In the many volumes of Luther’s Works (Luthers Werke, Weimarer Ausgabe), which this blog noted earlier has about 30 million words, one scholar counted about 5000 German proverbs or proverbial expressions. Put in that perspective, one can conclude the German proverb or folk saying was not an essential tool for Luther. Supporting that is the fact that only a few dozen proverbs or proverbial expressions are found in his eight volumes of letters. The proverbs are concentrated primarily in the Table Talk and to a lesser extent in his polemics. Table Talk reveals Luther as a vibrant, earthy conversationalist who often liked to shock his listeners. His polemics were laced with vulgar insults.
What is the source for the contention that Luther was greatly interested in proverbs?
Dr. Ernst Thiele [1856-1922]
It would seem the discovery of a list of 489 proverbs in the great man’s own handwriting is the cause of this belief. He never published the list. Perhaps it was a mild interest of a man with myriad interests. In 1900 Ernst Thiele published the list of 489 in his book Luthers Sprichwortsammlung (Luther’s Collection of Proverbs). This book is still in print if you enjoy torturing your eyes by reading Fraktur. In 1914 Thiele and Otto Bremer massaged the list even more for Volume 51 of Weimarer Ausgabe. Thiele is also remembered for a book on Luther’s use of fables as well as being the author of volume 5 of Weimarer Ausgabe: Luther’s work on the Psalms 1519-1521. Dr. Thiele was the proverbial Luther scholar, armed with German and Latin.
Dr. James C. Cornette [1918-1991]
Martin Luther seems to have become mildly interested in proverbial sayings in about the late 1520’s (Luther was in his mid-40s). His interest almost seemed a visceral disgust with a much-praised collection of proverbs by Johannes Agricola, a scholar Luther particularly disliked. Luther maintained his own list of proverbs for about 10 years. None of his friends are known to have been aware of the list. So his list is not known to be fundamental to any work he did, although he would use a proverb if he thought it would be affective. He was a master wordsmith.
His list and general use of proverbs is accessible in the work of James Cornette’s Proverbs and proverbial expressions in the German works of Martin Luther, published in 1997 (rescued by Wolfgang Mieder and Dorothee Racette after the unpublished doctoral thesis had been buried since 1942). Most of the proverbs on Luther’s handwritten list of 489 are mundane, in many the real sense of the idiom probably lost. Note that when Cornette compiled his lists of all uses of proverbs by Luther only about half of Luther’s Works (Weimarer Ausgabe) had been completed, although all six volumes of Table Talk had been published.
Examples of mundane sayings are:
Armut wehe thut. [Poverty hurts]
Aus den aügen, aus dem hertzen. [Out of the sight, out of the heart]
Mein brod ist gebacken. [My bread is baked]
Was nicht dein ist, das las ligen. [What is not yours, let lie]
Gut ding wil weil haben. [A good thing takes a while.]
Wens ende gut ist, so ists alles gut. [If the end is good, everything is good.]
Das ist das ende vom liede. [That is the end of the song.]
Wer nyrn ist der wird nymer sat. [He who is fed becomes insatiable]
Bleib daheymen mit deinen faulen fisschen. [Stay home with your rotten fish]
Mancher geneusst seiner mutter und nicht seines Vatters. [Many enjoy their mother but not their father.]
Geld ist sein herr. [Money is his master]
Wers gluck hat, furet die braut heym. [Whoever has luck brings the bride home.]
Viel hende machen leicht erbeit. [Many hands make easy work.]
Wers kan dem kompts. [Who knows what comes.]
Kunst gehet nach brod. [Art gets no bread.]
Vogel singt wie der Schnabel gewachsen ist. [A Bird sings as the beak is growing.]
Torlich wort bringen torlich werck. [Foolish words bring foolish deeds.]
Die glock ist gegossen. [The bell is cast.]
More than a few are scatological:
Du bist der rechter kluglin zeümest das pferd ym arse. [You are the right wiseacre to bridle the horse in the ass.]
Er hat humel ym arse. [He has a bumblebee in his ass.]
Sein dreck stinckt auch. [His shit stinks too]
An armen hoffart, saget man, wischet der teufel seinen hindern. [A poor pride, they say, wipes the devil’s behind.]
Klein leuten ligt der dreck nahe. [No people locate near filth.]
Wir sind wol zu scheiden, wie ein reiffer dreck und ein weit arssloch. [We are well to separate, as a ripe turd and a wide asshole.]
Gewis wie ein fortz ynn der reussen. [Secure as a fart in the basket.]
Wie das pissen widder den wind. [Like pissing against the wind.]
Es wil dreck regnen. [It will rain shit.]
Meuse dreck vnter pfeffer. [Mouse shit in the pepper]
Sexual innuendos are very few and mild to a modern ear:
Mancher vbel von weibern redet Weis nicht Was sein mutter thet. [Many who speak badly of their wives don’t know what their own mothers did.]
Horner auff setzen. [Put on horns (cuckold)]
Dann wann einer mit der frawen bulen viel, muss er mit der magdt anfahen. [If one wants to make love with a lot of women, he must begin with the maiden.]
The above is a sparse sample of Luther’s collection. The general tone of the sayings, though probably pithy in a certain setting, are bland, not witty, not profound. This may explain why Luther never felt compelled to publish and expound on them. It is this blogger’s opinion that Martin Luther’s need for proverbs and subsequent use is of questionable significance. He was more or less a Bible-committed Christian with a humanist bent. This is not meant to detract from Dr. Cornette’s Herculean effort. He was however more than a Luther scholar or a paremiologist (scholar of proverbs); he was also a linguist and taught the modern languages of German, French, and Spanish.
COMING: Martin Luther's least favorite books of the Bible.
Just which Bianca Sforza did da Vinci sketch?