Background Information: Aesop
The tradition of Aesop's fables in Latin is incredibly rich, and the medieval tradition has been studied almost not at all! For the background this week, I'll sketch some of the ancient Latin origins and the medieval collections that are of most importance. Our readings this week come from three medieval sources: Ademar of Chabannes, Odo of Cheriton and Walter of England. If you are interested in learning more about the fables, you might take a look at the materials for the Aesop's Fables week in my online folklore class.
- Phaedrus: Phaedrus was a freed slave who lived in the house of the Roman emperor Augustus. He wrote several books of Latin poetry based on Aesop's fables. We don't know exactly when Phaedrus was born or died, but he lived during the first century C.E. Phaedrus probably wrote six books of fables, although only a portion of the fables have survived. There is an enormous medieval representation of his fables in both prose and verse versions.
- Avianus: Avianus was a Latin poet who lived in the early fifth century C.E. Avianus wrote a collection of just over 40 Aesop's fables in verse, probably based on a Greek collection of poems. Avianus was extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages although his Latin is rather odd and difficult to read.
- Ademar: Ademar, a well-known Benedictine monk and scholar, was born in France in 989. He died in 1034, while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He wrote some versions of Phaedrus's poems in Latin prose. Ademar's fables are very important because he had access to a copy of Phaedrus that was more complete than any copy that we possess today, so we can find some "lost" fables of Phaedrus by reading Ademar. He is the author of
an important work of medieval history, the Chronicon.
- "Romulus". The core of the medieval Latin fable tradition is actually an anonymous prose paraphrase of Phaedrus that is attributed simply to "Romulus" (the little Roman). As a result, Phaedrus was one of the most popular authors of the Middle Ages, but his name was completely forgotten. The Romulus collections were continually adapted and expanded, some of them in verse and others in prose.
- Alexander Nequam: Alexander Nequam was a well-known scholar who lived from 1157-1217. In addition to his scholarly commentaries on the Bible and other theological works, he was the author of a collection of Aesopic fables in verse.
- Odo of Cheriton: Odo of Cheriton was born in England probably around the year 1180. He died sometime after 1246. Odo's versions of Aesop's fables were very popular in Europe, and he included many fables and anecdotes in his sermons. Both his sermons and his fables are extant in many manuscript editions. There was a medieval Spanish translation of his fables known as Libro de los gatos.
- Walter of England: Walter's name has long been associated with this influential collection of
Aesopic fables, although little is known about Walter's literary career, and
it is entirely possible that he was not actually the author of these fables.
Walter is best known for having been appointed archbishop of Palermo when Sicily
was under Norman rule in the 12th century, and he initiated the building of
the Palermo Cathedral.
While the fables flourished in Latin throughout the Middle Ages, they were also quickly translated into the vernacular languages. Marie de France is the author of an extraordinary collection of Aesopic fables in French, Ysopet, although she is best known as the author of the Lais. Not much is known about Marie's life, although she seems to have lived in England during the latter part of the 12th century. Marie's collection of fables is closely related to a Hebrew author, Berechiah ha-Nakdan, who may have been a contemporary of Marie's. His collection is called the "Fox Fables," or Mishle Shua'lim. In English, Robert Henryson (c. 1425-1500), a well-known Scottish author, is the author of the Morall Fabillis (which you can read online at the TEAMS text site).
In addition, the fables of Aesop were among the first books printed in the various European countries. In 1484, William Caxton printed a translation of Aesop's fables into English. If you want to see how much the English language has changed in the past five hundred years, you should definitely take a look at Caxton's Fables.
Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring
2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit http://www.ou.edu/online/
for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Last updated:
December 29, 2002 7:12 PM