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Q: Searching for source of "horse's teeth" parable ( No Answer,   1 Comment )
Subject: Searching for source of "horse's teeth" parable
Category: Reference, Education and News > Teaching and Research
Asked by: slblack-ga
List Price: $100.00
Posted: 29 Mar 2006 07:20 PST
Expires: 28 Apr 2006 08:20 PDT
Question ID: 713157
There is a charming parable illustrating the need for empirical
evidence. It concerns scholars vigorously debating the number of teeth
in a horse's mouth. A naive young man suggests that they might resolve
the question by looking in the horse's mouth and counting them.  The
scholars are horrified at this outrageous suggestion.  The parable

 "In the year of our Lord 1432, there arose a grievous quarrel among
the brethren over the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse. For 13
days the disputation raged without ceasing...".

The parable is usually attributed to Francis Bacon (1561-1626), rarely
to Roger Bacon (1214-1292). I suspect both attributions are spurious,
and neither of the Bacons originated it. My question is: who did?

An appropriate answer will provide a primary source with verifiable
bibliographic information, in particular the location where one of the
Bacons, or anyone else first said it.  There are a number of secondary
sources which don?t count.  One of the most often cited is C.Mees,
"Social thought and social reconstruction", Electrical Engineering,
1934, v. 53, 381-387 (reprinted in Sigma Xi Quarterly, v. 22, 13-24).
Mees is one of the people who attribute it to Francis Bacon, without
giving further information.

Request for Question Clarification by tutuzdad-ga on 29 Mar 2006 07:57 PST
You are not alone in your search for the origin of this story but I am
afraid that your search may prove futile if you demand absolute proof.
While the story is most likley attributed to Bacon in terms of being
popularized to some extent, it appears that the source of the parable
was probably unknown even to him. What does appear to be factual is
that Bacon himself did not author the story, though the precise source
may never be known. This document from the St. Bonaventure University
indicates that Francis Bacon didn't pen the story, rather he reprinted
it from a manuscript he "found in the records of a Franciscan friary".


It seems most likley then that Bacon may have read the story, which
was probably written by a cloistered monk (who could never have made
the story public on his own) who intended it to serve as a
parable-type illustration (a colorful story that illustrates a larger
truth), and subsequently reprinted it in his own writings some years
later becaus he admired the clever wisdom in it.

In the absense of any other substantive proof, please let me know if
this sufficiently resolves this long pondered mystery and answers your
question as well as possible under the circumstances.


Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 29 Mar 2006 08:17 PST

Interesting challenge.

The story clearly goes back quite a ways, though it's hard to find
clear-cut mention of it prior to 20th century publications.

The closest I came was this variation, in a 1940 publication, which
attributes the story to a "Chronicle of an Ancient Monastery":


"Some time ago I happened to see an extract from a Chronicle of an
Ancient Monastery dated 1432. It reported a lively dispute that lasted
many days and that stirred up considerable feeling. The quarrel was
over the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse. Learned books were
brought out, ancient documents were consulted, erudition was shown the
like of which had never been seen in that monastery or in the region
round about--I only repeat what the old chronicler tells--but the
problem could not be solved.

When the disputation had gone on for thirteen days with no end in
sight, "a youthful friar of goodly bearing" asked his elders for
permission to say a word. The permission being granted, he made a
suggestion which would be regarded by us as a very sensible one. It
was not so received by the brethren...


In the references section of the book, the author includes this
somewhat bewildering cite:

Chronicle of An Ancient Monastery. This chronicle, an extract from
which was quoted in Chapter IV, was purchased by someone in the United
States, but who the purchaser was has not been disclosed.

A check of library databases does not reveal any holdings by the name
of "Chronicle of An Ancient Monastery".

Let me know your thoughts on all this.


