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From Aesop to ReynardBeast Literature in Medieval Britain$

Jill Mann

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199217687

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: February 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199217687.001.0001

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How Animals Mean

How Animals Mean

(p.28) 1 How Animals Mean
From Aesop to Reynard

Jill Mann

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides a theoretical basis for the discussion of individual works in subsequent chapters. Taking examples from the Latin prose rendition of Phaedran fables known as the Romulus vulgaris, it analyses ‘how animals mean’ in beast fable, emphasizing the deliberate brevity and sparseness of fable narrative, and connecting these features with the mistrust of words that fable characteristically teaches. In contrast, in beast epic (represented here by the Ysengrimus), words proliferate, and the simple moral conclusion in which the action of beast fable culminates is dissolved in a sea of animal moralizing whose effect is comic rather than didactic. Beast fable and beat epic also differ in their relation to historical reality: whereas fable is a‐historical in itself but can be used as a whole to comment on a historical situation, epic can incorporate topical satire into its narrative.

Keywords:   beast fable, beast epic, Romulus vulgaris, Ysengrimus, brevity, words, narrative

In this chapter I shall provide a theoretical framework for my discussion of medieval British beast literature by outlining the most important differences between beast fable (as represented by the Romulus vulgaris and other Romulan collections) and beast epic (as represented by the Ysengrimus). As mentioned in the Introduction, the question that best serves to bring these differences into focus is the question of how (not what) animals mean in each branch of the tradition.1

How animals mean in beast fable

What is a beast fable?2 One might well begin a definition by listing its external features: it is a story with a moral, it is brief, and it represents animals (or trees or plants or non-sentient objects) as talking. What is it that makes these features cohere into a meaningful whole? The fable of the wolf and the lamb, which is the opening fable in Phaedrus’ collection and the second in the Romulus vulgaris, provides a good starting point for considering this question. (p.29)

Aesop told this story about the wicked and the innocent.

A lamb and a wolf, both thirsty, came from different directions to a river-bank. The wolf was drinking upstream and the lamb a long way downstream. When the wolf saw the lamb, he said: ‘You have muddied the water that I am drinking.’ The patient lamb said: ‘How have I muddied the water for you, when it is flowing from you to me?’ Not blushing at [going against] the truth, the wolf said: ‘You are bad-mouthing me.’ ‘I am not,’ said the lamb. The wolf said: ‘So it was your father, six months ago, who did this to me.’ ‘Was I even born six months ago?’ The evil-jawed wolf said: ‘Are you still speaking, rogue?’, and immediately fell upon him and deprived the innocent of life.

This fable is told of those who slander other people. (RV I.2)3

The brief narrative is framed by moral comments, both at the opening (the promythium) and at its close (the epimythium).4 The bipartite structure (story plus moral) is traditional, but nevertheless puzzling. Since animal behaviour is not susceptible to moral evaluation, how can a moral lesson be drawn from a narrative about animals? To put it even more simply: why use animals rather than human beings in the fable narrative?

One reply that is often given is that animals have conventional characteristics which enable the fable-writer to simplify the moral contours of the narrative to the point where they can be given a general formulation in the concluding comment. The eighteenth-century German writer and critic Lessing, who wrote at length on the theory of beast fable, encouraged this view when he attributed the use of animals to ‘the generally recognized constancy of their natures’.5 Robert Henryson observes, in the Prologue to his Morall Fabillis, ‘How mony men in operatioun/ Ar like to (p.30) beistis in conditioun’ (48–9),6 and at the beginning of The Cock and the Fox (III) he gives examples of the ‘mony diuers inclinatioun’ that differentiate the ‘kyndis naturall’ of animals:7

  • The bair busteous, the volff, the wylde lyoun,
  • The fox fenȝeit, craftie and cawtelows,
  • The dog to bark on nicht and keip the hows. (401–3)

[The rough bear, the wolf, the wild lion, the deceiving fox, crafty and cunning, the dog for barking at night and guarding the house.]

This view implies an overlap of the human and the animal world; the animals are seen as having human characteristics although they lack human complexity.8 They are seen as something like the ‘humours’ characters in the plays of Ben Jonson. But even in Henryson's brief list, signs of strain are already apparent. The cunning fox we know, but what about the ‘wild lion’? In some fables, the lion is a cruel predator: in the ‘booty-sharing’ fable (RV I.6), he appropriates the hunting spoils by main force, instead of sharing it with his hunting partners. But nature also prompts him to ‘spare the prostrate’ as he does in the fable of the lion and the mouse (RV I.17).9 And in the fable of the ageing lion (RV I.15), he is kicked and buffeted by the weaker animals who formerly held him in awe.10

The fable of the wolf and the lamb is misleading in this respect because it is easy to call the wolf ‘cruel’ and the lamb ‘innocent’ (as does the fable itself). But the fable of the mouse and the frog, which follows it in the Romulus vulgaris (I.3), immediately complicates the picture.11 Frogs are not conventionally associated with treachery, nor are mice their natural victims (as the lamb is the natural victim of the wolf). What makes the frog appropriate for this story is simply that she possesses the ability to swim that the mouse lacks; any other amphibious animal would do as well. Similarly, in the fable of the wolf and the crane (RV I.8), the crane is chosen simply because his long neck enables him to reach the bone stuck in the wolf's throat and remove it, not because he is traditionally thought of as gullible enough to expect gratitude from a wolf. In the fable of the fox and the stork, the stork is chosen for its long beak, which it exploits to take vengeance on the fox by serving him food in a long-necked jar (RVII.14).12 (And here the ‘cunning’ fox is outwitted by the stork.) But even such physical justifications for the choice of one animal rather than another are for the most (p.31) part lacking, and different versions of the same fable often substitute one animal for another.13 It is the individual narrative that fixes the ‘character’ of an animal, but it fixes it only for the duration of that particular fable. The dog who drops the piece of meat that he is carrying because he thinks that its reflection in water is an even bigger one that he can grab, can be termed ‘greedy’ or ‘foolish’ (RV I.5). The dog who rejects the meat with which a thief attempts to bribe him, because the family that he protects are a more enduring source of food, can be called either ‘honest’ or ‘prudent’ (RV II.3). The dog who demands a loaf of bread that he mendaciously claims to have loaned to a sheep is configured as ‘dishonest’ and ‘cruel’ (RV I.4). Although in the first two of these fables at least, the dog is represented as doing appropriately dog-like things (carrying meat in its mouth, guarding the house), the fables do not reveal or even assume any essential canine ‘character’.

The humanized animals of beast fable do not, therefore, represent an attempt to trace the ‘bestial’ elements in human beings, even less to read anthropomorphic qualities in animals. Unlike the bestiary, which brings two existing realities, the animal and the human, into meaningful relation, and which implies a divinely programmed pattern in their similarities,14 the fable narrative is fundamentally and avowedly a fiction.15 It can therefore make no serious claims to reveal what animals and humans have in common. For the same reason, it is misleading to classify beast fable as allegory.16 Allegory is essentially metaphorical: a description of a sea voyage, say, can become a metaphor for the course of a single human life, with storms varied by passages of smooth sailing, and an eventual arrival in the port of death. Fable, in contrast, is not in itself metaphorical; its meaning is not arrived at by correlating the features of the narrative with some other (p.32) area of experience, but by marking the conclusion of the action and the terse generalizations that sum up its (non-metaphorical) ‘moral’. Only when a fable is related to a set of circumstances to which its features can be seen to correspond can one begin to speak of an allegorical dimension. In antiquity, these correlations are usually sought in political or historical situations for which the fable might provide useful counsel; in the later Middle Ages, they often invaded the moralitates, in the form of elaborate social or spiritual exegesis.17

Fable and allegory also differ in the implicit truth-claims of each genre. William Empson astutely observed that ‘Part of the function of an allegory is to make you feel that two levels of being correspond to one another in detail, and indeed that there is some underlying reality, something in the nature of things, which makes this happen.’ This means that in the best kinds of allegory, it is often hard to distinguish the tenor of the narrative metaphor from the vehicle: ‘Either level may illuminate the other.’18 In beast fable, in contrast, there is no sense of penetrating to an ‘underlying reality’; the narrative fiction leads to nothing grander than a general observation based on this particular instance. Lessing's definition of fable as the use of a specific instance (‘einen besonderen Fall’) to illustrate a general moral principle (‘einen allgemeinen moralischen Satz’) must therefore be understood in a quite limited sense.19 In the first place, since the ‘specific instance’ is frankly fictional, it cannot be claimed that the ‘general principle’ has any historical basis, let alone the status of the laws of physics or biology. In the second place, the ‘general principle’ is not a universal truth. The concluding moralities of beast fable can be mutually contradictory. The moral of Phaedrus’ fable of the frogs and the bulls (I.30), ‘Poor folk suffer when the mighty quarrel’ is reversed in the moral of his fable of the mice and the weasels (IV.6): ‘Whenever a people is hard pressed by a grim calamity it is their leaders in high position who are in danger; the humble, common people easily find safety in obscurity’.20 The fable-moral is closely tied to the fable-fiction; each fiction yields its own specific conclusion.

This still leaves the question ‘why animals?’ unanswered. Klaus Grubmüller is on the right lines when he suggests that the answer lies in a negative characteristic: ‘they are not humans and are incapable of human action’.21 The usefulness of animals, (p.33) that is, lies precisely in the characteristic that would seem to prevent them from forming a basis for moralizing conclusions: their resistance to moral evaluation. The use of animals shifts the interest of the story from character to action, away from an individual moral choice, shaped by psychology, personal history or dramatically realized situation, and towards a simple chain of cause and effect. If a grasshopper does not gather food in summer, it will inevitably starve in winter. Rousseau's outrage at the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, whose moral he saw as the negation of human charity,22 was thus misplaced, since it depends on making a direct connection between moral evaluation and animal behaviour (that is, it judges animals according to the same moral principles as human beings). In this respect, beast fable can be contrasted with the ‘sentimental animal story’,23 such as Kipling's Jungle Book, The Wind in the Willows, or Watership Down, where the animals are thinly disguised humans, evoking the same emotional and moral reactions as their human counterparts in a novel would do. In the fable, it is the course of the action as a whole that determines the moral generalization to be drawn from it, rather than an awareness of the moral values implicit in the initial choice of one act over another.24 The fable of the mouse and the frog, for example, is not concerned to demonstrate the mouse's folly in trusting to the frog (either at the moment that it does so or retrospectively), and it is indeed indifferent to the mouse's fate. The moral does not concern itself with the mouse; it bases itself on the fact that the frog's treachery leads directly to its own death, not through the conscious exercise of justice, but through a simple connection of natural cause (commotion in mid-river) and effect (the kite's attention is attracted to the frog).

