Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Finger In Every Pie

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 30, 2016

Someone with a finger in every pie is usually someone who is involved in many different things.  Sometimes it’s said in a positive way to compliment someone who has a variety of skills, interests, and talents, and sometimes it’s said in a negative way to point out that someone is an opportunist who only cares about what’s in it for him or her.  In either case, however, the person with a finger in every pie usually has influence over the activities in which they are involved, and generally that’s frowned upon.

Bill Jamieson’s June 19, 2016 article in Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman, titled, “Performance No Indicator of Portfolio Success” discussed fund managers, broad market indexes, and understanding how well an investment may have done in light of having fallen in value.  The concept of the blinkered idiot theory caught Idiomation’s eye (look for that entry sometime in July) as did the finger in every pie idiom.

Investment is not, Robin Angus argues, “about buying a little of this and a little of that, to get ‘exposure’ to every area and have a finger in every pie in the hope of finding plums to pull out.

With that, Idiomation was reminded of the Little Jack Horner nursery rhyme first published in 1725.

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said ‘What a good boy am I!’

Rumor has it that the nursery rhyme was actually about Thomas Horner (1547 – 1612) who was sent to Henry VIII’s court with a large Christmas pie that held the deeds to twelve manors between its crusts.  The Christmas pie was intended as a bribe  (although it was called a gift) from the Abbot of Glastonbury to King Henry VIII of England in exchange for not nationalizing Church lands.

Supposedly, Thomas retrieved the deed for the Manor of Mells in Somerset for himself which included lead mines in the Mendip Hills.  The plum was supposedly a play on words as the Latin word for lead is plumbum.  Thomas Horner’s descendants deny that this version of the tale is true, claiming that their ancestor legally purchased the deed from the abbey.

As his descendants claim, Thomas Horner could very well have purchased the deed with his own money for himself.  A great deal of land was stolen from the Catholic Church during King Henry VIII’s reign.  He didn’t keep all the land for himself, choosing to distribute some among his supporters so he could rely on their loyalty in the future (an insurance policy of sorts, you might say).  Protestant merchants who were doing well for themselves saw the purchase of such properties as a fantastic opportunity for themselves and their descendants, and so the lesser properties were sold to these merchants.  In another nursery rhyme (one that is oftentimes presented as a Protestant version of the Catholic rhyme), there’s a nod to that being what happened.

Hopton, Horner, Smith, and Finn
When abbots went out, they came in.

Regardless of how the property was obtained by Thomas Horner, in either nursery rhyme there seems to be some opportunistic gain involved, don’t you agree?

Eleven years after Thomas Horner’s death (and nearly a little more than a hundred years before the Little Jack Horner nursery rhyme was published), the spirit of the phrase is found William Shakespeare’s play from 1623 “Henry VIII” in Act 1, scene 1.  In this scene, Cardinal Wolsey is described by the Duke of Buckingham as being too involved in other people’s business.

DUKE OF BUCKINGHAM
The devil speed him! no man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger. What had he
To do in these fierce vanities? I wonder
That such a keech can with his very bulk
Take up the rays o’ the beneficial sun
And keep it from the earth.

As one can see, ambition and pies were married to each other in literature by this time.

In fact, in the 1653 book “The Historie Of This Iron Age: Where Is Set Down The True State of Europe, As It Was In The Year 1500” by French historian and writer, Jean-Nicolas de Parival (1605 – 1669), the spirit as well as the first variation of the idiom appeared in print.

Lusatia, depending upon the Kingdom of Bohemia, was the allyance, and must needs, forsooth, have her Finger in the Pye.  This Province was recommended, to the Electour of Saxonie, who choosing rather to proceed by way of accommodation, then presently to fly to extremities, made the States acquainted with his Commission; shewed then the danger of persisting in obstinacy; and would have certainly have perswaded them, had not the Marquis of Lagerendorp broken the negotiation by force of arms, and brought the Negotiatours away prisoners.

While the spirit was found in William Shakespear’s play in 1623, Idiomation gives this one to Jean-Nicolas de Parival in 1653.

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