In the Grimm's Fairy Tale "The Golden Bird" a fox gives a prince advice that he

Buy no gallows'-flesh, and do not sit on the edge of any well.

Of course, he does sit on a well, and his brothers push him in... But what is gallows flesh? An online search revealed nothing for gallows flesh. I did learn that the word gallows were also used to indicate a public scale for grain source, but this does not mention meat or flesh.

  • 1
    Not an answer because my German isn’t good enough to confirm this, but the translation—especially if it’s old enough to be in the public domain today—might be straining to translate a pun. The story is about the warnings coming true in an unexpected way. It would not surprise me if the original German word was something like “hanging meat” in modern English: most people would think of meat hanging from hooks, but it could also be a poetic term for a person sentenced to death by hanging.
    – Davislor
    Oct 23, 2022 at 5:05
  • I've occasionally seen "fruit of the gallows" or "fruit of the hangmans tree" in English as equivalent references to the condemned and/or their corpses. Oct 24, 2022 at 15:20

2 Answers 2


A simple Wikipedia lookup for The Golden Bird offers the solution:

The fox removes it, and then, as they set out, he advises the prince how to keep all the things he has won since then. It then asks the prince to shoot it and cut off its head. When the prince refuses, it warns him against buying gallows' flesh and sitting on the edge of rivers.

He finds that his older brothers, who have been carousing and living sinfully in the meantime, are to be hanged (on the gallows) and buys their liberty. They find out what he has done. When he sits on a river's edge, they push him in. They take the things and the princess and bring them to their father. However the bird, the horse, and the princess all grieve for the youngest son. The fox rescues the prince. When he returns to his father's castle dressed in a beggar's cloak, the bird, the horse, and the princess all recognize him as the man who won them, and become cheerful again. His older brothers got punished for their good-less deeds, and he marries the princess.

Apparently, then, to buy "gallows flesh" is to purchase the liberty of those about to be executed on the gallows. The prince ignores the warning and suffers the consequences (though only temporarily).

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    Whoever attempted to remove "simple" from the first sentence of my answer for "rudeness": My intention was and remains modesty about the simplicity of my answer, not a rebuke for the OP.
    – Robusto
    Oct 23, 2022 at 18:57
  • 1
    as the OP, I'll share that I took no offense at your word "simple." I "simply" looked up the phrase and didn't think to look up the article for the story itself.
    – nuggethead
    Oct 24, 2022 at 19:08

"Gallows'-flesh" is just a literal translation of the German Galgenfleisch. There's no special English meaning. @Robusto's answer covers the hidden meaning that is revealed by the end of that story. I can't find any sign that the German word was intended to have any obvious meaning other than "buying a dead man from the gallows for meat". There were many editions of Grimm's Fairy Tales, and at least two different tellings of the prince's reaction to hearing this "rule". The first is that he responds along the lines of, "well, that sounds simple to follow". The second clarifies better why: it has him say, "well, who would ever buy meat from the gallows?!" I think that makes it unlikely it was a common idiom for anything.

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