From this perspective, Lessing's point about the ‘generally recognized constancy of character’ of animal figures can be brought back into play, for the resistance of animal nature to change also works to close off direct moral judgements. One may call an ass foolish or a fox cunning or a wolf cruel, but there is little point in criticizing them for these traits, since they are naturally determined, and therefore, according to the laws of the fable world, unalterable.25 The assumption of (p.34) natural programming underlies not only these examples, but also those where the animals are not strongly associated with particular characteristics. The first fable in the Romulus vulgaris (I.1) tells how a cock, seeking for food in a dunghill, finds a pearl lying in the muck, and rejects it as of no use because he cannot eat it. The moral relates this rejection of the jewel to those who read fables and do not understand them.26 Many modern readers find this fable puzzling, since they see the cock's preference for food over a jewel as sensible and therefore praiseworthy, whereas the moral aligns him with the uncomprehending fool. The puzzling element is, however, precisely the sign that the moral is not aimed at the cock. The gulf between the cock and the jewel is established by nature;27 it is only when it is transposed into the human sphere that moral judgement can come into play, since human beings, unlike cocks, have the capacity to appreciate the socio-aesthetic value of a jewel. Human rejection of the jewel (or what it represents) is a voluntary acceptance of the moral and spiritual limitation that is natural in an animal. The fable of the cock and the jewel is thus a fable about fables,28 in that it demonstrates with particular clarity the shift from animal to human that is enacted at the epimythium. It was probably for this reason that it was moved from its relatively late position in Phaedrus (III.12) to stand at the very beginning of the Romulus collection.

The animal–human shift is the reason why the classic fable is bipartite in form—why the morality has to stand outside of and apart from the fable narrative. Postponing moralization, the narrative plays itself out with the inevitability appropriate to animal behaviour.29 It is only when the narrative is complete that the final shape of the story can be seen to yield a meaning that can be transferred to the human (p.35) sphere. As Helmut de Boor puts it, fable ‘teaches as a whole and carries its teaching in itself’.30 So the predator is assigned a negative role in the fable of the wolf and the lamb, but a positive role in the fable of the mouse and the frog, where the kite ‘punishes’ the frog and so lays the foundation for the ‘biter bit’ morality. Predatory behaviour is a ‘given’ of the animal world; it is the shape of the action that places it in a configuration meaningful to human beings.

To say that the fable carries its meaning in itself is not to imply that it can dispense with a concluding moral.31 Even if none is supplied, the reader can hardly make sense of the story without imagining one.32 Nor does it imply that each individual fable can generate only one meaning; it is easy to demonstrate that the morals attached to particular fables have taken many different forms.33 It is simply to insist that the moral derives from the story as a whole, rather than from a moral analysis of any of its constituent parts. For this reason the fable is usually brief; the briefer the narrative, the easier it is to grasp its distinctive configuration and its point.34 Towards the same end, it is shorn of narrative detail, of the concrete specificities of time and place, of physical description or sensory experiences.35 The fable-world breathes a ‘ (p.36) thinned air’, in Klaus Doderer's words; its setting is an ‘emptied stage’, with only those props that are required for the smooth development of the narrative.36 The removal of everyday concrete detail takes away the temptation to treat the animals as if they were human beings in fully realized narrative situations (again, the ‘sentimental animal story’ offers a striking contrast), while at the same time reducing their animal characteristics to a sketchy outline. Individuation is banished for the same reason: the fable deals with ‘a cock’ or ‘a fox’, not ‘Chantecler’ or ‘Renard’, figures who might acquire individual psychological or moral configurations.37 Although a fox may appear in numerous fables, there is no justification for stringing these episodes together so as to make up a personal history; the fox of any single fable has no history outside of its limits. Furthermore, so far as the fable is concerned, each animal species is characteristically limited to a single representative.38 Dolf Sternberger criticizes one of Lessing's own fables for introducing two asses, one of whom reproaches the other for putting on airs simply because he is accompanying the lion (‘are you any more than an ass?’). This is, Sternberger argues, a false move, in that it introduces a distinction between an ass who is foolish and an ass who is wiser—that is, it approximates the animals to human beings in the variation and gradation of their moral characters. Or, to restate it in my original terms: it encourages direct moral evaluation of the animals in the story.

It also opens the door to possible moral change:39 if one ass can shed his own asininity and achieve a certain amount of wisdom, might not the other learn from him and do the same? This possibility is entirely alien to the fable; as Jauss comments, ‘the category of becoming’ does not apply to the figures of fable.40 If the animals ‘learn’ from their errors, the lesson is only a retrospective summation of the preceding narrative episode; it is not a programme for future improvement. So (p.37) the stag who had admired his fine antlers and deplored his spindly legs ‘learns’ his mistake when his legs enable him to flee from the hounds while his antlers entangle him in the bushes, but his consequent death simultaneously teaches him the lesson and prevents him from making use of it (RV III.7). It is the closing off of future change for the fable figures that gives the fable narrative the powerful sense of closure that translates itself into the concluding moral. It is the subversion of this convention that is the source of the comedy in Helmut Arntzen's modern rewriting of the wolf and lamb fable:

  • Der Wolf kam zum Bach. Da entsprang das Lamm.
  • Bleib nur, du störst mich nicht, rief der Wolf.
  • Danke, rief das Lamm zurück, ich habe im Äsop gelesen.41

[The wolf came to the stream. The lamb leaped away. ‘Stay,’ cried the wolf, ‘you're not disturbing me.’ ‘Thank you,’ cried the lamb in reply, ‘I've read my Aesop.’]

The fable moral thus has a characteristically ‘belated’ quality; an animal may learn from the disaster that befalls another (as the fox draws conclusions from the footprints leading into the lion's cave but not out again), but not from his own. This ‘belatedness’ is wittily exemplified in Marie de France's fable (LXXIX) of the wolf who persuades a boatman to take him across a river in return for three pieces of wise advice. The first two pieces of advice are mere banal tautologies: ‘He who does well, does well’, and ‘He who does not do so, does worse.’ The third, delivered only when the wolf is safely across the river, turns out to be ‘you get nothing out of doing a rogue a favour,’42 and is the only one that is potentially useful to the boatman. When the boatman asks the wolf why he did not give him the third piece of advice earlier, the wolf replies that he would have thrown him off the boat (33–8). The validation of this particular dictum thus depends, paradoxically, on its arriving too late to be put into practice. That is, its value as a summary of the fable narrative depends precisely on its being of no use to the boatman, so that it is both redundant (within the fable narrative) and essential (as a comment on the fable narrative).

The last of the narrative features that are cleared off the ‘emptied stage’ of beast fable is emotional sympathy. ‘The fabulist’, as Lessing says, ‘is not at all concerned with our passions, only with our knowledge.’43 Dolf Sternberger concurs: ‘Fable tolerates no sympathy’;44 it does not take sides.45 By way of illustration, he cites La (p.38) Fontaine's fable of the ass's confession (VII.1); since this is a fable with a venerable medieval pedigree, I shall paraphrase the Latin poem which seems to be its earliest surviving version, written around the turn of the twelfth/thirteenth century. Variously entitled ‘Brunellus’ or ‘Poenitentiarius asini’, this poem describes how, in front of a festal assembly of animals, the wolf, the fox, and the ass each confess their sins in turn.46 Both wolf and fox confess to innumerable acts of pitiless slaughter, but they readily absolve each other, since these acts were only natural and were dictated by hunger. Finally the ass, emboldened by this apparently charitable attitude, confesses to some trivial misdemeanours, the worst of which is that he once ate a piece of straw sticking out of the padding of a pilgrim's shoe. To his surprise, the revelation of this act of ‘sacrilege’ is greeted with shocked outrage, and he is punished by death. This story circulated, in briefer form, in medieval England and Ireland, as versions in Latin, Anglo-Norman and English testify.47 La Fontaine's version is very similar to the ‘Poenitentiarius’, except that the confessions are motivated by the fact that the animal kingdom is being ravaged by plague, and the lion, assuming that this is a (p.39) divine punishment for animal sin, proposes that the most guilty animal should be sacrificed by way of atonement. Again the larger and more powerful animals confess to acts of slaughter and are forgiven, while the ass confesses that once, passing a monastery's meadow, he nibbled a bit of its grass, though he had no right to it. And again, the other animals are horrified to hear of this ‘abominable crime’, and the poor ass is put to death forthwith. ‘The poor ass?’ asks Sternberger. ‘No, the ass. The ass-of-an-ass.’48 Unwittingly, Sternberger echoes the ‘Poenitentiarius’, which calls the ass's readiness to trust the wolf ‘asini mos asininus’ (line 366)—‘the asinine nature of the ass’. The ass is not an individual creature, but a representative of the asinine position in the world, which will always and ineluctably be occupied by someone. As Sternberger puts it, his character is no more than ‘the mask of the ass’, that is, ‘his role in the fable and the world, which he must play to the end, the bitter end’.49 The moralizations at the end of the medieval versions of this fable vary in their identification of the social classes occupying the role of oppressors and victim—sometimes they are lay, sometimes religious—but the structure of power is unvarying.50 Whatever sympathy for the poor and downtrodden the fable arouses in the reader, this sympathy has nowhere to go; its potential for remedial action is blocked by the narrative's cynical recognition that in some form or other, things will always be thus.

The ‘emptied stage’ is cleared for action. Animals are chosen as the main actors because—from the negative point of view—they remove any expectations of psychological individuality or moral complexity. From the positive point of view, they are chosen because their actions can be assumed to be dictated by nature, and this lends a quasi-inevitability to their actions, even when they are not such as the ‘natural animal’ would commit.51 From the moment that the wolf and the lamb appear side by side, a narrative expectation is established. Paradoxically, the narrative expectation is even stronger in fables which begin with animals wanting to act unnaturally, to transgress the bounds of nature, for it is obvious that the attempt to do so must come to grief. Many variations are played on this theme: the crow dressing himself in peacock's feathers (RV II.16); the ass wanting to gambol on his master's lap like a puppy (RV I.16); the wolf expressing a desire to be domesticated like the dog (RV III.15); the peacock longing to sing like the nightingale (RV IV.4); the wolves and the sheep calling a truce (RV III.13); the ass wanting to terrify people like the lion (RV IV.10); the hares wanting to be free of their timorousness (RV II.9); the frog attempting to blow itself up to the size of an ox (RV II.21); the ape asking for a (p.40) portion of the fox's bushy tail (RV III.17).52 All such attempts are doomed to failure; the dénouement of the fable restores or reasserts the natural status quo with the force of a stretched spring recoiling on itself. Nature supplies a negative dynamic.

