The health of the mind and the body has preoccupied people since the beginning of human existence. The classical Latin proverb “Mens sana in corpore sano” formulated by the satirical Roman poet Juvenal (60?-140?) and appearing in English translation as “A sound mind in a sound body” for the first time in the year 1578 (Wilson 1970:755) merely summarizes in a typically proverbial parallel structure a bit of folk wisdom based on generations of common-sense medical observation and experience that continues to be as valid a truth today as it was centuries ago. The same is true for such general health rules as “Diseases come on horseback, but go away on foot”, “Health is better than wealth”, “Desperate diseases must have desperate cures”, “Bitter pills may have blessed effects”, and of course also the Latin proverb “Similia similibus curantur” or its English translation “Like cures like” which became the underlying principle of homeopathy (Trºmpy 1966). Such ancient medical advice in the form of folk proverbs was translated in the Middle Ages into most vernacular languages (Gluski 1971:190-193), making these proverbs part of an internationally disseminated corpus.

There exists, however, also a considerable number of medical proverbs which originated and gained currency in individual ethnic or national languages (Kelly 1879:199-203, Christy 1887:489-492). There is not a proverb collection that doesn’t contain some proverbs commenting on matters of health or illness, and special collections of medical proverbs have also been assembled dating back to the late Middle Ages (Moll 1958:534-537). An early specialized English collection of medical proverbs is included in John Ray’s (1627-1705) A Compleat Collection of English Proverbs (1670) with the telling title “Proverbs and Proverbial Observations belonging to Health, Diet and Physick” (pp. 25-32). Here we find already such well-known health rules as “After dinner sit a while, after supper walk a mile”, “A good surgeon must have an eagle’s eye, a lion’s heart, and a lady’s hand”, “Butter is gold in the morning, silver at noon, lead at night”, “One hour’s sleep before midnight is worth two hours after”, and “The best physicians are Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merryman”. Vincent Stuckey Lean (1820-1899) published in 1902 dozens of English and other European medical proverbs dealing with dietary matters, drink, fruit, meals, vegetables, food as well as health and sickness (Lean 1902:I,478-509). It is here where we find such everyday bits of wisdom as “Eat to live and not live to eat”, “Cider on beer, never fear; beer upun cider, makes a bad rider”, “The first step to health is to know that we are sick”, and “Every disease will have its course”. While these texts are admittedly not particularly enlightening from a scientific point of view, they nevertheless express some common-sense attitudes about basic health matters. Notice though the ironic tones of such proverbs as “Sickness soaks the purse”, “God does the cure and the physician takes the fee for it”, “One doctor makes work for another”, and “Doctors make the very worst patients”. Here the folk comments on some basic problems of the medical profession which are issues of controversy as much today as in former times (Bebermeyer 1978, Militz 1981).

But there is no doubt that most so-called medical proverbs are rather general statements that do not deal with very specific ailments or diseases. As Russell A. Elmquist has noted in an essay on “English Medical Proverbs”, proverbs hardly “give specific medical advice of a scientific nature” (Elmquist 1934-1935:78, see also Garrison 1928, and Taylor 1931:121-129). For the modern physician, surgeon or even medical professor, these health proverbs most likely appear a bit trite and certainly unscientific as far as the modern medical profession is concerned. Ancient proverbs obviously cannot compete with the scientific wisdom of scholarly books and journal articles on diseases that were not even known a decade ago. We thus have no proverbs about legionaire’s disease, organ transplants or AIDS, but there are dozens of proverbs about general health problems, such as the common cold, normal diet, sleep, hygiene, etc. (Loux and Richard 1978).

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

The four proverbs discussed in some detail in these pages represent the most popular medical wisdom expressed in folk proverbs. They do not contain scientific information based on laboratory research, but they are rather common-sense expressions based on generations of observation and experience. As with anything in life, their advice should be taken with moderation or cum grano salis. Already Hippocrates (460?-377?) argued that “Everything in excess is opposed to nature” (Stevenson 1948:719), and that is certainly true also for preventive medicine, sleeping patterns, taking care of colds and fevers, and eating apples. The fact that these proverbs give only general medical advice for healthy living will prevent them from becoming obsolete as many folk remedies have done. Our four proverbs are general enough that they have withstood the test of time and science, and it is our prognosis that they will continue to be used by people of all walks of life for generations to come.

While modern medicine advances with breath-taking speed, whose intricacies are to be understood only be the experts and appreciated by those who benefit from them, traditional medical proverbs remind us of the simple pleasures of life to be enjoyed as long as we adhere to everyday health rules. As stated at the beginning of these remarks, there are dozens of other sensible medical proverbs commenting on health and illness, and there are, of course, literally hundreds of general proverbs advising us how to live properly both medically and morally. Some of these gems of wisdom continue to have significant ethical value for people of a modern society. The platitude that “An apple a day makes 365 apples a year” (Mieder 1989:271) could therefore easily be varied to read “A proverb a day makes 365 proverbs a year”, and these proverbs are certainly food for thought just as apples are food for the body to assure that we continue to enjoy healthy minds in healthy bodies.

References Cited:

*Previously published in Mieder Proverbs Are Never Out of Season. Popular Wisdom in the Modern Age, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, pp. 152-172

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The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio – Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Whiting, Bartlett Jere 1952. Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings. In The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. Ed. Newman Ivey White, vol. I, 329-501. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

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Wilson, F. P. 1970. The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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Wolfgang Mieder
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405