Albrecht Dürer's sketch of Frederick the Wise
at age 59 at the 1522 Reichstag.
Frederick the Wise learned Latin as a youth, even had favorites in Latin like Terence and Cato, both of whom spun elegant aphorisms so similar to proverbs. Frederick in childhood had become fond of ‘German proverbs’, blissfully unaware that many had been derived from classic antiquity and the Bible. As a man of the world he remained enamored and considered proverbs virtually equal in wisdom to the Bible. It was common, however, among all people in his time of illiteracy to quote proverbs. Even the literate nobility quoted proverbs, including some that targeted themselves. Some jibes were merely sour: “Where noblemen are, there are fancy sheets”. Many were acid: “When Adam hoed and Eve spun, where then was the nobleman?”. Some ran bitter: “Where there is a carcass, then don’t worry where the noblemen and ravens are”.
George Spalatin (Frederick's 'Boswell')
These barbs in no way soured Frederick on proverbs. His ‘Boswell’, George Spalatin, recorded Frederick’s 19 favorites. Translated freely from German they are:
1) Whatever one may not like, one should nevertheless look at in a friendly way.
2) If one wants to judge something, then one should know the reason of the matter from the beginning.
3) One should not speak easily, but what one assures, that one should keep.
4) One is not to believe everything like it has been said.
5) There lies on earth not much for the man.
6) I believe the shoemaker about the shoes, the tailor about the trousers and the smithie about the iron.
7) Every work praises its master.
8) Those are the largest fools, who think themselves wise.
9) The young consider themselves more clever than the old.
10) The unfaithful usually strike their own Lords.
11) The pious regret nothing.
12) Constancy endures the longest.
13) It is not all gold that glitters.
14) It is not all good that one praises.
15) There are many things easy to say but difficult to do.
16) Among the blind the one-eyed is king.
17) Foolery will have its place.
18) The Raven regards its young the most beautiful.
19) One can see well into another’s mouth, but one cannot see at all into his heart.
Contained in these proverbs are some of Frederick’s strongest character traits. He was famously reticent. He trusted few people, yet was careful to offend no one. He was very skeptical. He always sought the most expert opinions before making any decision. He was rigorously pious. He saw the absurdity of life.
Q. How did Frederick’s attitude about German proverbs differ from Martin Luther’s? (That is the subject of the next blog)
All proverbs above were freely translated from German by the blogger.
James C. Cornette, Proverbs and proverbial expressions in the German works of Martin Luther, ed. Wolfgang Mieder and Dorothee Racette (Bern: Lang, 1997) 69, 149, 37 (all translated)..
Georg Spalatin, Friedrichs des Weisen Leben und Zeitgeschichte von Georg Spalatin (Georg Spalatins historischer Nachlaß und Briefe 1), ed. Christian Gotthold Neudecker and Ludwig Preller (Jena: 1851), 32-33 (all translated).
Sam Wellman, Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther's Protector (Wild Centuries Press, 2011), 10-11.