Yet in one crucially important respect the animals of beast fable are allowed to be unnatural: they are able to speak. It is natural for wolves to eat lambs, but highly unnatural for them to engage the lambs in conversation first. It is the verbal exchange that turns this anecdote into a fable rather than the banal recital of an everyday occurrence. Why does the wolf not devour the lamb immediately? Or why does he not make a better attempt at justifying his accusations, by, for example, moving downstream of the lamb? Once these questions have been asked, it becomes clear that it is the irrelevance of the verbal exchange to the development of the action that is the very point of its inclusion. The tension between the procrastinating conversation and the inexorable forward pressure created by the confrontation of predator and victim dramatizes a divergence between words and deeds. The moral of the fable does not comment on the wolf's action but on his words: ‘This fable is told of those who slander other people.’53 The point of the story is not that the strong oppress the weak, but that they co-opt words to create a fake justification for doing so.54 The reason for using an animal protagonist to make this point is startlingly clear: it makes apparent the redundancy of the linguistic camouflage that overlays brute reality. Wolves simply fall on their prey; human wolves write a script in which the lamb is the aggressor and deserves punishment. Linguistic justification does not impinge on the inevitable action; it is merely an extra luxury allowed to the one who wields superior power.

The popular fable that gave rise to the phrase ‘the lion's share’ is structured in the same way (RV I.6). The cow, the goat, and the sheep go hunting with the lion and kill a stag. When it has been divided into four parts, the lion asserts that he is entitled to the first part as the lion,55 to the second part because he is stronger than the others, to the third because he ran faster—and as for the fourth, anyone who touches it will earn his enmity. As with the wolf and the lamb, verbal justification collapses abruptly into a simple display of force and reveals its own superfluousness in doing so. A deeply cynical attitude to language pervades beast fable. The fable of the lion-king who thinks up a series of reasons for devouring his animal subjects, regardless of what answer they give to the question of whether his breath smells, is summed up in the promythium: ‘to speak is agony and to be silent is a torment’ (RV III.20).56

(p.41) The Prologue to the Romulus vulgaris declares that one of its aims is to teach mistrust of ‘verba blanda’. In fable, only fools place any trust in words, whether they take the form of flattery, boasts, threats, promises, or arguments. The well-known fable of the fox and the crow is a classic example: seduced by the fox's flattery of his beautiful appearance, and desire to hear if his voice is as lovely, the crow opens his beak to sing and so drops the cheese he is holding (RV I.14). Lost in a world of words and the mental images they conjure up, the crow forgets that singing and speaking have a physical dimension—they involve opening the mouth—but it is this dimension that proves to be the all-important one. In the fable of the two bitches (RV I.9), the pregnant bitch dupes the other into letting her share her kennel until she gives birth—and then asks to stay until her puppies have grown stronger. Once the growing family is big enough to represent a formidable opposition, she throws off the mask of entreaty and asserts her intention to stay put. The moral underlines the danger of ‘blanda verba’: ‘sometimes good people lose what is theirs when wheedling words lead them to trust other people’.57 The wise animals are those who refuse to put trust in words—for example, the sow who refuses the wolf's kind offer to act as her midwife (RV II.4), or the sheep who promises to lend some wheat to the stag in the presence of the wolf, but reneges on her promise once the wolf is no longer there (RVII.12).58 Sometimes the fable reveals the emptiness of words by puncturing the pretensions of boasts or threats: the fly who boasts that he is the first to taste the entrails of a sacrifice, that he sits on the head of the king and kisses women's lips, is tartly reminded by the ant that he is regarded by all these people as a nuisance (RV II.18). The fly sitting on a carriage-pole who threatens to sting the mules unless they go more quickly is answered by the mule: ‘I don't fear your words, but those of the one who sits in the saddle and holds the reins’ (RV II.17). The ass who succeeds in terrifying foxes and hares with his braying is tartly told by the lion: ‘Your noise could terrify me too, if I did not know who you were’ (RV IV.10). The moral of the fable mocks the man ‘who can do nothing through strength and thinks he can terrify anyone with empty words’.59 The fable of the ‘sour grapes’ follows a reverse trajectory—the fox throws a verbal camouflage over his failure to reach the grapes by claiming that they were unripe anyway (RV IV.1)—to arrive at the same conclusion about words as a deceptive overlay on reality: ‘those who can do nothing with their physical powers, nevertheless pretend in their words that they can but do not want to’.60

Physical reality, not words, is the only sure basis for action in the fable. The fox reads the significance of the footprints leading into the lion's cave—but not out again (RV IV.12). The wolf who is preparing to take on a life of domesticity with his new (p.42) friend the dog changes his mind when he observes the mark left on the dog's neck by the chain that ties him up every day (RV III.15). The swallow can see that the flax seeds sprouting in the field will produce twine to make nets and capture birds (RV I.19). Conversely, to take illusion for physical reality leads to disaster: the dog who thinks he can seize the illusory piece of meat reflected in the water is punished by losing the real one that is producing the reflection (RV I.5). The split between words and reality can split off the tongue from the rest of the body: fulfilling his promise to the wolf to tell the hunter that the wolf has fled, the shepherd nevertheless cannot help casting his eyes towards the place where the wolf is in fact hiding (RV IV.3). Asked to thank the shepherd for not betraying him to the hunter, the wolf replies, ‘Your tongue I thank, but I wish blindness on your treacherous eyes!’61 The same split between the voice and the rest of the body is evident in the fable of the kid and the wolf: instructed by its mother not to open the door to anyone but her, the kid wisely refuses to trust the wolf's imitation of the mother's voice. ‘I hear the voice of my mother, but you are deceitful and hostile’ (RV II.10).62

The fable's characteristic mistrust of words is another important reason for the brevity of its narrative. Teaching a suspicion both of verbal elaboration and the delusory powers of the imagination, the fable can win the reader's trust only by practising stylistic minimalism.63 La Fontaine called brevity ‘the soul of fable’64 and Lessing agreed. The fable moral is as brief as its narrative. Its function is not to analyse the ethical complexities of the narrative but to reduce it to a single memorable formulation that can be used as a bridge to the human world where it becomes available for use.65 Like the proverb, the fable finds its true function in its application to particular situations which will both validate its truth and endow it with specific meaning. Sometimes the fable itself sketches out such a situation: the fable of the frogs who asked Jupiter for a king, and were sent first a log, and then, when they complained of the log's inertia, a water snake that ate them all up (RV II.1), is introduced as one that was told by Aesop to the Athenians when they were hankering after a ruler who might impose discipline.66 Just as calling someone ‘King Log’ is enough in itself to evoke this whole fable and its meaning, many fables have been reduced to a kind of verbal shorthand that facilitates their absorption into everyday use: a cuckoo in the nest; the lion's share; borrowed feathers; town mouse and country mouse; sour grapes; fouling one's own nest; a bag of tricks; a snake in the (p.43) bosom; to cry wolf; to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.67 ‘Who painted the lion?’, asks Chaucer's Wife of Bath, confident that this is enough to make her listeners think immediately of the fable of the man and the lion (RV IV.17).68

Like the proverb, the beast fable implies by virtue of its ‘usability’ a world where situations will go on repeating themselves. Though it exposes greed, cruelty, and selfishness, the fable hopes for no moral improvement; it assumes a sameness, a constancy in the world that ensures its own constant relevance. It aims to teach the ‘way of the world’, not ‘what ought to happen’ but ‘what actually happens’.69 Karl August Ott comments on the similarity between fable and proverb, both of which ‘illuminate a situation in such a way as to make it seem already known, and connect it with a knowledge that one seems already to possess’.70 The fable renounces novelty; new narratives lead to old conclusions, revealing themselves as variations on the ancient themes. Fable cannot even embrace within itself the possibility of its own contribution to change. The qualification ‘within itself’ is important, for the fable's historic utility has without question been to intervene, to persuade its audience to one course of action rather than another, but it does so precisely on the basis of its apparent renunciation of future predictions and the restriction of its horizon to a single instructive instance. Conservatism is therefore integral to the fable, but as an artistic principle, rather than as an ideology. The corollary of this is that fable morals do not add up to a coherent ethical system or a programme for social change.71 Those critics who have seen it as expressing the views of a social underclass are romanticizing.72 Although individual fable-writers, from Marie de France to La (p.44) Fontaine, can interpret individual fables in social terms, the fable in general takes no particular social stance; it can be put to the service of protest or of the preservation of the status quo.73 Like proverbs, fable morals resist systematization. They are generally pragmatic, based on common sense, and worldly-wise, not ‘moral’ in a definably Christian sense.74 They represent the kind of practical morality embodied in ‘wisdom-literature’—the Solomonic books of the Bible, the wisdom books of eastern culture, the Distichs of Cato, and the proverb collections of the Middle Ages and beyond.75 As Morten Nøjgaard puts it, fable lacks a philosophy, but it has a conception of life; though it has no overall system, it nevertheless expresses indirectly its ‘particular attitude to existence’.76 The driving motive of its characters is self-interest.77 Fable is ‘a pagan genre lingering in a Christian world’;78 the values it considers worth striving after are not ‘humility, compassion, piety or religious devotion’, but ‘shrewdness, cunning, craftiness, and prudence…God has no place in the fable’.79

How animals mean in beast epic

If beast fable is sparing of words, beast epic is prodigal of them. The Ysengrimus, the first fully fledged example of the genre, is over 6,500 lines long, and most of it is devoted, not to narrative action, but to lengthy speeches delivered by the animals. Their struggles to win the advantage over each other are enacted, and their triumphs celebrated, by means of elaborate discourses which draw heavily on the resources of proverbial wisdom, ingenious argumentation, and rhetorical commonplace. (p.45) Linguistic dominance, it appears, both ensures physical dominance and sets the seal on it. This can be glimpsed already in the Carolingian poem (‘Aegrum fama fuit’) relating the story of the sick lion, which forms the core episode of both the Ecbasis captivi and the Ysengrimus.80 All the animals having been summoned to the aid of the sick lion, their king, only the fox fails to comply, for which the bear suggests that he should be severely punished. Notified that he has been sentenced to death, the fox collects numerous pairs of torn shoes, with which he presents himself before the king. These are, he explains, the shoes that he has worn out on his long travels in search of a cure for the lion.81 Asked what this cure might be, he replies that the lion will be cured if he is wrapped in the skin of a bear. The bear is immediately flayed alive and the lion cured. The fox caps his victory by launching a triumphant gibe at the bear, whose only remaining skin is on the crown of his head and his paws: ‘Who gave you, father bear, this mitre on your head and these gloves on your hands?’82 Starting from a position of disadvantage, the fox wins the upper hand by exploiting the powers of the tongue. His narrative skills transform worn-out shoes into physical ‘proof’ of an imaginary journey, and this journey itself acts as a pseudo-authentication of the medical cure that he claims to have found. So the lion is won over and orders the flaying of the bear, thus enacting the fox's vengeance on him. From being a condemned malefactor, the fox has become a puppet-master pulling all the strings. And this narrative control licenses the final imaginative stroke, which sardonically represents the flaying as an episcopal consecration, with the pitiful shreds of remaining skin renamed as a bishop's gloves and mitre.83

The crucial difference between this poem and a beast fable is that whereas the fable ends with a moral, this poem ends with a punch-line. The narrative does not conclude with a summarizing axiom that can be applied to other situations (for example, ‘so the trickster is often tricked’), but with a witticism that is the privilege of the victor. As in the fable of the wolf and the lamb, there is a glaring discrepancy between concrete reality and the linguistic framework into which it is cast, but here the movement of the action does not unmask the words as a sham; rather, it hands to the victor the power to clothe events in whatever linguistic garb he wishes.

