The phrase by hook or (by) crook means by any possible means.
This phrase is first recorded in Lollard ¹ tracts dating from around 1380, which condemned the selling of ecclesiastical positions and rights:
– first instance, from Whi pore prestis han none benefice (Why poor priests have no benefice):
Ȝif þei schullen haue ony heiȝe sacramentis or poyntis of þe heiȝe prelatis, comynly þei schulle bie hem wiþ pore mennus goodis wiþ hook or wiþ crok.
in contemporary English:
If they should have any high sacraments or appointments from the high prelates, commonly they should buy them with poor men’s goods with hook or with crook.
– second instance, from Þe grete sentence of curs expouned (The great sentence of the curse expounded):
Þei sillen sacramentis, as ordris, and oþere spiritualte, as halwyng of auteris, of chirchis, and chircheȝerdis; and compellen men to bie alle þis wiþ hok or crok.
in contemporary English:
They sell sacraments, as orders, and other spirituality ², as hallowing of altars, of churches, and churchyards; and compel men to buy all this with hook or crook.
¹ The Lollards were the followers of the 14th century English religious reformer John Wycliffe. They believed that the Church should help people to live a life of evangelical poverty and imitate Christ. Their ideas influenced the thought of John Huss, who in turn influenced Martin Luther.—definition: Lexico.
² spirituality: ecclesiastical revenue received in return for spiritual services.
In Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Confession – 1390), the English poet John Gower (circa 1330-1408) used hepe ³ in place of hook; he wrote that “Coveitise” (Covetousness) has two counsellors, “Falswitnesse” and “Perjurie”, who
what with hepe and what with crok
Thei make here [= their] maister ofte winne.
³ The word hepe, found only in this text, is from Middle Dutch heepe, designating a sickle-shaped pruning-knife or bill; perhaps Gower knew it from a Dutch proverbial phrase.
The phrase might have originated in laws or customs which regulated the gathering of firewood by tenants. The following is from a petition from the town of Bodmin, in Cornwall, to King Henry VIII, between 1529 and 1539:
Where the said inhabitants have used to have common pasture, with all manner of beasts, and common fuel, in a wood called Dynmure Wood, a mile from the said town, that is to say, with hook and crook to lop and crop and to carry away, upon their backs, and none other ways, the same Prior hath […] within this 15th year caused the said wood to be inclosed, and gates locked, so that the said Inhabitants have much labour and pain going to and from the said wood, to fetch their foresaid fuel, and thereby utterly excluded from their said common and pasture.
In 1525, during one of the disputes between the town and the prior, the mayor wrote that
the wood, called Dynmure Wood, was ever open and common for all Burgesses and Inhabitants of Bodmyn, till now of late, as well for all manner kind of their beasts to common therein, as to have their burden wood, to bear and carry away upon their backs, of lop, crop, hook, crook, and bag wood, without contradiction, let, or disturbance, of any manner persons.
However, these quotations do not provide entirely conclusive evidence because they are from an edited and modernised text published at Bodmin in 1827, The Bodmin register, so that it is impossible to know to what extent J. Wallis, the editor, emended the manuscripts. But, according to his explanations, he was aware of the problem and faithful to the originals:
We have used the modern spelling, &c. except of a few obsolete words. Antiquaries very properly copy the originals literally […]. The type, however, necessary for contractions, &c. is not kept in the country, and the old spelling almost requires a glossary and interpretation for the use of general readers. Indeed, the account of receipts and payments for the rebuilding of Bodmin Church, temp. Edward IV. […] has been returned from London as almost unintelligible, because our provincial terms, contractions, &c. are not familiar to persons conversant with ancient records in the metropolis.
It is often said that, in the phrase, hook and crook denote two different implements. For instance, in A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (London, 1993), B. A. Phythian wrote that hook designates a billhook, a chopper with a hooked end, used for pruning, and that crook means a shepherd’s staff, having one end curved or hooked, for catching the hinder leg of a sheep. According to Phythian,
one was allowed to cut off, with the hook, only those branches that could be pulled down with the crook.
This explanation might go back to the following from Oedipus Jocularis: or, illustrations of remarkable proverbs, obscure sayings, and peculiar customs, published in The New Monthly Magazine and Universal Register (London) of 1st march 1816:
But, after all, what is the meaning of this quibbling adage? The answer is, that it is to be had from the objects mentioned; for the hook is the peasant’s instrument to cut down any thing within his immediate reach, but when that is too elevated, he must have recourse to his crook, with which the lofty bough may be brought to his grasp. Thus craft allures, what force cannot conquer.
However, the primary meaning of crook is a tool or instrument of hooked form, so that the phrase was perhaps originally a legal formula in which both hook and crook meant the same thing, the second term merely reinforcing the first and rhyming with it. The legal jargon often had such tautological formulas, for example part and parcel, which is based on alliteration.
Dave Wilton, of the University of Toronto, has put forward a different explanation of the phrase. According to him, because with hook or (with) crook was first used in the context of the corruption of the clergy, it originally referred to the strategies and deceptions of Satan and those whom he corrupted. He has based this theory on the fact that in the Middle English Dictionary, under the heading by hook or crook, appears a quote from Les Diz de Seint Bernard (The Sayings of Saint Bernard – late 13th century) in which the words hook and crook are used individually to designate attributes of Satan.
This ingenious explanation seems to me rather far-fetched, since it is not because the phrase is first recorded in an ecclesiastical context that it necessarily has a religious dimension: the Lollard tracts merely say that the men who want to acquire ecclesiastical privileges have to do so by any possible means. Additionally, the context of the passage from John Gower’s poem, which is more or less contemporary with these tracts, is not religious. Finally, this theory does not account for the use of with hook and crook in the text published in The Bodmin register—provided that this edition is faithful to the original manuscripts.
In Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (London, 1870), Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-97) wrote that he was inclined to think that the phrase means
“foully, like a thief, or holily, like a bishop,” the hook being the instrument used by footpads, and the “crook” being the bishop’s crosier “for catching men.”
Robert Allen mentioned two other fanciful explanations in Allen’s Dictionary of English Phrases (Penguin Books, 2008):
In the reign of Charles I two learned judges named Hooke and Crooke were consulted to settle difficult legal problems, so that a decision was reached by Hooke or by Crooke.
When Henry II reached the Bay of Waterford in Ireland in 1172, he landed at a place called Crook by a tower called Hook, enabling him to land safely by Hook or by Crook.