Clarification of Question by slblack-ga on 30 Mar 2006 08:16 PST
Clarification for tutuzdad-ga

I would be satisfied if a specific source within Francis (or Roger)
Bacon's writings could be identified, even if he, in turn, credits an
earlier unspecified source.  I think, however, that it is most
unlikely that such a source exists.  A number of Francis Bacon's works
are available on-line, and I've searched them with no success. I've
also corresponded with a recognized Bacon scholar, who told me that he
was unaware of such a passage within Francis' Bacon's work. I think if
Bacon really wrote it, even second-hand, we'd by now know exactly
where. M

As for Dr. Schaeper's claim that "In one of his books published early
in the 17th century he [Francis Bacon] reprinted a passage that he had
found in the records of a Franciscan friary", I am sceptical. Note the
vagueness of the attribution.  If Dr. Schaeper, a historian, could
provide only this in place of  identifying the book,  I'm sure that's
all he has. Nevetheless, I've now written to Dr. Schaeper for further
information on what, I suspect, is an incautious claim which he won't
be able to support. However, while you have not answered my question
(yet, anyway), if Dr. Schaeper is able to tell me where in Bacon he
says it, you'll deserve at least partial credit for leading me to him.

Request for Question Clarification by tutuzdad-ga on 30 Mar 2006 08:24 PST
Sounds fair to me. Please let me know if you get a reply from him.


Clarification of Question by slblack-ga on 30 Mar 2006 08:32 PST
Clarification for pafalafa-ga on 29 Mar 2006

I think the variation you refer to must come from a book by M.C. Otto,
which my interlibrary loan has been slow in providing for me. This is
certainly a paraphrase of the parable as it's usually reprinted. I'm
afraid I don't buy the story provided as a reference, namely that it
comes from an "ancient chronicle" held by an unknown purchaser. Such
vagueness suggests that the claim is merely a construction (i.e. a
hoax) to convince us that the story has an ancient origin. I suspect a
much more recent origin. The earliest date that I've been able to
locate a recognizable version of the story is 1923, which isjust over
10 years earlier than the earliest date I've seen anyone else refer
to, but still rather recent. The author attributes it to Francis
Bacon, but warns, as do other of these earliest sources, that the
attribution may be spurious. Nice puzzle, isn't it?

Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 30 Mar 2006 09:46 PST
>>Nice puzzle, isn't it?...<<

Yes, it is.

What is your 1923 source?  Knowing the cite may help in tracking down
any earlier versions.


Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 30 Mar 2006 10:20 PST

I thought I had it, from a source dated around 1900, but it turned out
to be close in concept, but no parable:


..During the Middle Ages there had been developed various theological
doctrines regarding the human body; these were based upon
arguments showing what the body OUGHT TO BE, and naturally,
when anatomical science showed what it IS, these doctrines fell...

...An example of such popular theological reasoning is seen in a
widespread belief of the twelfth century, that, during the year
in which the cross of Christ was captured by Saladin, children,
instead of having thirty or thirty-two teeth as before, had
twenty or twenty-two.  

...So, too, in Vesalius's time another doctrine of this sort was
dominant:  it had long been held that Eve, having been made by the
Almighty from a rib taken out of Adam's side, there must be one rib
fewer on one side of every man
than on the other.  This creation of Eve was a favourite subject
with sculptors and painters, from Giotto, who carved it upon his
beautiful Campanile at Florence, to the illuminators of missals,
and even to those who illustrated Bibles and religious books in
the first years after the invention of printing; but Vesalius
and the anatomists who followed him put an end among thoughtful
men to this belief in the missing rib, and in doing this dealt a
blow at much else in the sacred theory.  

...Naturally, all these considerations brought the forces of
ecclesiasticism against the innovators in anatomy.

The search continues...

Request for Question Clarification by tutuzdad-ga on 30 Mar 2006 11:30 PST
As for the attribution to Bacon, factual or not I am finding with
almost equal frequency that the original concept and premise of this
story rests with Aristotle though I have yet to verify it. Here are
some examples of what I am finding in my research:

"When historical introduction to modern science is given the example
of 32 teeth and Aristotle is used to illustrate the importance of
actual experimentation in learning. The mention of the fact that
Aristotle postulated that humans have 32 teeth and no one bothered to
open a mouth and actually count the number of teeth till a thousand
years later draws loud scoffs from educated audiences."

