In The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood (1562) among the many historical English proverbs which I recognized, one particular epigram stood out. Entitled “Of Catching a Fly” It isn't particularly difficult to grasp its meaning but a few expressions and one phrase had me puzzled. Here is my translation in modern English
A boy on his book clapped hand to catch a fly.
A boy while studying his book, clapped his hands to catch a fly. (OR)
While studying his book, a boy slapped his hand down to catch/kill a fly
“ Hast her? ” cried his master.
Do you have it? His schoolteacher cried.
“ Nay, God wot I.”
No, God knows if I have.
“ Then thou shalt drink! ”
“ Master, I have her, I think.”
Then you shall drink!
Master, I think I have her.
“ If thou have her,” said the master, “ thou shalt drink ”
To furious masters, what helpeth fair speeches?
“If you have her,” said the master, “you shall drink”
To furious masters, what good comes from *graceful speeches? (eloquent?)
Flies caught, or not caught, up go boys' breeches !”
Whether flies have been caught or not, boys' buttocks go up !
Rare expressions and meanings
wot: the third person singular, simple present form of wit: knowledge, be aware of
breeches: I searched online for the meaning (I already knew they were a type of old fashioned trousers for boys and men) because the phrase “up goes boys' breeches” made little sense to me. I found to my surprise that the singular, breech, is a rare term for buttocks or backside.
The rest seems pretty clear, but what does the phrase, “thou shalt drink” refer to? I assume it's unpleasant because the pupil hurriedly retorts he has caught the fly, but why is having a drink a punishment? I'm guessing the schoolteacher is about to cane the boy, a typical school corporal punishment in the United Kingdom. A form of punishment which in 1987 became illegal in state schools and was finally banned in public schools in 1999. In the above Wikipedia link, there is no mention of drink being a punishment or slang.