Ancient sayings literature

I collect joke books.  Most evenings I get home, tired, and I’m not really in the mood to read something heavy.  Instead I pick up a joke book, open it anywhere, read a few lines and always find something to make me smile.

Anyone who has bought joke books will be familiar with the way that the exact wording can change.  The contents of any book will vary, depending on what the author had access to.  Some jokes are attributed to famous people in one book, and are anonymous in others. 

Collections of wit and wisdom are not modern inventions.  Someone has invented the horrible term ‘gnomologia’ – literally ‘words of wisdom’ – to describe these things.  That’s enough to put anyone off!  But it means the same.  These are ancient collections of wit and wisdom.

I’ve been reading Denis Searby’s edition of the Corpus Parisinum (although the library have seen fit to only send me volume 1, the Greek text!).  I am struck by the way in which the contents of this monstrous 9th century collection of sayings, anecdotes, apophthegms (a long word for ‘bits of sage wisdom’) follow these rules also.

Joke books are a low-brow form of literature in our day, but a very popular one.  Likewise collections of sayings and wit were a popular form of literature, and occur all over the place in the manuscripts.  It is worth considering that one of Caxton’s first publications in English was a translation of an Arabic collection of wit and wisdom.  Doubtless he printed it primarily because he believed that he could sell it readily.

Some versions of the collection omit some or all of the names of the authors to whom each saying or story is attributed (the jargon for this is the ‘lemma’).  But clearly it is the wit of the saying which is important, not the specific person as a rule.  We would never criticise a joke book author for changing attribution, if it made the joke funnier, after all.

As the Greek language changed, sayings had to be rewritten.  An archaic word might dull the point of some saying; it would have to be rephrased.  Translations into Syriac and Arabic were initially very literal.  But quickly they would be rephrased or rewritten in order to work in their new context.  Impact is everything with a joke or anecdote; without it, it loses its point.  Unfunny jokes are not repeated.

Modern jokes are usually delivered orally.  There is thus an oral stage to transmission, particularly with the Arabic material, where the culture favours quotations of sententious wisdom and so is favourable to exactly this form of literature.

Other volumes are collections of anecdotes.  After-dinner stories can be  bought in most bookshops.  Again, Bar Hebraeus compiled a volume of anecdotes, published by E. Wallis Budge as “The laughable stories.”  These follow the same sorts of rules.  Many a modern story is attributed to Churchill, or Oscar Wilde.  Arabic ones tended to end up attributed to Aristotle.

Dr Searby makes a couple of interesting points about the transmission of these works.  For one thing, if we are trying to produce a critical edition, precisely what is the autograph?  In what sense is there an original?

Secondly he suggests that, within the limits given above, the transmission of the content of sayings is quite faithful. 

It’s clearly a mistake to treat these sayings collections as if they were literary works like a poem or a history.  Their nature means that they must be transmitted differently, the text is expected to be altered, is expected to have additional material added.  There is no fraud or dishonesty in this; merely the nature of the genre.

PS: After writing this I began to read the “Laughable stories”.  Saying 56: “A rich man wrote above the door of his house, ‘No evil thing may enter.’  Diogenes said, ‘Fine; but how is your wife to come in, then?’”

2 Responses to “Ancient sayings literature”


  1. bulbul

    Arabic ones tended to end up attributed to Aristotle
    Or Socrates. Or David. Or Solomon. Or, quite often, Luqman the Sage, especially due to his elevated status as a Quranic personality.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Interesting indeed – thank you.