The basic structure of the ‘sick lion story’ is expanded to enormous proportions in Book III of Ysengrimus. Once again, the fox has incurred the lion's displeasure by (p.46) being the only animal to ignore the summons to the royal court. This time it is the wolf Ysengrimus, rather than the bear, who tries to turn the situation to his own advantage. Boasting of his medical skill, he recommends that the lion kill and eat the sheep and goat, justifying the proposal by lengthy arguments to the effect that justice should be sacrificed to expediency, and that kings are, in any case, above the law. The sheep and goat retaliate by suggesting that Reynard be sent for. As in ‘Aegrum fama fuit’, the fox takes with him six pairs of worn-out shoes as ‘proof’ of his travels in search of a remedy for the king's sickness, but here he increases their number even further by the magical powers of language, counting them out three times, in Hungarian, Greek, and Latin, to arrive at a total of eighteen. Next, he ‘glosses’ his own grotesquely bloated body as a result of the near-starvation he has incurred on his travels, whereas it is in fact due to a gargantuan feast that he had indulged in before leaving home (III.283–7, 315–27, 389–94). Offering the lion some sweet-smelling medicinal herbs, he declares that one essential item is nevertheless lacking, and there is no point in even mentioning it, because it will prove to be unobtainable. This negative claim of course only heightens the lion's interest, and he demands to know what this essential item is; under pressure, the fox declares that it is the skin of a three-and-a-half year-old wolf. This revelation is at first as baffling to the reader as it is to the wolf, as the poem has made repeated reference to his advanced old age. So, when Reynard identifies him as a suitable wolf for the present purpose, he protests that, as his white hairs testify, he is 160 years old (III.589–90; cf. IV.73). The bear counters this protest by pointing out that snow is whitest when it is new, and a swan when it is only three years old (III.599–600). Eventually it becomes clear that Ysengrimus is being trapped in one of his own fictions: a year before, when he had tried to intrude himself into a company of animals going on a pilgrimage (with the secret aim of eating one or more of them), he had claimed to be Ysengrimus's godson, a youngster only two and a half years old (IV.427–37). One year later, Reynard turns this fiction back on him, calling the sheep, ass, and goat as witnesses. Feigning reluctance, they nevertheless support Reynard's case.

Throughout these lengthy linguistic manoeuvrings, the wolf is accused by the fox of being ungrateful, selfish, and insensible of the honour that the king is doing him in requesting his skin. Why, Reynard asks, does he need a fur coat on a blazing hot summer's day? The lion finally intervenes to suggest that Ysengrimus is not really refusing to give up his coat; he simply wants a servant to take it off for him. He orders the bear either to remove the wolf's coat, or to hand over his own.

After a few more verbal skirmishes, the bear slices off the wolf's hide in a single swipe. But so far from being brought to an end by this action, the linguistic games begin afresh, extending physical torture into verbal torture. As in ‘Aegrum fama fuit’, the skin still clinging to the wolf's head is interpreted as a mitre, and the sheep complains that, having been an abbot hitherto, it seems he is now to be made a bishop—why should wolves have all the luck? (III.991–1002). The fox goes one better by claiming that the red river of blood flowing from the wolf's body is a royal robe of ‘Tyrian purple’, which he has been concealing beneath his shaggy outer garment, and thus showing disrespect to the king (III.1027–70). This grotesque suggestion raises the possibility that this ‘robe’ too might be removed, in a gruesome (p.47) repetition of torture. Cowed into offering atonement for this ‘insult’ to the king, the wolf prostrates himself before the lion—whereupon the fox ‘interprets’ the strips of skin on his paws as ‘gloves’ which are being hurled before the king as a challenge to a duel (III.1115–40). Finally, the lion forgives the wolf for both his ‘crimes’, and he is allowed to crawl away.

A brief summary such as this cannot do justice to the verbal elaborations of this episode (which are typical of the poem as a whole). The speeches of the animals are full of ingenious arguments, proverbial maxims, and preposterous reinterpretations of concrete detail, all sustained by a relentless insistence on obliterating the physical reality of what is being inflicted on the wolf.84 The wolf's few pathetic attempts to compete in the linguistic game are overwhelmed by the remorseless flood of rhetoric that pours from the fox and his accomplices. The elaborate rhetorical edifices that Reynard constructs are not toppled—as they would be in the classic beast fable—or even revealed as sham; they remain intact as monuments to his triumph. And this pattern is repeated throughout the whole poem, culminating in the final scene of the wolf's death. Salaura the pig, who with her sixty-five relatives devours him alive, claims to be offering him ‘hospitality’ in her body; nay, more, he is to be ‘enshrined’ in sixty-six ‘reliquaries’, as a multiple testimony to his extraordinary sanctity (VII.377–422). Such grotesque rewritings of physical actuality effect a split between words and deeds that is as definitive as any in beast fable, but here the physical world does not reassert its primacy. Instead, the ties that bind words to things are cut, and linguistic fantasies float free in an autonomous world of their own, ruled only by comic ingenuity. The animal nature of the narrative actors, so far from functioning as the guarantee of an ultimate return to fundamental realities, simply underlines this linguistic autonomy; intrinsically unrelated to the animal, language is used to create ‘Spielraum’, a limitless area of verbal play which displaces the physical world to a series of theatrical props in its own drama. So, for example, a lone wolf's-head which the animals find by chance on their travels, is linguistically transformed into three wolf-heads, belonging to three hypothetical wolves (an old Angevin, an English abbot, and a Danish bishop)85, taken from an equally hypothetical pile of such heads, and offered three times over to the terrorized wolf as something he might eat.

The differences between beast fable and beast epic can be clearly observed in the Ysengrimus's version of the booty-sharing, which is one of only two (out of twelve) episodes in the poem drawn from Aesopic material. Whereas in the Phaedran-Romulan fable the joint hunting-expedition is apparently the result of a collective decision taken by the three (or four) animals concerned, in the Ysengrimus it is initiated by the fox, who first invites the lion (supposedly on the wolf's behalf) to come and dine with Ysengrimus, and then turns up at the wolf's door and announces that the king has fulfilled his wishes by coming to enjoy his hospitality. Since this is news to the terrified wolf, he has, of course, nothing to offer the king, and so Reynard suggests that they dine off a calf which he has spotted in a nearby (p.48) field, sharing this booty between them. The lion keeps silence, but the poet comments that ‘he had other ideas in mind; if fortune delivered up the calf, there was no doubt in the minds of the fox and the lion as to whose it would be’ (VI.177–8). Once the calf has been killed, the lion asks who will divide it up, and the wolf eagerly volunteers. He divides the meat into three portions, and the lion asks for whom they are intended. The wolf replies that the first portion is intended for the lion, the second for himself, and the third for Reynard the fox. With one mighty swipe of his paw, the lion tears off the wolf's skin for the second time. Reynard congratulates the wolf on the honour bestowed on him by the king, in acting as his servant and removing his clothes. The lion then asks the fox if he can share out the booty. The fox replies that as far as he is concerned the king can have it all himself, but the king indignantly repudiates the suggestion that he should appropriate what belongs to others, when his royal duty is to punish robbers. Reynard then makes three piles, the first containing fat, thick, and meaty chunks, the second containing chunks that are meaty but not so fat, and the third containing bony pieces with little meat on them. Finally he adds one of the calf's feet to each portion and lays the fourth foot aside by itself. The lion asks again for whom each portion is intended, and Reynard replies that the first is for him, the king, the second for his wife, the queen, who is weak from having just given birth, while the third will give the young lion cubs something to gnaw on and so keep them from going after their parents’ shares. As for the fourth foot, let it go to the fox, or else be added to the king's share. Magnanimously the king assigns the fourth foot to the fox, and then asks him who taught him to share things out so well. The fox replies that it was his uncle the wolf who taught him, despite the fact that he was unable to make the division himself. ‘So what he taught he only dimly understood himself, and although he taught you and others, he was himself in need of a teacher?’ Yes, replies the fox, ‘someone who is of use to others is often of no use to himself’(VI.291–2, 294).

So far, this episode seems on casual inspection to conform to a fable pattern: the wolf's disaster could serve as a salutary lesson to others that might will always be right, even though this lesson is too late to do him any good. One expects some such proverb as ‘Felix quem faciunt aliena pericula cautum’ (‘Happy is the man who is made prudent by the misfortunes of others’) to round off the narrative. Yet on closer examination the fable structure of the episode turns out to be an illusion. The action does not organize itself into an instructive form of its own accord; instead its whole course is planned and orchestrated by Reynard the fox. The fox's claim to have been ‘taught’ by the wolf how to make a proper division of the spoils is a patent sham; as the poet's comment has made crystal-clear (VI.177–8), both he and the lion are aware from the outset that everything will go to the lion. As far as the fox is concerned, the realities of power relations do not emerge abruptly from behind a linguistic mask (as they do in the fable); they are known in advance and are the basis on which the fox works out a way to inflict fresh torture on the wolf. And once again his triumph issues in a long moralizing speech which does not so much sum up the action as demonstrate his power over his hapless victim. (p.49)

‘Uncle, what good is it for me to reprove you so often? The more I warn you, the more foolishly you always behave. Someone who foolishly aspires to someone else's property loses what he aspires to, what's his own, and himself as well. Don't you know what the people's cryptic phrases signify? “Royal apples should go rotten before you dare to eat them; let anyone who holds a full bowl carry it with a level rim.” Uncle, let the discussion be confined to the three of us alone: you were too greedy of the king's share, for you were ready to bite where you should only have licked. The toad measures out in its grasp one lot of earth to eat, and only then measures out another…

Should you take charge of other people's property, when you're in the habit of mishandling your own? How can anyone look after someone else, when he refuses to look after himself? The stomach that sells the land that feeds it is itself sold into the power of want; the hungry stomach sells right and wrong for food. So you tried for your own share and the king's, and the king was immediately roused and took both. You can't put any fetters on your stomach unless it's full; while there's still anything left over, you imagine you've touched nothing. It was better to take a moderate amount than to lose everything. It's said that ‘Where there's abundance, it's a good thing to be content with a sufficiency.’ The eye is useful to someone whose ear has ceased to give any help; God gives assistance sparingly, but unfailingly. The church is huge, but the priest sings only in part of it. The eye wants a lot, but a moderate handful is the best. A sheep is better sheared than skinned, and even when skinned is some good, but is utterly useless when destroyed. You should have submitted to the royal decrees on pain of death…’ (VI.295–304, 311–27)

The proverbial wisdom that provides a clinching conclusion in beast fable here runs riot, yet remains oddly tangential to the narrative. The moralizing sounds plausible in itself, but since the wolf has for once not tried to take more than is fair, it is unsubstantiated by the action. The fox has not yet finished: he goes on to stress at length the absolute rights of a king to anything that the toiling peasants may produce.

