A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tales From The Nursery – Part Twenty Eight


For want of a nail

This rhyme, or perhaps more accurately proverb, goes as follows: “for want of a nail the shoe was lost/ for want of a shoe, the horse was lost/ for want of a horse, the rider was lost/ for want of a rider, the message was lost/ for want of a message, the battle was lost/ for want of a battle, the kingdom was lost/ and all for the want of a horseshoe nail”.

What we have here is a lesson in causation; how a relatively trivial event – the unavailability of a horseshoe – caused a sequence of events which led to the loss of a kingdom. Each step along the way has a greater consequence. Perhaps it is an early example of chaos theory in action – you know the one where a great perturbation is caused initially by a butterfly flapping its wings.

The other didactic point that the proverb emphasises is that the ultimate consequence of the chain of events precipitated by the lack of a nail for a horseshoe was not and, probably, could not have been anticipated at the time.

The earliest variant of this proverb – and, interestingly it takes the causation route – is to be found in the German poet, Freidank’s, Bescheidenheit of around 1230, where he states, “the wise tell us that a nail keeps a shoe, a shoe a horse, a horse a knight who can fight and keep a castle”.

For those seeking to ascribe a historical event to the proverb, the favourite explanation surrounds the erstwhile car park resident, King Richard the Third, who at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 famously, or at least according to William Shakespeare, was unsaddled and shouted for a horse. “A horse, a horse, a kingdom for my horse”.

The problem, of course, is that Richard’s cry is probably apocryphal and, in any event, Shakespeare wrote his play in 1591. In 1507 Jean Molinet had written “by just one nail one loses a good horse”.  Tempting as it may be to see the demise of the unfortunate king as the progenitor of the proverb, there is too much evidence of its existence prior to Shakespeare’s play to make the connection. It may be that Shakespeare had the proverb in mind when he wrote the scene. Who knows?

Irrespective of its origin the proverb has an impressive track record. Our old friend Benjamin Franklin included a variant of the proverb in his preface to Poor Richard’s Almanac for 1758, replacing in true republican style, any reference to a king or kingdom with the rather anodyne and anonymous, enemy.

But the key to the real meaning and origin of the proverb rests with Samuel Smiles who in 1880 introduced us to a character called “Don’t Care” who was to blame for the catastrophe illustrated by the rhyme. What we have here is a cautionary tale for the youngsters showing that a moment’s carelessness or thoughtlessness can have tragic and catastrophic consequences, a lesson that is not unique to us here and is why it is a proverb that can be found elsewhere in the world.

Interestingly, the verse was framed and hung on the wall of the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters in London during the Second World War. Let’s hope they paid due heed to it!


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