"And whether coldness, pride, or virtue dignify
A woman, so's she's good what does it signify!"
BYRON, Don Juan.
IF we are to believe an old German proverb, "there are only two good women in the world: one of them is dead, and the other is not to be found"--a statement which probably even few disparagers of the fair sex would be ready to accept, although it may be supplemented by an equally ungallant French saying which asserts that "a man of straw is worth a woman of gold."
But it must be remembered that, in formulating maxims of this kind, individual prejudice has in only too many cases been responsible for originating them, and, despite their having in the course of years passed into proverbs, they must not always be regarded as expressive of the consensus of opinion of the country to which they belong. Thus, going back to an early period, Ovid was of opinion that "it is easy for a woman to be good when all that hinders her from being so is removed;" and, although an old English proverb says, "All women are good," it qualifies this assertion by cautiously adding, "good for something, or good for nothing;" but the Hindu proverb declares that "oil and the pure woman will both rise."
With all due deference to the fair sex, it must unfortunately be acknowledged that much of the proverbial lore under this heading relating to them is far from being of a complimentary nature, as who, for instance, has not heard of the familiar adage:--
"If a woman were as little as she is good,
A peascod would make her a gown and a hood;"
and, "She's a good maid, but for thought, word, and deed." And this estimate of woman's worth has been largely endorsed by those who have generally been credited with having possessed some knowledge of human life. Thus Pope says:--
"Shouldst thou search the spacious world around,
Yet one good woman is not to be found;"
and Massinger speaks in the same strain:--
"How sweetly sounds the voice of a good woman.
It is so seldom heard that, when it speaks,
It ravishes all senses."
But, confining ourselves more especially to the proverbial lore of the subject, the Spanish warn a man to "beware of a bad woman, and to put no trust in a good one;" and according to an African proverb, "a woman never brings a man into the right way." Plautus, too, was of the same opinion, remarking, "He that can avoid women, let him do so, so as to take care each day not to do what he may regret on the morrow."
The scarcity of good women is often illustrated by such adages as the following:--
"A good woman is worth--if she were sold--
The fairest crown that's made of pure gold"
--the idea, of course, being that such a woman is not to be found; with which may be compared the couplet:--
"Show me a man without a spot,
And I'll show you a maid without a blot."
Again, the familiar couplet:--
"A spaniel, a woman, and a walnut tree,
The more they're beaten the better they be,"
may be traced back as far as Martial. There are several versions of this time-honoured maxim, one of which is furnished by Moor in his "Suffolk Words" (p. 465):--
"Three things by beating better prove--
A nut, an ass, a woman:
The cudgel from their back remove,
And they'll be good for no man."
Webster, in his "White Devil" (1612, act iv. sc. 4), had the same proverb in mind when he made Flamineo say:--
"Why do you kick her, say?
Do you think that she's like a walnut tree?
Must she be cudgell'd ere she bear good fruit?"
And at the present day the Italians are wont to affirm, "Women, asses, and nuts require rough hands;" with which may be compared the Chinese adage, "Nothing will frighten a wilful wife but a beating." Such chastisement of women was really carried into effect in the so-called days of chivalry, as may be inferred from the precepts of the knightly orders which directed that ladies should be treated respectfully and tenderly. And yet, on the other hand, as it has been pointed out, "the social annals of our Anglo-Saxon period comprise revolting stories of the barbarity of mistresses to their slaves; and in later times the lady of a castle or manorial seat was accustomed to rule her children and domestics with a severity surpassing that of the lord whom she obeyed with fear." But happily woman no longer lives under the lash as in the days of long ago, and, no matter how bad her character may be--
"The man who lays his hand upon a woman,
Save in the way of kindness, is a wretch,
Whom 'twere gross flattery to name a coward."
Indeed, he would be a bold man who, nowadays, would think to follow out with impunity the spirit of the old proverbial philosophy, and, under the impression that he was making his wife a good woman, put into practice the following admonition:--
"The crab of the wood is sauce very good
For the crab of the sea;
But the wood of the crab is sauce for a drab
That will not her huband obey."
The same idea is embodied in numerous other items of proverbial lore, such as "A ship and a woman want always trimming;" or, as another version has it, "Women are ships and must be manned." But this apparently does not always answer, for, as an old folk-rhyme reminds us:--
"To talk well with some women doth as much good
As a sick man to eat up a load of greenwood."
And, a propos of the subject, we may quote the case of the young girl who, on receiving an offer of marriage which she wished to accept, submitted the matter to her father, who advised her against matrimony, using as an argument St. Paul's words, "They who marry do well; but they who do not, do better." "Well," replied the damsel, "I love to do well; let those do better who can."
The Scotch would appear to be more gallant in their opinion of the fair sex, if we can place reliance on the following adage:--
"A' are gude lasses, but where do the ill wives come frae?"
--a saying which has its equivalent in Spain, where there is a proverb, "All are good maids, but whence come the bad wives?"
Even the good woman is warned against the contaminating influence of her own sex, for, as an Eastern piece of proverbial lore tells us, "A good woman, beset by evil women, is like the chaste mimosa surrounded by poisonous herbs"--Illustrations of which maxim under a variety of forms are to be met with in most countries; a popular Oriental adage warning us that "bad company is friendship with a snake fencing with a sword." But it has been generally held that "as the woman, so her friends," an Osmandi proverb reminding us that "the life of a good woman is shown by her companions."
Equivocal as many of the proverbial sayings are when speaking of woman's goodness, it may be noted that the reverse is invariably the case in the folk-tales and legends which have immortalised in a hundred and one ways their deeds of bravery and self-denial. At Lilliard's Edge, for instance, in Roxburghshire, was fought, in 1545, the battle of Ancrum Moor, in which, according to tradition, a female warrior named Lilliard, when covered with wounds, continued to fight on the Scotch side, in the name of Squire Witherington. Buried on the field of victory, a stone was raised to her good memory, on which were written these words:--
"Fair Maiden Lilliard lies under the stane,
Little was her stature, but great was her fame;
Upon the English loons she laid mony thumps,
And when her legs were cuttit off, she fought upon her stumps."
Folk-lore can boast of numerous historic rhymes of this class, and elsewhere we have alluded to some of the old Church builder's legends which owe their origin to the marvellous efforts of noble and good women. Thus, to give one example, a pretty legend is told of the building of Linton Church, which is situated on a little knoll of fine, compact sand, without any admixture of stone, even pebbles, and widely different from the soil of the neighbouring heights. The sand has, however, hardened into stone, yet the particles are so coherent that the sides of ready-made graves appear smooth as a wall to the depth of fifteen feet. This singular phenomenon is thus accounted for by the local tradition: Many, many years ago a young man killed a priest, and was condemned to death for murder and sacrilege. By the intervention of two good women--his two sisters--his life was spared on condition that they should sift as much sand as would form a mound on which to build a church.
The maidens undertook the task, but on their brother's liberation at the completion of the church one of them died immediately "either from the effects of past fatigue, or overpowering joy."