Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

End Crowns The Act

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 7, 2014

The idiom the “end crowns the act” has come full circle, with the modified version being most common these days while the original proverb being firmly entrenched in coats of arms.  What it means is that the ends justify the means, and so, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with a course of action, if the end result if the best result possible, the means will be overlooked in favor of focusing on the success.

The idiom proved difficult to track down at first, with the first hint of it finally found in a newspaper article over 100 years ago.

In Volume 97, Number 102 of the San Francisco Call newspaper dated March 11, 1905 the story of George A. Janvrin was feted. He had saved 4-year-old Ramona A. Brunje from certain death where, had he not acted, she would have been trampled by a team of runaway horses.  For his bravery, he was awarded a bronze medal on which was engraved: “Presented to George Janvrin in recognition of his bravery in saving the life of a child.”  The medal was suspended from a bar had engraved on it: “The End Crowns The Act.”

In the American Journal of Numismatics, Volumes 33 through 35 that were originally published between July 1898 and April 1899, the idiom appears on page 145.

The end crowns the act, whether good or bad. Another very curious piece has on the obverse an escutcheon surmounting a lily cross, the points of which appear at the sides and base of the shield, the crook of a Bishop’s pastoral staff appears

With some effort, the phrase in modified form was found in “The Southern Review.”  In Volume V published in May of 1830, an article written by Thomas Moore entitled, “Lord Byron’s Character and Writings” includes this passage:

It is, however, not without some degree of reluctance, that we hazard an opinion as to its merits, before we have fairly heard the author out with his story.  The end not only “crowns the work,” as the proverb expresses it, but it does something more.  It explains, illustrates, reconciles all the parts, and, by discovering fully their relation to each other and to the whole, often shews the fitness and propriety of what, perhaps, at first appeared questionable or unsatisfactory.

This version using the word “work” instead of “act” was indeed the phrase most used during this period.  In fact, the idiom is found in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” by Charles Dickens, published in 1870, where this passage is found.

“But proof, sir, proof must be built up stone by stone,” said the Mayor.  “As I say, the end crowns the work.”

A hundred years prior to “The Southern Review” being published in 1830, the book by William Fleetwood (also known as the late Lord Bishop of Ely) entitled “A Plain Method of Christian Devotion” — translated from a book written by Pierre Jurieu — enjoyed its 26th printing.  Undoubtedly, this book was very popular with readers.  Not only was William Fleetwood (1 January 1656 – 4 August 1723) the Lord Bishop of Ely, he was regarded as the best preacher of his generation, and had the respect of Queen Anne (6 February 1665 – 1 August 1714).  Economists and statisticians credit him for creating the price index, as presented in his book “Chronicon Preciosum” published in 1707.

Pierre Jurieu (24 December 1637 – 11 January 1713) was a French Calvinist controversialist who became a professor of theology and Hebrew at the Protestant Academy at Sudan in 1674 which is the year he published “Traité de la dévotion.”   His writings were considered unorthodox, however, he was considered a tireless worker for all aspects of the Calvinist cause.  It’s in the translated text that the idiom is found.

When once the man is come to that, he cannot be converted to God, he cannot be received but by cries and tears, and the voice of our Lord that worketh wonders.  This methinks should make us sensible of the interest we have in thinking upon God betimes, and consecrating our first years to devotion.  I know very well; that the end crowns the work; but I know also, that ’tis of the utmost important to begin well to end  happily.

Stepping back in time to 1641, again the phrase is modified in “Experience Historie and Divinitie:  Divided Into Five Books” by Richard Carpenter, Vicar of Poling, which the author and publisher described as “a small and obscure village by the seaside, neere to Arundel in Sussex.”  This book was published by Order from the House of Commons.  In this book, the idiom is also found.

The matter of the Action must be good: the manner of the performance good, and the End good.  Which thought it be extrinsecall to the Action, is intrinsecall to the goodnesse of it.  I suppose, if the matter and manner be indifferent, they are good in some degree; but the End crowns the goodnesse of the work; for, it is the most eminent of all that stirre in it.

The expression, again in modified form, also appeared in Act IV scene v of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Troilus and Cressida” written in 1602 and published in 1609.  The play is set during the Trojan War, and scene takes place in the Grecian camp when Hector speaks with Ulysses.

HECTOR
I must not believe you:
There they stand yet, and modestly I think,
The fall of every Phrygian stone will cost
A drop of Grecian blood: the end crowns all,
And that old common arbitrator, Time,
Will one day end it.

It has been mentioned in a number of texts that the idiom is a proverb, and indeed it is.  The end crowns the work in Latin is finis coronat opus and was incorporated into the Baker Coat of Arms in England during the 8th century.  As an interesting side note, the family name Baker prior to the 8th century was Boeccure.

While Idiomation would love to be able to pinpoint the exact era from which the Latin idiom was first used, the best that can be offered is that the idiom is from the Roman and Greek era.  Idiomation can say, however, that the more familiar version of this idiom these days is this:  The end justifies the means.

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