In the late fourteenth-century Book of Vices and Virtues, the glutton uses a proverb to excuse himself from getting up early to go to church.
God biddeþ hym ryse herly; his womb biddeþ hym lye stille, for he is to ful to rise so herly. ‘I mote slepe, for þe chirche is noon hare; he wol abide me wel.’
[God bids him to rise early, his stomach bids him to lie still, for he is too full to rise so early, ‘I must sleep, for the church is not a hare, he will abide me well.’]
The proverb uses the image of a hare to capture the idea that the church is not going anywhere, it can wait for the glutton to drag himself out of bed to visit. I came across this proverb in the course of my research for my book on the ways in which the church is represented in Middle English texts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the late Middle Ages a lot of time and energy was spent on teaching the laity how to behave in the church and proverbs are one way of thinking about the commonly held beliefs and attitudes about the building.
Rabbits and hares often appear in marginal illustrations in medieval manuscripts, frequently taking on the roles of humans to humorous effect. Such images represent ‘the world upside-down’. Here (right) is an example from an early fourteenth century Book of Hours in the Walters Art Museum (Walters MS 102; for further images and a description of the manuscript, see here). Like the proverb in which the church is declared to be ‘noon hare’, the image of the rabbit ringing the church bells is incongruous and amusing.
In the medieval bestiary tradition, the hare is known for its swiftness and speed and in the proverb the comparison is used to stress the solidity, stability, and permanence of the church building. These are all positive qualities and although the comparison conjures up a wonderful image of the church scampering away into the hedgerows in a ‘world upside-down’ scenario, there is a serious issue at play. The sinful man manipulates the positive image of the constant and enduring church as an excuse for neglecting his spiritual duties. And although the church building will abide, the state of his soul will not.
The proverb also appears in a fifteenth-century sermon collection called Jacob’s Well and the author concludes with an architectural metaphor, declaring that gluttony is ‘gate of synnes, be þe wiche alle oþere synnes entryn in-to man’ [gate of sins, by which all other sins enter into man] By putting off entering the door of the parish church, the glutton opens the gates to further sins which may, ultimately, lead him to the gates of hell.
Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases : From English Writings mainly before 1500, ed. B.J. Whiting (1968) [Thank you to Nadine, @bananadine, for the reference to Whiting!]
(Doodle of the church running away after a hare by Steph Simpson, @DDDaydreams)
The Book of Vices and Virtues, ed. W. Francis Nelson, Early English Text Society o.s. 217 (1942)
Jacob’s Well, ed. Arthur Brandeis, Early English Text Society o.s. 115 (1900)