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Weakest go to the wall

Q From Brian Hudson: My parish magazine has an article which relates the meaning of the weakest to the wall to the provision of seats at the back of churches for the infirm, at the time when congregations stood in the nave. Having taken your newsletter for some years, I have learned to ask, “Is this correct?”

A Aha, a convert. This story, and variations, are frequently given as the origin of this saying, especially in histories of ancient churches. Where etymology is concerned, it’s always worth querying the wisdom of the commons. On the other hand, since the expression is so ancient, I expected little could be said about it. Research proved how wrong I was.

What we do know for sure is that the expression is recorded first in the Coventry Mystery Plays of about 1500 in a form that’s very close to our modern proverb: “The weakest go ever to the wall”. It must surely have already been a well-known saying. A century later, Shakespeare uses it as a witty riposte by one Capulet servant to another:

SAMPSON: A dog of that house shall move me to stand. I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.
GREGORY: That shows ye a weak slave, for the weakest goes to the wall.

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, 1595-96.

This is where matters get complicated. A surprisingly large amount of ink has been expended in arguing, largely on the basis of this exchange, that the public road is the origin of the expression. It all hangs, you may be astonished to learn, on the profile of the narrow streets of crowded medieval towns. One theory assumes that they were cambered like modern ones, sloping from the centre to gutters on either side:

In the days of our forefathers the streets were narrow, and there were no pavements; while discharging pipes and running gutters by the sides of the walls made the centre of the road the more agreeable place for the traveller. Wheeled conveyances of divers sorts passing and repassing forced the foot-passenger to the side of the road. Hence the proverb, “The weakest goes to the wall.”

Proverb Law, F Edward Hulme, 1902.

However, the most recent edition of Shakespeare that I have on my shelves, from the Royal Shakespeare Company, argues that streets sloped down from the sides to a gutter in the centre. It says that Sampson’s “I will take the wall” means he proposes to walk or ride in the best place, along the edge of the street by the wall, so forcing everybody else (Montagues in particular) into the gutter in the middle. From what little I know about medieval town drainage and the phrases in question, I’d guess that the RSC has this right, though as most streets have two sides, why the Montagues couldn’t simply walk along by the other wall puzzles me.

Perhaps the most widely held of the theories, after the church seating one, is to link a connection with medieval streets with another idiom, to have one’s back to the wall, meaning to be in dire straits with no way to escape. In a skirmish or mêlée, it’s argued, the weakest fighters would be forced to retreat until they could back no further. Contrariwise, you may feel that a position against a wall during a fight meant nobody could come at you from behind, limiting the number of assailants you had to cope with. The idea is often linked to a crush in a narrow street caused by heavy traffic or a riot. Bystanders would be forced against the walls with no place to go, a highly undesirable situation. The weak would literally be forced against the wall.

This doesn’t exhaust the theories. In no particular order of date or verisimilitude: To lie by the wall once referred to a ship laid up against a dock or harbour wall, hence useless; much has been made of a reference to the dialect of Norfolk and Suffolk in Francis Grose’s Provincial Glossary of 1787, “He lies by the wall. Spoken of a person dead but not buried”; one writer insisted that in the days of communal beds, the youngest and feeblest were placed on the inside against the wall, with the father on the outside of the bed ready to repel danger.

Modern references I’ve consulted, such as the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, cautiously subscribe to the origin you quote. They point to the installation of seats — usually stone benches — around the walls of churches in the late Middle Ages. These were reserved for the old or infirm, since everybody else stood during the services. As a result, it’s suggested, a link was created in people’s minds between being at the wall and incapacity or failure. But all the references accept there’s no evidence for it except common belief.

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Page created 20 Aug 2011