“The More You Beat ‘Em…”

Here’s a quaint rural versification for you all:

“A dog, a woman, and a walnut tree…
the more you beat ’em, the better they be.”

If this strikes you as an old-fashioned sentiment, that’s because it totally is:

Aesop’s fable [of the walnut tree] had served as basis for an independent version by Laurentius Abstemius in his Hecatomythium, published in the 1490s. Numbered 65, De nuce, asino et muliere describes how a woman asked the abused tree ‘why it was so foolish as to give more and better nuts when struck by more and stronger blows? The tree replied: Have you forgotten about the proverb that goes: Nut tree, donkey and woman are bound by a similar law; these three things do nothing right if you stop beating them.’ The moral that Abstemius draws from it is that people talk too much for their own good.

The Italian proverb based on this lore was perpetuated in Britain for the next two centuries. George Pettie’s translation of the Civil Conversations of Stefano Guazzo (1530–93), a book first published in Italy in 1574, records that he had once come across the proverb ‘A woman, an ass and a walnut tree, Bring more fruit, the more beaten they be’. What is now the better known English version appears shortly after in the works of John Taylor,

A woman, a spaniel and a walnut tree,
The more they’re beaten the better still they be.

Roger L’Estrange includes Abstemius’ story in his Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists a century later. His shortened version runs: ‘A Good Woman happen’d to pass by, as a Company of Young Fellows were Cudgelling a Wallnut-Tree, and ask’d them what they did that for? This is only by the Way of Discipline, says one of the Lads, for ’tis natural for Asses, Women, and Wallnut-Trees to Mend upon Beating.’

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