‘Under the king, the law is not yours but the king's, and it's a favour in him to have left anything for you. If you have anything which is supposed to be common property, you should give the best to him, lest he injure you and your goods.’ (VI.329–32)

In the Aesopic version of the booty-sharing fable, the realities of Machtpolitik emerge as a surprise, revealing the previous rationalizations as a sham. Here, they are presented as matter-of-fact knowledge, self-evident truths that any wise man ought to be acquainted with. Cynicism has become the dominant moral code.

The linguistic maze through which the fox winds his way leads to no moral centre. Words are not discarded in favour of deeds; instead they multiply unstoppably, functioning as tools with which to gain one's ends. And victory depends on never taking them at face value. So, for example, in the cock-and-fox episode, when the cock has persuaded the fox to open his mouth (thus letting the cock go free) in order to reassert his noble ancestry in response to the ‘plebeian insults’ of the pursuing peasants (IV.995–1022), Reynard curses his own stupidity for believing that there is any other kind of nobility than riches.

‘A better kind of nobility is celebrated in this day and age than “So-and-so was his father, his father was such-and-such.” I should have followed the custom which prevails these days; this generation is more afraid of loss than dishonour. There's only one sort of dishonour, since there is none other than having bowed beneath the yoke of poverty. The rich man is noble, (p.50) while every poor man is base; riches are made illustrious by the security of their own good breeding…What use to me is the nobility that doesn't take away hunger? Money advances wretches, money eclipses a man's grandfathers; in short, money does good to a lot of people even when it's in the hand of a rich man who is wicked; with a poor man, the question of whether he's generous or mean doesn't even arise. So people show good sense; any regard for how they behave has disappeared, so long as they can net a lot of money. Money is placed before justice, money is placed before honour; there's nothing shameful except having no money…“Man is sold for money; for money God himself is sold.” First the laity, then the priesthood, and now not only the prelates but the pope himself sanctions this rule. The fisherman Peter and the schoolmaster Paul would have done the same, but they didn't have any sense. This heavenly fisherman casts his nets to fish up numberless marks, but very few souls; concerned to weigh up men, not according to their merits, but according to their wealth, he places those who make bigger gifts in a better heaven. With serene contempt he treats the apostolic word as a bagatelle, and shears his sheep with the shears of the arch-trickster Simon.’ (V.67–74, 81–8, 98–108)

Of course, the reader may read Reynard's tirade in reverse and so arrive at a ‘true’ definition of nobility, which, presumably, the author shares. But it is a definition already tainted by the fact that the cock has just put it to an entirely cynical use, invoking it to persuade the fox to act against his own interests. The language of morality, religion, and honour is used in this poem either to manipulate one's opponents into a losing position or, once they have been defeated, to claim a spurious moral superiority.

In this resolutely amoral world, there is little point in analysing the animals’ behaviour in moral terms, despite the narrative continuity that endows them with consistent character traits and individual names. If Ysengrimus is a greedy bully, Reynard is a ruthless trickster. If we look for a victim to sympathize with, it turns out that the wolf is, paradoxically, the best candidate. The sheep, so far from being innocent victims of the wolf, beat him to a pulp every time he tries to devour them. The narrative does not explore the consequences and implications of moral choice; instead, it is structured on a simple principle of comic reversal, which ensures that the weaker always overcomes the stronger.86 The fox wins his numerous struggles with the wolf, but is himself (as we have seen) outwitted by the cock. His second attempt is no more successful than the first. Co-opting a physical object in his usual manner, he pretends that a piece of bark is a ‘charter’ proclaiming a ‘peace’ which guarantees the cock safe conduct if he trusts himself in the fox's company (V.135–8). The cock professes mistrust of a charter which he, a layman, is unable to read—but, he says, he sees someone approaching who may help. He is grey-haired and rides on something white, with a curved object hanging from his neck. Black figures run around him—gentle creatures, with something red hanging from their mouths (V.165–8, 189–208). As the cock intends him to do, the fox decodes this entirely imaginary description as a picture of a huntsman with a pack of dogs, and is deluded by the decoding process to believe in its truth. After a few last desperate attempts to win over the cock, he decamps to the woods.

The poet's comment on the cock's first victory over the fox presents it as a triumph of contingency. (p.51)

Sometimes a fool acts like a clever man, and in the same way a clever man, when outwitted, acts the part of a fool. Hardly anyone acts shrewdly all the time, and no one, even if he's a fool, does everything foolishly. Reynard, acute in so many matters, lapsed in one, when with slackened jaw he let go of his profitable burden. (V.1–6)

The operation of contingency is reflected in the episodic nature of the narrative as a whole; the closure that is characteristic of beast fable is constantly resisted, as one piece of trickery is concluded, only to be followed by another. Deprived of his skin, the wolf does not die but grows a new one, in preparation for Reynard's next trick. Beaten to a pulp by four sheep, he learns nothing from the experience and mounts another assault on a single sheep, with equally disastrous results. Although the cycle of trickery and counter-trickery does eventually reach a conclusion with the wolf's death, the essentially repetitive and open-ended structure of the Latin epic was accurately perceived by the vernacular writers who transposed its material into the many ‘branches’ of the Roman de Renart. Like twelfth-century chivalric romance, the Roman de Renart is founded on ‘aventure’, on the essential contingency of events, although the cynical pragmatism of the Reynardian narratives makes them a kind of parody of the romance form.87

Yet in the Ysengrimus, the contingency of the action is belied by the inexorable operation of the law of comic reversal which determines its outcome. And what drives the operation of this law is the poem's satiric intent. The wolf does not represent greed pure and simple, but the greed of an abbot-bishop—that is an abbot who has been appointed to a bishopric. The real-life incarnation of this figure is Bishop Anselm of Tournai, cited by Reynard as the classic example of the man who never relinquishes an opportunity for gain, who ‘devours like Satan and holds like Hell!’ (V.109–30). He shears his flock ‘down to the living flesh’ and ‘doesn't allow the shorn fleece to grow again’ (V.111–12, 120). The flaying inflicted on the wolf thus visits on the fictional representative of the abbot-bishop the treatment that he himself metes out to his flock, flaying them ‘down to the living flesh’ rather than shearing them. Similarly, the ‘three’ wolf-heads which are offered to the wolf as food correspond to the three salient characteristics of Ysengrimus: old man, abbot, bishop. They terrify the arch-devourer with a triple image of himself—especially the last, which has its jaws propped open by a stick. And finally, of course, the devourer is himself devoured, eaten alive by the sixty-six pigs who leave not a scrap of his body behind.

The author of the Ysengrimus constructs a fantasy world in which predators receive the kind of treatment that in the real world they hand out to others. And because it is a world inhabited by animals, the reader is not tempted to apply their endless stream of moralizing to a serious assessment of their ethical choices or moral characters. Instead, moral scrutiny is directed out of the poem, to the satiric targets identified by the incidental invocations of the pope or of Anselm of Tournai. It is in the real world, the reader learns to recognize, that the linguistic play of the animals takes a serious turn; that is, it is in the real world that ‘nobility’ is defined as riches and the language (p.52) of ethics and logic is manipulated to serve self-interest. The Machtpolitik represented by the lion of the booty-sharing defines right and wrong: the powerful are entitled to take everything and to receive ethical approval for doing so.

The fable version of the booty-sharing strips away the linguistic pretence of equitable distribution with the lion's final brusque switch to the rationale of brute force. The Ysengrimus does not strip away the linguistic pretence; instead it is appropriated by the physically weaker animals and blown up to grotesque proportions so that its lack of contact with reality becomes glaringly obvious. It is a strategy that is at once comic—as the linguistic world continually generates fresh forms of absurdity—and serious, as this linguistic distortion is linked with the poem's real-life satiric targets. This satiric strain persists, to varying degrees, in the later tradition of beast epic, and is one more way in which this tradition is marked off from beast fable. Beast fable may be used satirically—applied, as a whole, to some real-life situation—but its sparse narrative has no room for internal satiric development. Beast epic, in contrast, can accommodate satire very well, whether in terms of isolated passages or (as in the Ysengrimus) in terms of a grand design.

Finally, one should not overlook what is perhaps the most obvious difference between beast fable and beast epic, which is that the latter is above all a comic form. The beast fable may on occasion raise in the reader a wry smile or mild amusement at a sardonically-expressed moral, but its characteristic tone is serious, in keeping with its aim to impart practical wisdom.88 Bounded within narrow limits of speech and action, the animals play their functional roles and are done. In beast epic, they are allowed free rein, and their mimicry of human speech and action is the source of comedy. The linguistic abilities which supposedly differentiate the human and the animal are shown up as mere show, but the skill and ingenuity with which they are exercised becomes a matter for amusement and admiration.


What I have aimed to do in the above analysis is to identify the differences between beast fable and beast epic as represented by a classic example of each genre (the Romulus collections and the Ysengrimus). The intention is not to establish ‘rules’ to which individual texts must conform in order to qualify for inclusion in the appropriate genre,89 but rather to show the structural logic that binds together particular sets of characteristics, and to establish a normative basis against which the individual works of British beast literature can be analysed, their own distinctive features identified, and the effects of these distinctive features on the structure of meaning can be seen. The variations that can be played on these basic themes are legion, as we shall see, and the result is a rich and inventive literary tradition with an inexhaustible capacity for fresh developments.


(1) The bestiary, as explained in the Introduction (see above p. 26), forms a separate line of tradition, so it will not be treated here, but since it has some relevance to The Owl and the Nightingale, a section on ‘How Animals Mean in the Bestiary’ is included in Chapter 4 below, pp. 160–3.

(2) The antique fable was rather broader in type than it later became; it included stories of an aetiological nature, and also jests and witticisms, devoid of moralizing intent. The Phaedran-Romulan tradition also included a few fables with human actors (reduced by the brevity of the narrative to mere types, and in that respect comparable to the animal figures; see n. 37 below). In line with my primary interest in beast literature, I shall concentrate on those fables that have animal characters and a moralizing bent; in the medieval period, this is the dominant type.

