Last week I started investigating 16th century Flemish proverbs, where we started with the proverb “to piss against the moon“. Bruegel the elder had a particular fascination of depicting proverbs. Not only is one of his most famous and utterly amusing paintings “The Blue Cloak” a collection of more than 120 proverbs – Bruegel also made a smaller collection of proverbs, originally made for plates, called “Twelve proverbs”. Now we have come to the depiction of an armored man hanging a bell around the neck of a somewhat annoyed cat, from said painting:
To put bells on cats may seem so the modern viewer as a perfectly sane thing to do – we do this to our pets all the time. But in this case, it refers to a very old fable that have developed into a proverb.
The fable tells how the mice are holding a secret meeting, trying to figure out how to stop the cat. They come with the genius idea to hang a bell around the cats neck, that will warn them when the cat approaches. But the plan fails when no mouse dares to perform the dangerous task of putting the bell on the cat. The wisdom of the fable is to that evaluating a plan is not only on how desirable the outcome would be, but also on how it can be executed.
To bell the cat means to “attempt, or agree to perform, an impossibly difficult task”.
Interestingly enough in the depiction above, Bruegel offers us three proverbs for the price of one: it not only includes To be armed to the teeth, something we still say to today (meaning to be heavily armed) but also the proverb To put your armor on, which means to be angry. A proverb to start using again, perhaps?