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Putting one’s foot into it

Last week, I wrote about the idiom to cry barley, used by children in Scotland and in the northern counties of England, but I was interested in the word barley “peace, truce” rather than the phrase. Today I am returning to the north, and it is the saying the bishop has put (or set) his foot in it that will be at the center of our attention. Both bishop and foot, deserve special posts, but they will have to wait: one for an explication of its strange phonetics, the other for laying bare its Indo-European roots.

Here is the relevant context for the bishop-and-foot idiom, as it was given in 1876:

“[The phrase] is used by farmers’ wives and cooks, who have pretty frequently occasion to boil milk to prevent it from spoiling…. Whatever care may be taken, it is sometimes very difficult to boil it without burning it…. When such a mishap occurs, the wife or a cook will say, ‘The bishop had a foot in it’.”

This odd phrase has been discussed many times, and my search on the Internet has shown that I don’t have more sources of information than that omniscient machine. But perhaps our readers do. In any case, the saying has never been explained to everybody’s satisfaction, and I have one or two feeble ideas to offer. Incidentally, when the same “mishap” ruins broth, porridge, or pudding, the result is laid at the door of the same mysterious miscreant. Mulled port is also called “bishop.”

The examples of the idiom in texts don’t antedate the sixteenth century, or, to be more precise, Thomas Tusser’s amusing and edifying poem Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (my spelling of the title is modernized). Tusser devoted a good deal of attention to cheese and explained what good cheese should not be. The section “Lesson for Dairy-Maid Cisley” opens with a proem from which we learn, among a few other things, that “bishop… turneth and burneth up all.” The special couplet on this subject reads so: “Bless Cisley (good mistress) that bishop doth ban / For burning the milk of her cheese to the pan.” Cisley must have been a name popular among the women belonging to “the lower orders” and thus servants. If I understand the couplet correctly, good mistress is a form of address, and Tusser apostrophizes the lady who employs Cisley, while bless and ban mean “forgive” and “curse” respectively: “Good mistress, forgive your maid Cisley, who burned the milk. She is not to blame: it was the bishop who caused the damage.” However, in the verse there may have been a double entendre we no longer hear (see below).

Tusser (ca. 1524-1580) was born in Essex, and later we find him in Oxfordshire, London, at Eton, and in Suffolk, while in the modern period the idiom that interests us was popular in Derbyshire and more to the north. But sixteenth-century poets wouldn’t have used the language that their readers were unable to understand. For example, when Shakespeare said (in Macbeth and King Lear) aroint thee, he must have relied on an audience at the Globe that knew what he meant. (Now aroint seems to be limited to Lancashire.) Likewise, we should probably conclude that in Tusser’s days the reference to the bishop and burned milk had wider currency than it did three hundred years later. All attempts to find the origin of the idiom have so far failed. The great William Tyndale wrote in his book The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528; this is an often-quoted passage; it will be reproduced below in its original orthography):

“When a thinge speadeth not well [does not succeed] we borrow speech and say the byshope hath blessed it, because that nothinge speadeth well that they medyll withal [meddle with]. If the podech [porridge] be burned to, or the meate ouer rosted, we saye the byshope hath put his fote in the potte, or the byshope hath playd the coke [cook]. Because the bishopes burn who they lust and whosoever displeaseth them.”

Several tentative conclusions can be drawn from this severe statement. First, it may not be too rash to suggest that at the beginning of the sixteenth century foot and pot almost rhymed; foot still had the vowel of Modern Engl. awe and differed from the short o of pot only in length. The alliterative idiom ran somewhat like to put the “fawt” in the pot and was equivalent to the modern put one’s foot into it. In the Protestant camp, Catholic bishops must have been accused of ruining and destroying things. The only remnant of that usage seems to be the ridiculous idea that bishops were responsible for burned food and, much less certainly, the verb bishop “to make an old horse look young.” The conclusion that burned milk, porridge, and the rest is due to bishops’ cruelty because those people burned heretics cannot be taken seriously: the contexts, one grim, the other almost humorous, do not match.

Is this bishop at fault?
Is this bishop at fault?

Two folk-etymological explanation of the idiom exist. Allegedly, in the pre-Reformation days the country people used to go out of their houses to ask the bishop’s blessing when he passed through a village, and in their hurry they would leave the boiling milk to be burned. This derivation looks like pure fantasy. Jonathan Bouchier (1738-1804), a serious philologist, also cited another explanation, namely that the phrase “was a popular allusion to the Bishops Gardiner and Bonner, of fiery disposition.” Naturally, he found that connection improbable. It seems that the Protestants ascribed all evil deeds to Catholic bishops, and the idiom reminds us of that attitude. Despite occasional references to broth, pudding, and so forth, the association with milk is surprisingly stable.

As usual, irritating snags appear in the most reasonable conjectures about etymology. The same remark (about cooks running out for a blessing and leaving the food to burn) has been recorded in French Flanders, a fact that is harder to connect with the Reformation. Moreover, French pas de clerc “the priest’s foot” means “a blunder caused by ignorance or ineptitude.” In the Middle Ages, Scotland had strong ties with France, and therefore Scots is full of French borrowings. The French phrase could have migrated to Scotland and northern England and to the midlands and received a reinterpretation in the sixteenth century. There does not seem to be an English analog of pas de clerc, so that the English idiom is hardly a direct rephrasing of the French one. All over Europe, people commented on the poverty and incompetence of priests in worldly matters.

I have only a short remark to add to what has been said above. It concerns a possible double entendre. Tusser wrote: “Blesse Cisley (good mistress) that bishop doth ban.” In this line, bless might have had the opposite (ironic) meaning, so perhaps the injunction was: “Curse the maid already cursed by the bishop.” But this is unlikely, even though I don’t quite understand why a maid who spoiled a dish should be blessed.

Image credits: (1) Burnt milk. © esvetleishaya via iStock. (2) A bishop from the set of medieval Lewis chess pieces. Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Photo by Jim Forest. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via jimforest Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    I don’t know if this will help the hunt, but Henry More (1614, born in Lincolnshire-1687) wrote about the intrusive bishop foot as smelly like the devil. Some heretics were said to be “phansying the sign of the De∣vil’s paw, or senting the Sulphur of Hell in every thing as strongly as the Bishop’s foot in milk burnt to the Skillet bottom.” P. 270 in Divine dialogues containing sundry disquisitions…Second Dialog. (London, 1668). {EEBO]

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Again, no guarantee (“Malt does more than Milton can…” Housman wrote, on another subject), but John Milton, 1641 Animadversions upon the Remonstrants Defence… 1641, To the Postscript:
    Remon. I doubt not but they will say, the Bishops foot hath been in your booke, for I am sure it is quite spoil’d….
    Answ. …God sends meat, but the Cooks worke their wills; in that sense we grant your Bishops foot may have spoylt it, and made it Sapere ollam, if not Sapere aulam….your confutation…left nothing upon it, but a foul taste of your skillet foot….

  3. […] too I am grateful for the comments. Obviously, the bishop’s foot was at one time associated with all kinds of bad things. I am still […]

  4. […] too I am grateful for the comments. Obviously, the bishop’s foot was at one time associated with all kinds of bad things. I am still […]

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