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Ut piscis extra aquam

Original post date: Sunday, May 06, 2007

In English: Like a fish out of water.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's saying, which also featured some fish.

This is also a familiar saying, of course - just Google the phrase "fish out of water" and you will get over a million results! What is probably less familiar is the fuller form of this Latin saying, which betrays its medieval origins: Ut piscis extra aquam, sic monachus extra cellam, "Like a fish out of water, so is a monk out of his cell."

It's a powerful comparison: the fish out of the water will die, unable to breathe the air that we breathe so easily, and so the monk outside of his cell will suffer a spiritual death, suffocated in the secular world in which we live so easily.

Those of you who have read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales may be familiar with his adaptation of the medieval Latin saying:

...a monk, when he is cloisterless;
Is like to a fish that is waterless

Of course, Chaucer's monk does not agree with this saying at all! Here is the passage in full, in Chaucer's English and also in something a bit easier to read!

This ilke Monk leet olde thynges pace,
And heeld after the newe world the space.
He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,
That seith that hunters beth nat hooly men,
Ne that a monk, whan he is recchelees,
Is likned til a fissh that is waterlees,-
This is to seyn, a monk out of his cloystre
But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oystre;
And I seyde his opinioun was good.
What sholde he studie, and make hymselven wood,
Upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure,
Or swynken with his handes and laboure,
As Austyn bit? How shal the world be served?
Lat Austyn have his swynk to him reserved!

This same monk let such old things slowly pace
And followed new-world manners in their place.
He gave for that text not a plucked hen
Which holds that hunters are not holy men;
Nor that a monk, when he is cloisterless,
Is like unto a fish that's waterless;
That is to say, a monk out of his cloister.
But this same text he held not worth an oyster;
And I said his opinion was good.
Why should he study as a madman would
Poring a book in a cloister cell? Or yet
Go labour with his hands and work and sweat,
As Austin bids? How shall the world be served?
Let Austin have his toil to him reserved.

Well, as someone whose "swynk" consists precisely in "alwey to poure upon a book," or, rather, a blog (!), I am glad to announce that, yes, indeed, Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, too!

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

411. Ut piscis extra aquam.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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