I have always been interested in what amused, intrigued and reflected ordinary people during the 16th century. But daily life & leisure in history can often appear like a coded exotic language that modern viewers have a hard time understanding. When interpreting pictures or sayings during the period while wearing modern glasses it is easy to unintended draw the wrong conclusions.
Some time ago I came across a, in my opinion, quite beautiful depiction by the Flemish artist Bruegel the elder from 1558. It depicts a man, most possibly slightly intoxicated, standing with his back towards the viewer and pissing on a moon. I initially loved the picture because of it’s lack of prestige and beautification – looking at it feels like peeking into a keyhole of 16th century Netherlands, and there seeing a drunk outside a tavern, taking a leak:
Then I realized there is a text under the picture:
“Vat ick vervolghe en geraecke dar niet aen ick pisse altyt tegen de maen” (Translation: Whatever I do, I do not repent, I keep pissing against the moon)
This little quote doesn’t really make any sense unless you are familiar with proverbs of the period. Proverbs were extremely popular during the 16th century, especially in the Netherlands. So popular even, that proverbs can often be found in their art of the period.
“To piss against the moon” essentially means “to waste one’s time on a futile endeavour”. It is a proverb that Bruegel seemed to enjoy drawing, possibly thanks to the delicate and humorous motif:
Don’t miss next weeks Flemish proverb from the 16th century!