woodwork in Easingwold Parish Church – Diocese of York
Robert Thompson, the Kilburn craftsman, invariably carved a little mouse on his work.
photograph: Visit Easingwold
The phrase as poor as a church mouse means extremely poor.
It is first recorded in The royalist a comedy (1682), by the English author Thomas D’Urfey (1653-1723):
’Gad if he threatens me agen, I’ll take the Law of him; I know how to deal with such Tories as himself; I’ll hoist him into Westminster-Hall with a wet finger, and so drill him from Court to Court, till he’s as poor as a Church-Mouse, or an honest Attorney.
In his bilingual dictionary Dictionnaire royal, françois et anglois, published in 1702, Abel Boyer translated the phrase as pauvre comme un rat d’église (= poor as a church rat).
The French phrase was more usually gueux comme un rat d’église. It is found for example in Dictionnaire universel (1690), by Antoine Furetière.
As an adjective, gueux (feminine gueuse) means indigent, who has been reduced to begging.
Earlier, in 1659, the Anglo-Welsh historian and political writer James Howell (1594?-1666) had mentioned the phrase as hungry as a Church-mouse in Παροιμιογραϕια [Paroimiographia]: Proverbs, or, Old sayed sawes & adages in English, or the Saxon toung, Italian, French and Spanish.
Another expression related to the church was a churchyard cough, meaning a cough that is likely to terminate in death. It was a reference to the fact that graveyards were often located next to churches.
In A New Dictionary French and English (1677), Guy Miège translated the French expression la toux du cimetière (= the graveyard cough) as the churchyard cough.
In Le quart livre des faicts et dicts héroïques du bon Pantagruel (1552), the French satirist François Rabelais (circa 1494-1553) wrote of la male toux au poulmon (= the bad cough in the lung), which the English author and translator Peter Anthony Motteux (1663-1718) rendered in 1693 as a Church yard Cough in the Lungs.
But the usual French equivalent of a churchyard cough was une toux qui sent le sapin (= a cough that smells of fir), because coffins were often made of fir wood.
The French expression il sent le sapin (= he smells of fir), meaning he has one foot in the grave, is now rarely used. The more usual ça sent le sapin (= it smells of fir) is now employed to mean I can smell trouble, there’s something fishy going on.