The most thorough attempt to analyse the structure of the ancient fable is undoubtedly Nøjgaard, La fable antique, I, pp. 133–419 (on the augustana collection); II, pp. 17–188 (on Phaedrus); II, pp. 189–365 (on Babrius). See also Adrados, History, I, pp. 367–95, and for a briefer treatment, Perry, ‘Fable’. Characteristic themes of the Hellenistic fable collections are discussed by Adrados, History, I, pp. 604–44. The third volume of Adrados, History, is a very useful inventory of ancient and medieval fables in Latin and Greek, with documentation of the works in which they appear, and a full index. Dicke and Grubmüller, Fabeln, provide a similar catalogue, alphabetically arranged by animal, of Latin and German fables in the Middle Ages and early modern period. Perry's edition of Babrius and Phaedrus in the Loeb Classical Library series has a useful Appendix which provides summaries of fables included in Perry's Aesopica, with brief documentation and an accompanying index. Printed versions of individual fables may also be traced through Tubach's Index Exemplorum.

(3) ‘Aesopus de innocente et reprobo talem retulit fabulam.

Agnus et lupus sitientes ad rivum e diverso venerunt. Sursum bibebat lupus, longeque inferius agnus. Lupus ut agnum vidit, sic ait: Turbasti mihi aquam bibenti. Agnus patiens dixit: Quomodo aquam turbavi tibi que a te ad me decurrit? Lupus non erubuit [contraire] veritati: Maledicis mihi, inquit. Agnus ait: Non maledixi. Lupus dixit: Ergo pater tuus fuit ante sex menses, et ita fecit mihi. Numquid ego natus fui? Sic lupus improba fauce dixit: Et adhuc loqueris, latro? Et statim se in eum iniecit, et innocenti vitam eripuit.

Hec in illos dicta est fabula qui hominibus calumniantur.’

Most of the examples in this chapter are taken from the Romulus vulgaris, since this was the version that put the Phaedran fables into circulation in the early Middle Ages. The exchange between the wolf and the lamb makes better sense in the original Phaedran version of this fable, and the Romulus text is probably corrupt; I have followed Thiele in assuming some such verb as ‘contradicere’ or ‘contraire’ has dropped out at the point where square brackets are used above.

(4) Perry (‘The Origin of the Epimythium’) argued that historically, the promythium was an indexing tool to enable orators to find a suitable fable for a particular case, and the epimythium was a later development, although (and because) early fables often already had a summarizing final comment. This view has not been generally accepted; for discussion of competing theories, see Nøjgaard, La fable antique, I, pp. 487–506, and Adrados, History, I, pp. 443–65. Whatever the case with the antique fable, in the medieval period, the epimythium (or a closing statement by an animal in the fable which performs the same function) was a firmly established component of the fable, and the promythium was frequently used as well.

(5) Abhandlungen II, ‘Von dem Gebrauch der Tiere in der Fabel’, p. 389: ‘die wahre Ursache…warum der Fabulist die Tiere oft zu seiner Absicht bequemer findet, als die Menschen.—Ich setze sie in die allgemein bekannte Bestandheit der Charaktere’ (Lessing's italics). Jauss endorses Lessing's remark (Tierdichtung, p. 44).

(6) As Powell points out (Fabula docet, pp. 73–4), this is a Boethian notion (Consolation of Philosophy IV pr. 3).

(7) Denton Fox notes in his edition of Henryson (p. 212) that the ultimate source of these lines is probably the first chapter of Aristotle's History of Animals, which discusses the different characters of various animals (see Carruthers, ‘Henryson's Use of Aristotle and Priscian’, pp. 278–9).

(8) Cf. Salisbury, The Beast Within, pp. 104–5.

(9) On this ‘natural’ characteristic of the lion, see Chapter 7 below, p. 280.

(10) The variation in animal characters from one fable to another is discussed by Nøjgaard, La fable antique, I, pp. 305–19, and noted by Bertini, ‘Gli animali’, Interpreti, p. 79, and by Salisbury, The Beast Within, p. 108.

(11) See the Introduction above, p. 12.

(12) The fox had earlier served the stork a liquid meal on a wide flat plate, which the stork was unable to lap up.

(13) As noted by Salisbury, The Beast Within, p. 108.

(14) See de Boor, ‘Über Fabel und Bîspel’, p. 22: ‘Die geistige Leistung [des Physiologus] besteht darin, zwei vorgegebene Wirklichkeiten, die naturwissenschaftliche und die religiös-moralische, zu einander in Beziehung zu setzen, bzw. die von Gott gesetzte, immanent vorhandene Beziehung zu erkennen und damit erst die volle Wirklichkeit als Aussen und Innen der Erscheinung zu erfassen. Bei der Fabel ist umgekehrt die eigentliche geistige Leistung die schöpferische Erfindung einer poetischen Wirklichkeit, die Travestierung des Menschen in das Tier und die daraus entwikkelte Geschichte. Die Fabel bedeutet nicht etwas “ganz anderes”, sie sagt in sich und durch sich aus, was sie meint.’

(15) Grubmüller distinguishes animal allegory from beast fable by saying that the former ‘reports’ (‘berichtet’) animal behaviour, while the latter ‘tells a story’ (‘erzählt’) (see Meister Esopus, p. 22). Lessing insists on story as essential to fable (Abhandlungen I, ‘Von dem Wesen der Fabel’, p. 358).

(16) Pace Nøjgaard (La fable antique, I, pp. 55–65), who argues that fable is a ‘mechanical allegory’, by which he means that the animals and their actions are not meaningful unless they are taken other than literally. Freytag (‘Die Fabel als Allegorie’) argues that over the course of the Middle Ages, fable-writers made increasing use of allegorical terminology (integumentum, similitudo, etc.) in their rare comments on the function of their fables, but her evidence is scanty and it is always clear that such terminology is an alien import and not part of the original inheritance of beast fable; in addition, some of her late medieval examples (such as the Dialogus creaturarum) fall well outside the main Aesopic tradition. Strubel (‘Exemple, fable, parabole’) distinguishes fable from allegory, at least until the type of detailed exegesis practised by Odo of Cheriton.

J. R. R. Tolkien's comment (in the Foreword to the 1966 edition of The Lord of the Rings), that many people confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’, may be helpful here: ‘applicability’, as he says, ‘resides in the freedom of the reader’, and is not determined by the author or the text. The fable has multiple possibilities for ‘applicability’; it can also, like any other narrative, become the object of ‘imposed allegory’.

(17) See the Introduction above, p. 15, on Odo of Cheriton. Lessing distinguishes between the ‘simple’ (‘einfach’) and the ‘composite’ (‘zusammengesetzt’) fable. The ‘simple’ fable climaxes in a general moral maxim, while the ‘composite’ fable applies both fable and maxim to a specific real-life situation. The ‘simple’ fable is not allegorical (‘kann unmöglich allegorisch sein’), but in the ‘composite’ fable it becomes allegorical because it aligns two entities (the fictional and the real-life situation) on the basis of a perceived similarity (Abhandlungen I, ‘Von dem Wesen der Fabel’, p. 361; cf. Abhandlungen III, ‘Von der Einteilung der Fabeln’, p. 394).

(18) Empson, The Structure of Complex Words, p. 346.

(19) Abhandlungen I, ‘Von dem Wesen der Fabel’, p. 385: ‘Wenn wir einen allgemeinen moralischen Satz auf einen besonderen Fall zurückführen, diesem besondern Falle die Wirklichkeit erteilen, und eine Geschichte daraus dichten, in welcher man den allgemeinen Satz anschauend erkennt, so heisst diese Erdichtung eine Fabel’ (Lessing's italics).

(20) The translations are Perry's.

(21) ‘[S]ie sind keine Menschen und zu menschlichen Handlungen nicht fähig’; Grubmüller, ‘Semantik der Fabel’, p. 130. (This definition applies just as well to other non-human characters such as trees, bodily members, the sun and the wind, etc.) Nøjgaard (La fable antique, I, pp. 296–9) speaks of the ‘antihumanization’ of the animals in the augustana: ‘Ceux-ci ne sont ni animaux ni hommes, mais personnages de fable’ (p. 298).

(22) Emile, Book II (Oeuvres complètes, IV, p. 356): ‘vous croyez leur donner la cigale pour exemple; et point du tout, c'st la fourmi qu'ls choisiront…Or quelle horrible leçon pour l'nfance! Le plus odieux de tous les monstres seroit un enfant avare et dur, qui sauroit ce qu'n lui demande et ce qu'l refuse. La fourmi fait plus encore, elle lui apprend à railler dans ses refus.’

(23) I borrow the term from Doderer, who speaks of anthropomorphized animals as the sign that ‘Wir befinden uns im Bereich sentimentaler Tiergeschichten’ (Fabeln, p. 143).

(24) Nøjgaard, in my view, introduces a serious confusion by insisting on choice (an ‘action de choix’), even if it is only fictionally imputed to the animals, as the crucial narrative feature on which the fable moral is based (La fable antique, I, pp. 73–7). He thus gets into difficulties with the fable of the wolf and the lamb, identifying the ‘action de choix’ as the wolf's attempt to transcend his nature by attacking the lamb on the spiritual plane, rather than the physical, which is his proper sphere of superiority. He then absurdly identifies the ‘true moral’ of this fable as ‘the one who wishes to demonstrate intelligence while being only a brute, is foolish’ (ibid., pp. 266–7).

(25) Cf. Ott, ‘Lessung und La Fontaine’, p. 242: ‘Die verschiedenartige Wirkung, die erzielt wird, wenn anstelle von Menschen als agierende Personen Tierfiguren auftreten…ist…darin begründet, dass der Mensch mit Überlegung und freiem Willen handelt, das Tier hingegen sich seiner Natur gemäss verhält.’ It is thus only from a human perspective that the wolf can be called ‘cruel’ or the lamb ‘innocent’ (as they are in the Romulus vulgaris).

(26) ‘Aesop narrates this for those who fail to understand him’ (‘haec illis Esopus narrat, qui eum minus intelligunt’). This is the recensio vetus version (Der lateinische Äsop, ed. Thiele, p. 11); the recensio gallicana ends ‘qui non intellegunt’, emended by Thiele, following Steinhöwel, to ‘qui <ipsum legunt et> non intellegunt’ (ibid., p. 10). Cf. Phaedrus III.12: ‘Hoc illis narro, qui me non intellegunt’. For a survey of the epimythium to this fable in its medieval Latin versions, see Bisanti, ‘Fortuna di un epimythion fedriano’.

