a pair of wooden lasts (photograph: PikiWiki)
The proverb let the cobbler stick to his last means that one should do the work one is expert at, and not try to interfere in, or do, that of others.
The noun last denotes a shoemaker’s model for shaping or repairing a shoe or boot.
The Old-English word was lǣste, from lāst, which denoted a mark or trace left on the ground by the foot. Of Germanic origin, lāst is related to Dutch leest, meaning a last, and German Leiste, meaning a strip (of wood, etc.), a trim, a border. From a base meaning to follow a track, these Germanic words are cognate with Latin lira, meaning the earth thrown up between two furrows, a ridge, hence also a furrow (cf. the English adjective delirious, from the Latin verb delirare, literally to go out of the furrow, hence to be out of one’s wits).
The proverb already existed in Latin when the Roman statesman and scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79) composed his vast encyclopaedia of the natural and human worlds, Naturalis Historia (The Natural History – 77). He wrote about Apelles, the most celebrated of Grecian painters, who probably spent many years at the court of Philip II and Alexander the Great (4th century BC):
(translation: John Bostock & H.T. Riley – London, 1855)
It was a custom with Apelles, to which he most tenaciously adhered, never to let any day pass, however busy he might be, without exercising himself by tracing some outline or other; a practice which has now passed into a proverb¹. It was also a practice with him, when he had completed a work, to exhibit it to the view of the passers-by in some exposed place; while he himself, concealed behind the picture, would listen to the criticisms that were passed upon it; it being his opinion that the judgment of the public was preferable to his own, as being the more discerning of the two. It was under these circumstances, they say, that he was censured by a shoemaker for having represented the shoes with one shoe-string too little. The next day, the shoemaker, quite proud at seeing the former error corrected, thanks to his advice, began to criticize the leg; upon which Apelles, full of indignation, popped his head out, and reminded him that a shoemaker should give no opinion beyond the shoes, a piece of advice which has equally passed into a proverbial saying.
(¹ The Latin form of this proverb, as given by Erasmus in Adagia, is nullam hodie lineam duxi, I have not drawn a line today.)
In Pliny’s original text, a shoemaker should give no opinion beyond the shoes is ne supra crepidam sutor judicaret, in which:
– the verb judicare, to judge, is composed of jus, meaning law, and dicere, meaning to say;
– sutor means a shoemaker, a cobbler;
– crepida, from Greek κρηπίς (= krēpís), means the sole which served the Greeks, and the Romans who adopted Grecian habits, as a shoe, a sandal.
The Latin proverb was included as ne sutor ultra crepidam (the verb judicaret being left out) in Adagiorum chiliades (Thousands of adages), better known as Adagia (Adages), a 1508 annotated collection of Greek and Latin proverbs by the Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1469-1536):
(this translation of the original Latin text is from The Adages of Erasmus, selected by William Barker – University of Toronto Press, 2001)
Ne sutor ultra crepidam
Close to this² is Ne sutor ultra crepidam, Let the cobbler stick to his last – let no one, that is, attempt to judge of matters which are far removed from his own skill and calling. This adage took its rise from Apelles, the famous painter, of whom Pliny, book 35 chapter 10, tells the following story: ‘When his work was finished, he would expose it in the porch to the view of passers-by, hiding behind the picture to listen to their comments on its faults, because he thought the public a more strict critic than himself; and they say that he was criticised by a cobbler for painting one loop too few on the inner side of a pair of sandals. Next day, finding his criticism had been attended to, the man went proudly on to criticise the drawing of a leg; and Apelles looked out indignantly and told him when passing judgement to stick to his last. These words became proverbial.’ So much for Pliny. There is a similar story in Athenaeus. Stratonicus the lyre-player said to a smith who was arguing with him about music ‘Can’t you see that you’re not sticking to your hammer?’ His nephew’s remark³ in his Letters points the same way, that no one can judge a work of art properly unless he too is an artist. And Aristotle’s saying in the first book of the Ethics that everyone is a proper judge of the things he knows about. Also what he wrote in the second book of the Physics of a blind man disputing about colours – words which have become proverbial among academics of our own day for disputing on subjects of which a man knows nothing. To the same opinion we may refer what Fabius Pictor says in Quintilian, that the arts would be fortunate if none but artists were their critics.
