Can somebody please explain the proverb 'worth so many beeves' in Oscar Wilde's The Rise of Historical Criticism? Here is the context:

The origin of the common proverb ‘worth so many beeves,’ in which we discern the unconscious survival of a purely pastoral state of society before the use of metals was known, is ascribed by Plutarch to the fact of Theseus having coined money bearing a bull’s head.

  • Hi, could you clarify abut please? Are you asking what the proverb means, why it means it if just what ‘beeves’ are?
    – Spagirl
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 21:26
  • Actually, I couldn't get what Wilde is trying to tell and I thought that I can't because I don't know what the proverb is trying to tell. It would be better, then, If you could help me interpret the full paragraph. Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 21:39
  • 3
    Beeves is an archaic plural form of beef (i.e. cows). Oxford Dictionary: beeves
    – Mick
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 7:25

1 Answer 1


The proverb as representative, in historical criticism — that is, critical analysis of a text based on its historical, cultural and social context — of a postulated purely pastoral state of society, references the notion of cattle as wealth in such a society (however pure):

...our picture of the uses of cattle beyond subsistence in Neolithic Europe...[provides] enough evidence to suggest strongly that cattle were valued as wealth as well as calories.

"Cattle as weath in Neolithic Europe: Where's the beef?", Nerissa Russell, Chapter 5 in the 1998 The Archeology of Value [link requires registration for access].

Wilde contrasts that historical criticism of the classical proverb (as an "unconscious survival" of pastorial society) with the 'historical criticism' of Plutarch, who knew or claimed to know the origin of the proverb in the simple historical fact of coins made by Theseus depicting a bull's head.

The two critical analyses are not incompatible.

  • +1, but it might be worth mentioning explicitly in this answer that "beeves" = cows (as has already been said in a comment). It confused me at first why you were talking about cattle.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 11:56
  • @Randal'Thor, I'm sure that's a good suggestion...but it opens a can of worms, if you'll forgive the expression. The beasts in question are not what you call cows; oxen, rather. Plus, 'cattle', from the same root as 'capital', is and was used not in reference to 'beef' but rather in reference to "movable wealth, livestock". "Beeves", in short, is a mistranslation, probably deliberate Wildean humor. Our proverb, "more hat than cattle" references the same (vestigal) sense, but elaborating here would get truly longwinded.
    – JEL
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 18:17
  • Ooh, that all sounds really interesting! That can of worms would make a nice addition to your answer, IMO, if you can summarise/source it nicely :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 19:34

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