"Horses have forty teeth. Such statement, written by Aristotle in 350
B.C., was accepted as absolute truth until the end of the Middle Age.
The Greek philosopher probably opened the mouth of a horse and was
satisfied with the number of teeth he found there. Not until the first
experimental scientists counted teeth of several horses, nearly 20
centuries afterwards, did one discover that truth was not absolute."

"Animals have been classified by type since the time of Aristotle.
Aristotle recognised the unity of plan (fundamental similarity) within
groups of animals and built up a classification based on shared
features and correlations - animals with tusks lacked horns and vice
versa. . .This classification lasted until the Renaissance: pre
Renaissance scholars followed Aristotle rather than looking for
themselves 'when an argument arose as to how many teeth the horse has,
one looked it up in Aristotle rather than in the mouth of the horse'"
"Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds"

"There was once a part of Greek thinkers -- this was around the time
of Aristotle -- who sat up all night having a furious argument about
the number of teeth in a horse's mouth. Unable to agree, they went out
and collared a passer-by -- an Arab. He listened attentively to all
their arguments, and then without saying a word, he walked away. He
returned in a few moments, however, and told them the correct answer.
'How did you decide?' they cried. 'Whose was the better argument, the
sounder logic?' 'Logic be damned,' he says, 'I've just been round the
back to the stable and counted 'em.'"
--"Chemical Plant" by Ian Williamson

These appear to be drived from the writing of Aristotle: 

History of Animals- Book 6, Part 3 
By Aristotle,-Part-3.htm


Clarification of Question by slblack-ga on 31 Mar 2006 08:36 PST
In response to tutuzdad-ga:

Dr. Schaeper has now kindly replied to my query concerning his claim
that Francis Bacon reprinted the horse's teeth parable in "one of his
books published early in the 17th century".

He does not have a source, recalling only that he may have read the
claim in a college textbook. He thought that the textbook may have
said it came from Bacon's _Novum Organum_. This work, along with four
others, is available in full-text at  As reading through it is
rather heavy-going, I searched it, as well as the others,
electronically for mention of the horse's teeth story. While Bacon
does make observations on the heat of horse dung, he is silent on the
topic of horse's teeth. This is another  false lead.

Response to pafalafa-ga:

I'm being coy about the 1923 reference. Forgive me, I do like to see
my name in print (it happens so rarely), and it occurred to me that
this quest for horse's teeth might make a modest little note to some
journal. But so far, that reference is the only bit of real news I
have, aside from the collection I've started of textbooks which
attribute the quote to Bacon without noting its dubious status. So for
the moment, I think I'm going to keep it to myself. I was hoping that
you guys would give me some additional information which I could use.
Anyway, that 1923 reference is nevertheless another dead end.

Concerning Aristotle, I have also seen his name mentioned in
connection with the story. But the claim isn't that Aristotle
originated the parable, but that some versions claim that the scholars
insist on quoting Aristotle (i.e. the voice of authority) on the
number of horse's teeth rather than looking for themselves (i.e. 
providing empirical evidence. It's a nice variation, especially given
that Aristotle did say that horses have 40 teeth. The urls you provide
are consistent with this version of the story. I think it's highly
unlikely that the parable itself originated with Aristotle.

Request for Question Clarification by tutuzdad-ga on 31 Mar 2006 09:26 PST
I spent a considerable amount of time researching the texts of Bacon's
essays and found no such reference.



There is no answer at this time.

Subject: Re: Searching for source of "horse's teeth" parable
From: geof-ga on 29 Mar 2006 16:48 PST
This droll story reminds one of the common belief that medieval church
philosophers argued endlessly about how many angels could dance on the
point of a needle (or head of a pin). Though that particular anecdote
is often associated with Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274), there appears
to be no basis for this attribution; and like the horses' teeth story
it was probably made up at a much later date. If, however, either of
the Bacons was associated with the horses' teeth tale, it is more
likely to have been 13th century Roger Bacon, who laid great empahsis
on empiricism, and might well have debunked fellow theologians who
relied on theory and hypothesis. This would of course mean that the
1432 date was wrong; and indeed by that time - with the renaissance in
full swing - it is unlikely that even the most cloistered monks would
have been so divorced from practical reality.

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