limping messenger ~ messager boiteux ~ hinkende bode
slow delivery of messages, articles and comment
by Tjebbe van Tijen/Imaginary Museum Projects
For an overview of my activities for the last half a century see my CV on my web site
Articles can be in Dutch, English or French.
The figure of the ‘limping messenger’ can be traced back at least to the 17th century both as a name of a type of popular almanac first published in German in Basel, Switzerland in 1677 (1), and as a figure in the satirical story by Comenius “The labyrinth of the world and the paradise of the heart” written in 1663. The origin of this allegorical figure comes from the way in which the news from the battle field reached the public. Comenius compares people flocking around a messenger on a sweating horse arriving at the city square with the latest news with that of the ‘limping messenger’ who comes much later, but whose message can be better trusted in the chapter about “newsmongers”: ” Many rode swift horses, and there were many people who bought from them; others walked on foot, or hopped on crutches: and the wise folk bought from these men, saying that their goods were more reliable.” (2) The limping messenger is a former soldier, wounded on the battlefield mostly depicted with one amputed lower leg and a wooden prothesis; in some pictures his role as messenger is emphasized by a wing on his wooden leg, like the god Mercurius with his winged feet. He also brings the not so happy and glorious news which is mostly depicted by someone crying near him, like the little boy in the left hand picture. A snail is in several examples part of the emblematic pictures that appeared as front cover of these almanacs. In Dutch there is a related expression “het hinkend paard komt achteraan” (the limping horse comes last) as a warning against premature gladness. This also points to the horse or messenger that goes slow because his message is not going to be well received (3). The English expression “a lame post” seems to be related historically, but its usage now is something said that is not needed anymore, superfluous. The French expression “attendre le boiteux” (waiting for the wooden leg) did get the meaning of waiting for news that does not come or is late to arrive.