² This proverb appears in sequence immediately after to learn the potter’s art on a big jar, that is, to learn a difficult task by practising on suitable material.
³ Pliny the Younger, nephew of Pliny the Elder
The proverb was introduced into English by the 1539 translation of Adagia by Richard Taverner (circa 1505-1575), titled Proverbes or adagies with newe addicions gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus:
Ne sutor ultra crepidam.
Let not the shoemaker go beyond hys shoe. Plinye reherseth thys history. Whan the moost kunnynge and excellent painter Apelles had made anye goodlye and excellent pece of worke, he was wont to set it out towardes the stretes syde, that men myght loke upon it & talke theyr fansies of it, & he him selue wold also lye lurkyng in a corner to heare mens iudgementes what faultes were found in his worke, to thintent yf ther were any thyng amys, he might amende it. A monges other ther came to the stall where his worke stode out to be seen a shomaker, which vewynge well the picture, anone espyed a faulte in the shoes that there lacked a latchet. Apelles agaynste the next day amendeth the fault. The next day the shomaker commeth, agayne, and takyng a lytle pryde that he had found a fault, in so kunnynge a mans worke, begynneth to fynd an other fault in the legge. Apelles not sufferyng his sawcynes, cryed out unto him, Let the shomaker not passe the shoe. Certes euery man ought to medle no further then he can skyll of. Euery man (sayth Aristotle) is a mete iudge of that hiselfe is lerned in. For he sayeth a blynd man ought not to dispute of colours. and therfore Quintilian wryteth, that sciences shulde be happy, yf onlye artificers might iudge of them.
In An excellent conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Iuliet (London, 1597), the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes the servant pervert and extend the proverb in order to express his illiteracy:
(Quarto 1, 1597)
– Old Capulet: Goe trudge about
Through faire Verona streets, and seeke them out:
Whose names are written here and to them say,
My house and welcome at their pleasure stay.
– Seruingman: Seeke them out whose names are written here,
and yet I knowe not who are written here: I must to
the learned to learne of them, that’s as much to say, as
the Taylor must meddle with his Laste, the Shoomaker
with his needle, the Painter with his nets, and the Fisher
with his Pensill, I must to the learned.
Apelli fuit alioqui perpetua consuetudo numquam tam occupatum diem agendi, ut non lineam ducendo exerceret artem, quod ab eo in proverbium venit. idem perfecta opera proponebat in pergula transeuntibus atque, ipse post tabulam latens, vitia quae notarentur auscultabat, vulgum diligentiorem iudicem quam se praeferens; feruntque reprehensum a sutore, quod in crepidis una pauciores intus fecisset ansas, eodem postero die superbo emendatione pristinae admonitionis cavillante circa crus, indignatum prospexisse denuntiantem, ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret, quod et ipsum in proverbium abiit.
Ne sutor ultra crepidam
Huic finitimum est illud Ne sutor ultra crepidam, id est Ne quis de his iudicare conetur, quae sint ab ipsius arte professioneque aliena. Quod quidem adagium natum est ab Apelle, nobilissimo pictore. De quo Plinius libro XXXV cap. X scribit in hunc modum: Idem perfecta opera proponebat in pergula transeuntibus atque post ipsam tabulam latens vitia, quae notarentur, auscultabat, vulgum diligentiorem iudicem quam se praeferens. Feruntque a sutore reprehensum, quod in crepidis una intus pauciores fecisset ansas. Eodem postero die superbe ob emendationem pristinae admonitionis cavillante circa crus, indignatum prospexisse, denuntiantem, ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret. Quod et ipsum in proverbium venit. Hactenus Plinius. Huic simillimum est, quod refert Athenaeus: Stratonicus citharoedus fabro secum de musica contendenti, Non sentis, inquit, te ultra malleum loqui ? Eodem pertinet, quod huius nepos in epistolis scripsit de artificio non recte iudicare quemquam, nisi et ipsum artificem. Quodque primo Moralium libro dixit Aristoteles earum rerum unumquemque iudicem esse idoneum, quarum sit eruditus. Et quod idem scripsit libro secundo Naturalium caecum disputare de coloribus. Quae verba iam inter nostri temporis scholasticos in proverbium abierunt, quoties quispiam de rebus ignotis disputat. Ad eandem sententiam referendum, quod ait Fabius Pictor apud Quintilianum felices futuras artes, si soli artifices de iis iudicarent.