Saturday, August 14, 2010

Overview: Renaissance Fables

The fifteenth-century edition of Aesop by Steinhowel provides a transition from the medieval Aesop into the Renaissance. The first four books of Steinhowel's Aesop are based on the medieval Romulus, but he also included some Latin fables newly translated from Greek, along with some Renaissance tales by Poggio and stories from the Disciplina Clericalis of Petrus Alphonsi. Steinhowel's book was translated into many European vernaculars; the first published edition of Aesop's fables in English is a version of Steinhowel printed by William Caxton in 1484.

The Renaissance occasioned many new fable collections, most notably the two volumes entitled Hecatomythia (“Hundred-Fables”) published by the fifteenth-century scholar Lorenzo Bevilacqua, better known as Abstemius (his Italian surname means “Drink-Water,” hence the Latin). You will find over a hundred fables by Abstemius in Mille Fabulae et Una; his witty and elegant little stories are a great contribution to the Aesopic tradition.

As the Renaissance progressed, there were many editions of Aesop's fables published in both Greek and in Latin. Some of the most extensive collections were published by Joachim Camerarius and Isaac Nevelet whose books you can now see reproduced online at GoogleBooks.

Meanwhile, in Renaissance France, Aesop's fables were taking on a quite new and elaborate literary form. Most importantly, in the second half of the seventeenth century, Jean de La Fontaine created a collection of Aesop's fables in French verse that is one of the treasures of European literature. Drawing on ancient, medieval and Renaissance sources, as well as on the Eastern tales, La Fontaine composed over two hundred fables in verse that embody an unprecedented charm and sophistication. No sooner had La Fontaine written his fables in French than people began translating them into Latin! You will find twenty different fables of La Fontaine in this book, as told by four different Latin translators.

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