Monday, November 29, 2010

Aesop’s Fables translated and transmitted in Middle Ages

I was curiously looking around to find more medieval art to post and kept coming up with medieval manuscripts, the colorful pages illuminated around the text to show a story in and of itself unfolding. Somehow I found myself with translations of Aesop’s Fables. There is a picture of Aesop himself writing his book in German 15th century hat (see below). This leads me to the current discussion – what did medieval people think of Aesop’s fables? From what we know about animals in the middle ages and their use in symbolism, teaching tools, hunting, food, daily life, religious significance, and more I began to really think about this question. Of course I first turn to Wikipedia, there contains a list of the numerous languages that the fables were translated into throughout time, barely a language or region of Europe is missing and there is also a following in India believe it or not.[1]

It looks like most of the translation was done early in Greece around the first century, however, the transmission continued well into the 19th century (and still up until today). A popular 12th century translation and edition of the fables includes Marie de France, who had a collection of 102 fables, only some of them Aesop’s.[2] The 13th century brought Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan who compiled Aesop, Marie’s and other fables to teach Jewish moral lessons.[3] The list continues with Welsh and German translations also happening in and around the same time. By the 15th century the fables were well dispersed. On another note, we can thank John Locke for bringing the fables down to the children’s level as they were primarily up until his time (18th century) that they were mainly used by adults. Modern day fables come to us from first century, Greek version by Babrius which includes 160 fables.  Jumping to the 11th century the fables are further survived by ‘Syntipas’ which are possibly from a Greek source that no longer exists or is older than Babrius.[4]

What about these animal stories were so interesting? I am also curious why they have not come up in my research on the phoenix or other sources for the bestiaries, especially if they were not children’s literature at the time. Could they have been ignored or maybe influential in the moralizations of the animals? This is obviously not answerable in a blog post but is definitely something to continue to keep an eye out for.

Aesop in his German 15th century attire

I feel like the fables speak to the medieval people’s interest in animals as teaching or symbolic tools. I can understand from our numerous discussions now why they were so wildly translated in the Middle Ages and what possibly attracted the audiences of “Renard the Fox” or the bestiaries. I can even see the people in monasteries who are building rabbit boxes and fish ponds as an acceptable target audience for the fables. I think what I am getting at is that before this class I thought animals were only used in agricultural or eaten, when in fact there are numerous literary and symbolic functions of the animals as well. Whether as an insult or a way to teach a moral the fox, crow, turtle and the hare are all valuable literary resources. I wish I had more illustrations from the first manuscripts but unfortunately I can’t find many on Google images dating back to our time period. I feel like the manuscripts and images from the first printed books would shed light on these fables as well and show us in more detail how they were used.


from the thoughts of R. Pal 


  1. I personally have been looking at these fables for my paper and have noticed that Aesop generally wrote fables that included more simple everyday animals, perhaps the ones that he saw in his everyday life. I also think that it is interesting that they were first written for an adult audience and later made common to a younger audience. Perhaps they saw that it was better to not only teach the adults moral lessons but it was better to start at a younger age. I read in one of my sources that Aesop most likely wrote his fables in order to present to his son his disgust with the sins of the world that he was seeing, but I really would have to double check. Great questions though! Worth looking into a lot more!!


  2. You make me wish we had several more weeks still to go in the course: yes, of course, Aesop's fables! I should have assigned us to read some of those, as well as some of the retellings. Thanks so much for bringing these sources to our attention. It is interesting that, as popular as the stories clearly were, we did not encounter them more in our other readings. Clearly, not all animal stories are the same, nor do they do the same kind of cultural work. It would be fruitful to compare the portrayals of particular animals across these various genres (bestiary, fable, fairy tale).