Saturday, August 14, 2010

Overview: Medieval Fables

Unlike the many genres of classical literature that were largely forgotten in the Middle Ages, Aesop's fables thrived. The Roman poems of Phaedrus survived in the form of prose paraphrases. Phaedrus's name was forgotten but his fables were attributed to a certain Romulus, thus indirectly acknowledging their Roman origin. Some of the medieval authors who created these prose paraphrases had access to editions of Phaedrus's poems that were more complete than the edition of Phaedrus which we know today. Modern scholars (notably Carl Zander) have attempted to reconstruct the lost poems of Phaedrus by putting the prose paraphrases back into verse form, with impressive results (see the Bibliography).

One of the reasons for the success of Aesop in the Middle Ages was surely the ease with which the Christian monks could reconcile Aesop's fables with the Biblical tradition of New Testament parables. The thirteenth-century preacher Odo of Cheriton created collections of both fabulae and parabolae. Some of these stories are traditional Aesopic fables, while others are medieval folktales not attested in the ancient tradition. Along with Odo's stories, I have also included some stories compiled by Odo's contemporary, the preacher and Crusader, Jacques de Vitry.

In addition to this religious literature, Aesop's fables evolved into a secular style of storytelling sometimes referred to as “beast epic.” In these slapstick versions of the fables, the animals become more like true individual characters with proper names of their own: Reynard is the the fox, Chanticler is the rooster, Isengrimus is the wolf, etc. There is a cartoonish feel to the medieval beast epic, where the wolf gets beaten up again and again and again, much like the poor Coyote in the “Roadrunner & Coyote” cartoons of the 1950s and 1960s.

Finally, the abundant animal lore of Greece and Rome also survived into the Middle Ages, evolving into the “bestiary” tradition (hence the name of my website, Bestiaria Latina, “the Latin bestiaries”). Already in the ancient fable tradition, Greek and Roman animal lore supplied plots for some of the fables, such as the story of the crow raising the level of water in a jar, or the story of the beaver castrating himself when pursued by a hunter. Similarly, medieval bestiary legends such as “the fox playing dead” or “the tiger and the mirror” provide the basis for some new Aesop's fables in the Middle Ages.

In his catalog of fables in the Aesopica, Perry included many medieval fables, but he was not as systematic as in his coverage of the ancient fables. Of the 725 fables in the Aesopica, approximately 150 are from medieval Latin sources. Perry included almost all of the fables in the Romulus tradition, and he also included many fables from Odo of Cheriton, but not all of them. Where there is a Perry number available, I have provided it in the notes for each fable, but for many of the medieval fables included in this book, there is no Perry number.

About Medieval Latin

In many ways medieval Latin is easier to read than classical Latin, although it may seem a bit odd at first. Here are some features you will probably notice:
  • You will find long paratactic sentences (et … et …) without any kind of subordination.
  • The conjunction quod acquires many new functions, sometimes replacing the classical ut.
  • The pronoun vos is used as an honorific singular.
  • The preposition cum is used where you might expect the independent use of the ablative case.
  • You will find some non-classical vocabulary, such as catus instead of feles, for example, taxus instead of meles, rattus in addition to mus, etc.
If you are puzzled about the Latin used in these fables, please feel free to leave a question in the blog comments section here.

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