meaning and origin of ‘Procrustean bed/Procrustean remedy’

The ancient-Greek name Προκρούστης (Prokroustēs – literally person who stretches), and its classical-Latin rendering Procrustēs, designated in Greek mythology a robber who forced travellers to lie on a bed and made them fit it by either stretching them longer or cutting them shorter.

John Studley (1545?-1590?) mentioned Procrustes in The fourth, and most ruthful tragedy of L. Annaeus Seneca1, entituled Hippolytus; translated into Englishe, by Ihon Studley, published in Seneca1 his tenne tragedies, translated into Englysh (London, 1581)—Phaedra laments the death of Hippolytus, who was dismembered when his chariot overturned:

What Procrustes rackt and rent thee streacht on bed of Steele?

(1 Lucius Annaeus Seneca (circa 4 BC-AD 65), known as Seneca the Younger, was a Roman statesman, philosopher and playwright.)

In English, Procrustes is used allusively to denote a person who, or a thing which, imposes uniformity or conformity without regard to natural variation or individuality.

This usage is first recorded in An Answer to some Considerations on the Spirit of Martin Luther2 and the Original of the Reformation (Oxford, 1687), by Francis Atterbury (1663-1732), Bishop of Rochester, politician and Jacobite conspirator:

He [= Martin Luther] is a very Procrustes in his way: whatever he meets of other men’s, he unmercifully either stretches, or curtails, till he has made it exactly of a size with his own notions.

(2 Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German Protestant theologian.)

Both Procrustes bed and Procrustean bed are used figuratively in the sense of a measure having the effect of enforcing conformity.

The earliest known occurrence of Procrustes bed is from The Advantage of the Kingdome of Christ, in the shaking of the Kingdoms of the World: Or, Providential Alterations, in their subserviencie to Christ’s Exaltation (Leith, 1652), a sermon preached to the Parliament on 24th October 1651 by the English theologian John Owen (1616-83):

Those who would have been our Oppressors in Scotland, but that God hath crushed the Cockatrice in the shell, and filled the pit with their dead bodies, which they had digged for us, they also had prepared a Procruster [sic] bed, a heavie yoke, a beast that had it grown to perfection.

In the following from A Dissertation on the Modern Art of Scribbling, published in The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of 9th November 1758, Procrustes bed is used as a term of comparison:

The Rhymer is obliged first to pick out the two Words that are to jingle at the End of the Line to each other; after which he must fill up the vacant Space with Syllables of a Length exactly suiting; like Procrustes Bed, cramping or stretching out the Matter to fit it to the Measure.

The English poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) used Procrustes bed figuratively in a letter to Thomas Poole (1766-1837), dated 9th October 1809, about The Friend, a periodical written by Coleridge:

My greatest difficulty will be to avoid that grievous defect of running one number into another, I not being present at the printing. To really cut down or stretch out every subject to the Procrustes-Bed of sixteen pages is not possible without a sacrifice of my whole plan, but most often I will divide them polypus-wise, so that the first half should get itself a new tail of its own, and the latter a new head, and always take care to leave off at a paragraph.—source: Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Complete Prose Works: Literary Essays, Lectures and Letters (2015)

The term Procrustean bed is first recorded in the Preface to A Treatise on Tropical Diseases; on Military Operations; and on the Climate of the West-Indies (3rd edition – London, 1792), by Benjamin Moseley (1742-1819), physician and opponent of vaccination—the term designates a bed like that of Procrustes:

We do not, at this day, like ancient surgeons, hang people up by their feet to beams, nor rack them on Procrustean beds, to reduce dislocations, without any regard to anatomy.

The earliest figurative use of Procrustean bed that I have found is from Letter II. Junius, to the People of the State of New York, published in the Morning Chronicle (New York City, N.Y., USA) of 15th April 1806:

Who are those men who denounce every one of the community as unworthy of your confidence who do not think as they think, and act as they act? Who are those that in the land of freedom, would erect a Procrustean bed, and chain us to a set of opinions, of their own forming, as the confession of faith, by which we are to be politically saved or damned?

The earliest instance of the variant Procrustean remedy that I have found is from the review of George Huntington’s Sermons for the Holy Seasons of the Church. Second Series, published in The Manchester Courier, and Lancashire General Advertiser (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of 22nd March 1862:

We have here admirable specimens of sermons to a mixed congregation, wherein the good, the bad, and the indifferent may always be found, who are not, therefore, treated all alike to the same Procrustean remedy of conversion, but may one and all find something to suit their case—milk for babes and strong meat for those of full age.

The rare verb procrusteanize means to enforce uniformity or conformity without regard to natural variation or individuality, and to stretch or contract to a given or required extent or size.

The earliest occurrence of this verb that I have found is from The Leicestershire Mercury, and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of 19th June 1847, which reported that the Rev. George Legge declared the following in a speech delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Directors, Shareholders, and friends of Leicester Proprietary School:

Religion and Christianity were one thing in themselves; and they were quite another thing as cut and squared and wire-drawn and procrusteanized in the articles and catechisms of our sects.