(27) Compare Ademar's Fable XXXII, which tells of a dog who came on some treasure while digging bones, and guarded it so attentively that he forgot to eat and died; although the dog's foolish preference for gold over food seems to present the opposite case to the fable of the cock and the jasp, the comment of a passing vulture likewise draws attention to the natural gulf between the animal and the gold (‘O canis, merito luis, quia concupisti regales opes, trivio con[cep]tus [MS: contentus] et in stercoribus educatus. Quid tibi profuit has invenire divitias?’; ‘O dog, deservedly you pay the penalty for having desired royal wealth, you who were conceived in the highway and brought up in shit. What use was it to you to have found these riches?’).

(28) Speckenbach aptly calls this ‘Die Fabel von der Fabel’, and in his article of this name surveys its many subtly varied forms in the Latin and vernacular traditions.

(29) See Nøjgaard (La fable antique, I, pp. 104–5): ‘la fable emmène le lecteur dans un univers clos d'ù on ne s’échappe qu'n fuyant et à l'ntérieur duquel la vérité morale surgit comme un fait inéluctable’. Cf. ibid., p. 360: ‘la moralité n'st pas présentée comme l'pinion personnelle de l'uteur sur la situation à laquelle on vient d'ssister, mais comme la conséquence logique et nécessaire de l'ction fictive’.

(30) ‘[Die Fabel] lehrt als ein Ganzes und trägt die Lehre in sich’ (‘Über Fabel und Bîspel’, p. 4).

(31) De Boor concludes the passage quoted in n. 14 above by saying that the moral is not a necessary component of the fable (‘Das fabula docet ist darum kein notwendiger Bestandteil der literarischen Darbietung der Fabel’, ‘Über Fabel und Bîspel’, p. 22). But he seems to be thinking above all of the contrast with the bestiary, where the spiritual interpretations could not be imagined unless they were given by the author, whereas the meaning of a fable narrative can be inferred independently by the reader.

(32) Daly's Aesop without Morals, which relegates the morals to the back of the book, is thus a pointless endeavour; even if the reader mentally supplies a different moral from the one the original author assigned it, the story has no intrinsic interest if it does not suggest some kind of moral. Commenting on de Boor, Grubmüller says that the moral is ‘not necessary’ but also ‘not superfluous’, by which I take it that he means it is implicit even if not expressed (Meister Esopus, pp. 19–20). Sternberger says that if the fable constructs a house, the moral opens the door to it and shows us the way inside (Figuren der Fabel, pp. 15–16). Doderer insists on the moral as essential to fable (Fabeln, pp. 95–100).

(33) Ott points out that Phaedrus’ version of the fable of the fox and the crow (I.13) has one moral in its promythium (‘anyone who takes delight in deceptive flattery will repent of it’) and another in its epimythium (‘wisdom often prevails over strength’). The first moral focuses on the folly of the crow, the second on the cunning of the fox. Ott goes on to document the varying morals given to this fable in the Romulus tradition, the Conde Lucanor of Juan Manuel, and La Fontaine (‘Lessing und La Fontaine’, pp. 246–7). On the potential multiplicity of fable morals, see also Nøjgaard, La fable antique, I, pp. 44, 116–17.

(34) See Lessing, Abhandlungen III, ‘Von der Einteilung der Fabeln’, p. 404: ‘Die äsopische Fabel, in die Länge einer epischen Fabel ausgedehnet, höret auf eine äsopische Fabel zu sein…weil die Einheit des moralischen Lehrsatzes verloren gehen würde; weil man diesen Lehrsatz in der Fabel, deren Teile so gewaltsam auseinander gedehnet und mit fremden Teilen vermischt worden, nicht länger anschauend erkennen würde.’ Cf. Abhandlungen IV, ‘Von dem Vortrage der Fabeln’, p. 410: ‘Wenn ich mir einer moralischen Wahrheit durch die Fabel bewusst werden soll, so muss ich die Fabel auf einmal übersehen können; und um sie auf einmal übersehen zu können, muss sie so kurz sein, als möglich. Alle Zieraten aber sind dieser Kürze entgegen; denn ohne sie würde sie noch kürzer sein können: folglich streiten alle Zieraten, in so fern sie leere Verlängerungen sind, mit der Absicht der Fabel.’

(35) Ménard's criticism of Marie de France's fables (‘L'rt de Marie de France’), on the grounds that they lack realistic or picturesque details, shows a failure to grasp the essential character of beast fable.

(36) ‘Was hier zu erklären war, ist die “verdünnte Luft” innerhalb der Fabelwelt. Verdünnt durch die unbestimmte und weggelassene Zeitangabe, verdünnt ebenso durch die kargen Ortsangaben. Es ist ein merkwürdig entleerter Raum, in dem sich die Fabelfiguren bewegen’ (Fabeln, p. 45). ‘Als Baumaterial genügen der Fabel wenige, sehr oft nur zwei Figuren, die agieren oder dialogisieren, und die wenigen Gegenstände, die zum Ablauf der Handlung unbedingt notwendig sind…Hinter diesem Requisit ist die Bühne leer’ (ibid., p. 59). See Doderer's whole discussion, pp. 41–60.

(37) As Doderer observes, this also applies to the human beings who appear from time to time in fable; devoid of individualized features, they are reduced to mere outlines, existing only in terms of speech (Fabeln, p. 73). For similar observations, see Nøjgaard, La fable antique, I, pp. 300–1.

(38) Lessing, Abhandlungen II, ‘Von dem Gebrauch der Tiere in der Fabel’, p. 392: ‘Der Fabulist weiss nur von einem Fuchse…’ (Lessing's italics). As Boivin points out (La naissance de la fable, p. 42), the absence of a definite/indefinite article in Latin allows the animals an ambivalent mode of existence, suspended between ‘la généralité des espèces représentées et la nécessaire singularité des héros d'ne fiction’.

The problems caused by introducing more than one animal of each species are noted by Nøjgaard, La fable antique, I, pp. 290–1. The appearance in some fables of groups of animals (frogs, hares, etc.) does not contradict this point, as Sternberger notes, since they act as an undifferentiated collectivity (Figuren der Fabel, pp. 81–2). He acknowledges that the town mouse and the country mouse are a partial exception, but their different habits render each of them a quasi-species. Another exception is the fable of the two bitches (RV I.9).

(39) As Sternberger notes (Figuren der Fabel, p. 74).

(40) ‘Die Kategorie des Werdens ist auf die Figuren der Fabel nicht mehr anwendbar’ (Tierdichtung, p. 44).

(41) Arntzen, Kurzer Prozess: Aphorismen und Fabeln (Munich, 1966). Since I have been unable to track down Arntzen's book either in UK libraries or via Internet booksellers, I cite the poem from Dithmar, Die Fabel, where it is used as an epigraph to the whole volume.

(42) ‘Tut est perdu e luinz e pres/ Quan que l'm fet pur mauveis’ (31–2).

(43) ‘Der Fabuliste…hat mit unsern Leidenschaften nichts zu tun, sondern allein mit unserer Erkenntnis’ (Lessing, Abhandlungen I, ‘Von dem Wesen der Fabel’, p. 376). Cf. Abhandlungen II, ‘Von dem Gebrauche der Tiere in der Fabel’, p. 393: ‘Die Fabel hat unsere klare und lebendige Erkenntnis eines moralischen Satzes zur Absicht. Nichts verdunkelt unsere Erkenntnis mehr als die Leidenschaften. Folglich muss der Fabulist die Erregung der Leidenschaften so viel als möglich vermeiden’.

(44) ‘Die Fabel duldet kein Mitleid’ (Figuren der Fabel, p. 24). Gebhard speaks of the ‘cold-bloodedness’ (‘Kaltblütigkeit’) of fable, which gives it a provocative quality (‘Zum Missverhältnis’, p. 133).

(45) ‘Die Fabel ist wahrlich parteilos und interesselos’ (Sternberger, Figuren der Fabel, p. 22).

(46) Ed. Voigt, Kleinere lateinische Denkmäler, pp. 81–106 (inc. ‘Instabat festiva dies animalia bruta’); see also pp. 23–34 for details of the date and the manuscripts on which this edition is based. The list of manuscripts is updated and extended to eighteen in all by Mombello, ‘La “Confessio Lupi, Vulpis et Asini” ’. Bischoff quotes a passage from the Ars grammatica of Julian, archbishop of Toledo (680–91) in which Julian offers as a sample of rhythmic verse the line ‘Lupus dum ambularet viam, incontravit asinum’ (‘Ein Brief Julians von Toledo’, p. 296). Since, in the Progymnasmata of an anonymous Byzantine rhetorician, the fable of the ass's confession involves only an ass and a wolf, and it begins ‘A wolf met an ass on the road’ (see Perry, Aesopica no. 452; trans. Daly, Aesop without Morals, no. 452, pp. 242–3), it is just possible (though Bischoff does not note it) that Julian's quotation is the incipit of a much earlier version of this fable. This would extend its history even further back. However Perry includes another, quite different fable beginning ‘Lupus obviavit asinum’ (Aesopica no. 696), which is one of the extravagantes (no. VII) in Steinhöwel's Aesop (ed. Österley, pp. 203–4), also found in the Romulus monacensis (no. XXXIII, ed. Hervieux, Les fabulistes latins II2, pp. 279–80). The identification of Julian's poem cannot therefore be certain, although it may be noted that both the latter examples are from the fifteenth century, so the gap in time is even greater than in the first case.

(47) The ass's confession seems to have been especially popular in medieval England. It forms part of a ‘Song of the Times’ (inc. ‘Whose thenchith vp this carful lif’) contained in the collection of Hiberno-English poems in London, BL, MS Harley 913 (early fourteenth century, with strong Franciscan connections); see Anglo-Irish Poems, ed. Lucas, pp. 128–39. A very similar version is found in the Contes moralisés of the fourteenth-century Franciscan Nicole Bozon (ed. Smith and Meyer, no. IV, pp. 10–11; also in the Latin translation of the Contes, ibid., pp. 197–8). Another example is to be found in the Promptuarium exemplorum of Paris, which contains Latin versions of twenty-six of Marie de France's fables and seven others (see Marie, Fabeln, ed. Warnke, pp. lx–lxviii, exemplum III at p. lxiv); the manuscript (Paris, BNF, MS nouv. acq. lat. 1718) dates from 1322, and the moral of exemplum III, which identifies the ass with the ‘fratres bonos pauperes qui portant honus religionis’ and who are punished by prelates, suggests that the author of the Promptuarium was a friar. In all these versions except the Latin version of Bozon, the ass's crime is nibbling some sage leaves. The fable also appears in the Summa Praedicantium of John Bromyard (s.v. Correctio, C. cap. XVI. 37) and in Robert Holkot's commentary on the book of Wisdom (cap. XVII, lectio 187). For other versions, see Adrados, History, III, not-H.193 (p. 499) and M.271 (pp. 704–5), and Dicke and Grubmüller, Fabeln, no. 558; to the numerous items there listed should be added Novellette esempi…di San Bernardino da Siena, ed. Zambrini, no. 9. Joly (‘Histoire de deux fables de La Fontaine’) traced this fable back to a story in the Pañcatantra, but the resemblance is not very close and Joly's account is skewed by the fact that he did not know most of the medieval versions, including the ‘Poenitentiarius’.

