already in the late Middle Ages and continued well into the seventeenth century, but there can be no doubt that the preoccupation with proverbs and proverbial expressions as colorful linguistic signs of human behavior had reached an unsurpassed climax in the age of the Renaissance, Humanism, and the Reformation with its ensuing Counter-Reformation. Humanist scholars did their best in compiling proverb collections of classical times with Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Adagia of the year 1500 and its many steadily enlarged editions being the model. While there was a f lood of collections registering and explaining classical folk wisdom in Latin, scholars and literary authors also turned to that rich treasure trove of proverbs that were current in the vernacular languages (Meadow 1993 and 2002). Dozens of collec- tions were assembled all over Europe, and the proverbs were also amassed in the literary works of such well-known authors as Sebastian Brant, François Rabelais, William Shakespeare, and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (see Mieder and Bryan 1996). This fascination with the apparent wisdom contained in proverbs and the colorful imagery of proverbial expressions was fueled by three major concerns, first the pure and simple delight in collecting traditional language, second the “A Picture Worth More Than A Thousand Words...

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