This cartoon by John Tenniel (1820-1914) was published in Punch, or the London Charivari (London, England) of 19th September 1891. Titled The Modern “Bed of Procrustes.”, it depicts “the New Unionism” as Procrustes showing to a group of workers the “legislative eight-hours day” as his bed:

The Modern “Bed of Procrustes.” - Punch, or the London Charivari - 19 September 1891

Procrustes. “Now then, you fellows; I mean to fit you all to my little bed!”
Chorus. “Oh Lor-r!!”
[“It is impossible to establish universal uniformity of hours without inflicting very serious injury to workers.”—Motion at the recent Trades’ Congress.]




The French equivalent of Procrustes bed and Procrustean bed is le lit de Procuste.

The earliest occurrence of the earlier form le lit de Procruste that I have found is from Anti-Baillet ou critique du livre de Monsieur Baillet, intitulé Jugemens des savans (The Hague, 1690), in which the French philologist and author Gilles Ménage (1613-92) criticised Jugemens des savans sur les principaux ouvrages des auteurs (1685-86), by the French critic Adrien Baillet (1649-1706).
In the following passage, Gilles Ménage writes that the Italian philologist and poet Claudio Tolomei (1492-1556) compared the sonnet to Procrustes’s bed, in reference to Dialogue of the Latin poetry & the Tuscan, by the Italian author Stefano Guazzo (1530-93). The Italian text that Ménage attributes to Guazzo first summarises the myth of Procrustes, then explains that it is almost impossible for a poet to succeed in writing a sonnet if he does not either add “idle” words or truncate concepts:

Le Tolomei, au rapport de Stefano Guazzo dans son Dialogue de la Poësie Latine & Toscane, comparoit le Sonnet au lit de Procruste. Voici les paroles du Guazzo : Fu questo Procruste cosi fantastico e bestiale che tutti i forestieri che capitavano al suo albergo, faceva coricar in un certo letto : e à quelli che con la lunghezza della persona sopravanzavano il letto, tagliava le gambe conforme alla misura di esso : à quelli ch’erano più corti, tirava con le corde il collo e le gambe : si che Giungevano egualmente à quella misura. E però, essendo quasi impossibile il trouvar sogetto che giustamente capisca nel corpo del Sonetto, conviene per lo più, o aggiungervi parole oziose, o troncar i concetti, in cosi fatta guisa che’l còmponimento riesci, o languido, o oscuro, là onde si può dire che à fatta una non meno lodevole che faticosa impresa, ed è figlivolo legittimo d’Apollo colui il quale felicemente à tirato un Sonetto con tutti questi proporzionati mezi al suo debito fine.

The earliest instance of the form le lit de Procuste that I have found is from L’Âne littéraire, ou les Âneries de Me. Aliboron, dit Fr. . . . (The Literary Ass, or the Asininities of Master Aliboron, known as Fr. . . . – Paris, 1761), by Ponce-Denis Écouchard Le Brun (1729-1807) or by his brother Jean-Étienne Écouchard Le Brun de Granville (1738-65). The author mocks the French literary critic Élie Fréron (1718-76)—Maître Aliboron is used as a nickname for the ass and for an ignorant pompous person; Phalaris, tyrant of Agrigentum (ruled 570-554 BC), caused those condemned to death by him to be roasted alive in a brazen bull, the maker himself being the first victim:

Il compare si ingénieusement un Poëte Dramatique à Phalaris qui, dit-il, étendoit ses victimes sur son lit, vous ne savez peut-être pas, Monsieur, ce que c’est que le lit de Phalaris, & vous ne connoissiez que son Taureau. Eh bien, Monsieur, ce que nous autres bonnes gens nous appellions le lit de Procuste, c’est ce que M. Fréron appelle le lit de Phalaris ; il faut espérer que ce Monsieur qui a si honnêtement prêté le lit de Procuste à Phalaris, prêtera à Procuste le taureau de Phalaris, car il n’est pas juste que ce pauvre Procuste perde tout à cet échange.
He compares so ingeniously a dramatic poet to Phalaris who, says he, made his victims lie on his bed, you perhaps don’t know, Sir, what Phalaris’s bed is, and you only knew his bull. Well, Sir, what we good people called Procrustes’s bed, that’s what Mr. Fréron calls Phalaris’s bed; it is to be hoped that this gentleman who has so honestly lent Procrustes’s bed to Phalaris, will lend to Procrustes Phalaris’s bull, for it is unfair that this poor Procrustes loses everything in this exchange.

The earliest figurative use of the term that I have found is from Dénonciation des inquisiteurs de la pensée (Denunciation of the inquisitors of thought), written on 5th July 1789 by the French poet, dramatist and politician Marie-Joseph Blaise Chénier (1764-1811)—Chénier writes about the Royal Censors:

from Œuvres de M. J. Chénier (Tome IV – Paris, 1825):
Toute espèce d’écrit est jugé, en premier lieu, par le tribunal des Censeurs. Ce tribunal est le lit de Procuste ; et ce lit ne convient qu’aux nains. Malheur aux gens qui sont trop grands ! on leur coupera la tête et les jambes.

Any kind of writing is judged, in the first place, by the Censors’ tribunal. That tribunal is Procrustes’s bed; and that bed only suits dwarves. Woe betide those who are too tall! their head and legs will be cut off.

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