(48) ‘Der arme Esel?—Nein, der Esel. Der Esel von einem Esel’ (Figuren der Fabel, p. 24).

(49) ‘So ist eben der Charakter, das heisst die Maske des Esels, das ist seine Rolle in der Fabel und in der Welt, die muss er zu Ende spielen, bis zum schrecklichen Ende’ (ibid., p. 24).

(50) In the sixteenth century, the fable was put to the service of anti-papal propaganda by the Lutheran Matthias Flacius Illyricus (Catalogus testium veritatis, p. 522), and by John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs (1570 edition, Book IV, p. 486; corrected in the online edition to p. 492).

(51) Ott (‘Lessing und La Fontaine’, p. 243) praises Lessing for having seen that ‘der Gebrauch der Tiere es erübrigt, in der Fabel die Geschichte der Charaktisierung der handelnden Figuren dienen zu lassen, und dass statt dessen die Zwangsläufigkeit des erzählten Geschehens akzentuiert wird.’

(52) Contrast Kipling's story of the origins of the armadillo, where it is a good thing for the hedgehog and the tortoise to take on each other's characteristics (Just So Stories, ‘The Beginning of the Armadilloes’).

(53) ‘Hec in illos dicta est fabula qui hominibus calumniantur’ (RV I.2).

(54) Lessing ridicules Batteux's statement that the moral of this fable is ‘que le plus foible est souvent opprimé par le plus fort’: ‘Wie seicht! Wie falsch!’. If this were all that it had to say, Lessing rightly points out, the wolf's invented reasons would have been entirely superfluous (Abhandlungen I, ‘Von dem Wesen der Fabel’, p. 374).

(55) In Phaedrus (I.5), the first reason is that he is the king, which may be what is meant in the Romulus vulgaris version.

(56) ‘Et loqui poena est et tacere tormentum.’

(57) ‘Aliquando boni sic amittunt sua qui credunt aliis per blanda verba.’

(58) Cf. the moral to this fable in the elegiac Romulus (XXXI): ‘nil fidei verba timentis habent’ (‘words spoken by someone in fear are not to be relied on’).

(59) ‘Hec fabula monet derideri hunc potius deberi, qui virtute facere nihil valet et verbis inanibus putat se quemquam terrere posse.’

(60) ‘Ita qui nihil facere possunt [viribus], verbis [tamen] se posse et nolle ostendunt’. I adopt Thiele's reading, since Burney 59 blurs the sense by omitting ‘viribus’ and reading ‘tantum’ for ‘tamen’.

(61) ‘Lingue tue gratias ago, sed oculis tuis fallacibus magnam cecitatem opto.’

(62) ‘Vocem matris audio; sed tu fallax et inimicus es.’

(63) As Nøjgaard points out, the fable's brevity is not so much a matter of word-count as of the ‘abstract’ quality of the narrative: the author of the augustana is brief ‘parce que tous les éléments de sa fable ont une fonction évidente et un rapport facile avec le principe structural constant’ (La fable antique, I, p. 358; cf. p. 112).

(64) ‘…la breveté [sic], qu'n peut fort bien appeler l’âme du conte’, Preface, Fables, ed. Groos and Schiffrin, p. 7. Cf. Lessing, Abhandlungen IV, ‘Von dem Vortrage der Fabeln’, pp. 407–9.

(65) Doderer (Fabeln, p. 12) speaks of the usability (‘Verwertbarkeit’) of fable; ‘sie lässt sich gebrauchen, um etwas zu bewirken’.

(66) For medieval examples of the application of fables to real-life situations, see the Introduction above, pp. 5–6.

(67) Quintilian says the proverb (‘paroemia’) is like an abridged fable (‘velut fabella brevior’); see Orator's Education V.xi.21.

(68) Canterbury Tales, ed. Mann, Wife of Bath's Prologue, 692. For the fable, see Chapter 2 below, pp. 92–3.

(69) Lessing, Abhandlungen I, ‘Von dem Wesen der Fabel’, p. 366: a large proportion of fable morals are ‘Erfahrungssätze, die uns nicht sowohl von dem, was geschehen sollte, als vielmehr von dem, was wirklich geschiehet, unterrichten’. See also Sternberger, Figuren der Fabel, p. 21: ‘Den Lauf der Welt zeigt also die Fabel, das ist ihre erste und allgemeinste Lehre’; for similar comments, see pp. 71–2.

(70) ‘Der im Sprichwort ausgedrückte Sachverhalt beleuchtet…den vorliegenden Fall in der Weise, dass er als bereits bekannt erscheint, und bezieht ihn somit auf ein Wissen, das man eigentlich schon von vornherein gehabt hat’ (‘Lessing und La Fontaine’, p. 254). On the affinity between fable and proverb, see also Perry, ‘Fable’, pp. 19, 28; Carnes, ed., Proverbia in Fabula, Introduction; Adrados, History, I, pp. 205–9.

(71) Cf. Doderer, Fabeln, p. 104: ‘Es fragt sich allerdings, ob sich die mitgeteilten Verhaltensangebote von Fabel zu Fabel ergänzen, denn nur dann liesse sich ein Regelsystem, ja eine durchgehende Fabelmoral mit normativem Charakter ableiten. Sie tun es aber nicht, sie widersprechen sich vielmehr vielfach.’

(72) For the view that fable is the voice of the underdog, see especially Theophil Spoerri, who melodramatically characterizes fable morality as ‘the cry of the suffering creature, the expression of hope uttered by all the helpless’ (‘Die aus Resignation und Ressentiment gespiesene Sklaven- und Lakaienmoral wird immer wieder zum Schrei der leidenden Kreatur, zum Ausdruck der Hoffnung aller Hilflosen auf eine bessere Zeit, auf ein kommendes Heil’ (‘Der Aufstand der Fabel’, p. 33). Arnold Schirokauer takes a similar view, speaking of fables as ‘a literature favoring the underdog’, and of Aesop as ‘the poet of the gutter’ (‘The Place of Aesop’, pp. 6 and 7; cf. the earlier, longer version of this article, ‘Die Stellung Äsops in der Literatur des Mittelalters’, pp. 180 and 181). Karl Meuli, although expressing some sympathy with Crusius's view of the peasant morality of fable, thinks Schirokauer goes too far; labelling Aesop as ‘poet of the gutter’ is ‘an inadmissible oversimplification’ (‘eine unzulässige Vergröberung’); see ‘Herkunft und Wesen’, p. 73 and n. 1. For stronger disagreements with the view that the fables express the view of an underclass, see Perry, ‘Fable’, pp. 23–4, and Nøjgaard, La fable antique, I, pp. 555–7.

(73) See Holzberg, The Ancient Fable, pp. 16–17, and Doderer, Fabeln, p. 116.

(74) ‘[Die Fabeln] predigen…keine Moral, zeigen…nicht das Böse, damit wir gut würden, sondern zeigen allenfalls den Schaden, den einer leidet, der sich entweder dumm oder superklug beträgt. Wenn diese praktikable Art von Fabeln etwas lehrt, so ist es nicht das Gute oder Edle, sondern die Weltklugheit, die rechte Einschätzung einer Situation, eines Machtverhältnisses’ (Sternberger, Figuren der Fabel, p. 19).

(75) On fable's affinities with ‘the wisdom-literature of the Near East’, see Perry, ‘Fable’, p. 27.

(76) ‘La fable n' pas de philosophie, mais présente une conception de la vie. Elle ne prétend pas exposer dans un système cohérent le fond intellectuel d'ù partent nos actions, mais fait voir simplement une série de cas isolés qui forment, tout au plus, une philosophie “casuistique”, si l'n veut. On y voit ce qui arriva à la tortue, ou au lion, au pêcheur ou au dauphin dans telle ou telle situation, mais toujours en action. Pourtant, derrière toutes les actions isolées se trouve une conviction générale…Un schéma structural n'xiste pas sans un schéma intellectuel correspondant et bien qu'lle ne donne pas de système d'nsemble, la fable ne peut manquer d'xprimer indirectement son attitude particulière en face de l'xistence et de défendre la vérité de certaines valeurs fondamentales’ (Nøjgaard, La fable antique, I, p. 514).

(77) Nøjgaard, La fable antique, I, pp. 256–9, 270.

(78) Henderson, ‘Having Fun with the Moralities’, p. 69.

(79) Doderer, Fabeln, p. 115: ‘für sie [die Fabel] gelten kaum Demut, Mitgefühl, Gläubigkeit oder Frommsein als estrebenswerte Lebensinhalte, viel eher Schläue, Listigkeit, Klugheit und Einsichtigkeit…Gott hat in der Fabel wenig su suchen’.

(80) Most of the examples in this section will be drawn from the Ysengrimus (ed. and trans. Mann). The only other classic example of beast epic is the Speculum stultorum, which is reserved for discussion in Chapter 3 below. The Ecbasis captivi, although it can be claimed as the forerunner of beast epic, since it is a connected narrative with animal figures, is in many aspects enigmatic; it seems to have been intended for a coterie audience which would have understood its coded allusions, and to that extent it is untypical. The Roman de Renart shares many of the features of the Ysengrimus, especially its cynical attitude to language, but it dissolves the epic structure into a loosely linked series of ‘branches’; detailed discussion of two of these branches will be found in Chapter 6 below.

(81) The trick has a precedent in Joshua 9:3–13, and is paralleled in the Saga of Ragnar Loðbrok (Green, A Crisis of Truth, p. 273).

(82) ‘Aegrum fama fuit’, ed. Neff, lines 65–6.

(83) The last two lines of the poem hint at a particular application to a real-life situation, but it is not necessary to know what this might have been to understand the structure of the poem.

(84) For further examples, see Mann, ‘The Roman de Renart and the Ysengrimus’, pp. 147–9.

(85) IV.272, 279, 302.

(86) See Mann, ‘ “Luditur Illusor” ’, and Ysengrimus, ed. Mann, Introduction, pp. 20–5.

(87) Jauss, Tierdichtung, pp. 189–201. See also the discussion of the Renart in Chapter 6 below, pp. 224–9, 242–3, 249–50.

(88) On the fundamental seriousness of Phaedrus, see Nøjgaard, La fable antique, II, pp. 92–6.

(89) ‘Fable is as fable does’ Perry aptly says (‘Fable’, p. 18), and the same is true of beast epic.