By Cait Stevenson
Jane la Sauvage said, if someone sees a wolf before the wolf sees them, it will have no power to do any harm. And likewise from the person to the wolf.
The name on the front is the giveaway: this proverb, or rather “proverb,” comes from the fifteenth-century Distaff Gospels, a French text that mocks “old wives’ tales” and the women who tell them. The book has its stock character types, all women, take turns presenting lists of oddball advice. Other women characters supply a gloss to confirm or expand the “proverb.” The jest is that these silly women treat their nonsense saying as Scripture (accompanied textually by the Glossa ordinaria).
Except—the idea that danger lies not in the presence of a wolf but specifically in the wolf seeing the human first? It has a rich history in scientific writing stretching from Albert the Great at least back to Pliny the Elder:
In Italy also it is believed that there is a noxious influence in the eye of a wolf; it is supposed that it will instantly take away the voice of a man, if it is the first to see him. (Natural History 8.34)
which Albert explains as the wolf’s optical gaze physically poisoning the air.
But wait a minute. Does that mean the proverbs in the Distaff Gospels aren’t actually nonsense? Are some of them nonsense, and some of them real? What is the line between “superstition” and “folk wisdom”? Is the author making a deeper point about the target of his satire…is there another target in mind?
With those questions in mind, here are some really excellent proverbs from the Distaff Gospels. Which do you think reflect contemporary medieval wisdom?
1. If someone pees against the wall of a monastery or in a graveyard, it would not be surprising if they are stricken by a seizure before their deaths.
2. When you see a cat sitting in the sun in a window, licking its behind…be sure that it will rain that very day.
3. Those who find a four-leaf clover should keep it with respect and, as true as the gospel, they will be happy and rich all their life.
4. If you avoid wiping your rear end with grass, leaves, or other greenery, you will never have back pain. (Pyatine le Verde said to these words that those who abide by this teaching will never have a headache—but their shirt will often be brown in this place.)
5. I tell you also that God and reason forbid talking with any pregnant woman about any food which cannot be immediately obtained if needed, so that her baby will not have a mark on its body.
6. I tell you that when you put clean sheets on a bed, the angel of God rests there until someone farts.
7. If, when getting up in the morning, you cross yourself and wash your hands before leaving the house, the devil will not have the power to harm you.
8. If you don’t want to be attacked or barked at by dogs…you should have a morsel of good roasted cheese and give it to them while saying In camo et freno (a reference to Psalm 31:9), and for sure, you will be left in peace.
9. If a woman has a good cat and wants to keep it, she must rub its four legs with butter for three nights, then the cat will never leave the house.
10. When you see white friars walk or ride across the fields, you should not go that way because of the foul weather that usually follows them.
See also: Advice Concerning Pregnancy and Health in Late Medieval Europe: Peasant Women’s Wisdom in The Distaff Gospels
Top Image: British Library MS Burney 97 f. 20