Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 12, 2010

Animals and Morality

The Medici Aesop (15th C), tr. Bernard McTigue, NY Public Library, 170 pp.

I couldn’t post about so many fairy tales without taking a look at the multi-great-grandfather of them all, Aesop. My particular edition is a gorgeous reproduction of a book in the NYPL’s collection. Everett Fahy’s Introduction provides a wealth of background information, about Aesop and editions (150 before 1500!) of his fables over the centuries.

Two qualities of the Medici Aesop make it important. The first is that it was created — hand-copied and illuminated — after the invention of the printing press. Fahy points out that scribes were employed by “humanist bibliophiles who simply would not tolerate printed books in their libraries.” (These days, “humanist bibliophiles” rail against e-books.)

The second quality is that it is in Greek. Up to the mid-1400s, educated people could read Latin, but not Greek, so Latin translations of Aesop had been available for years. “The study of Greek was an innovation of the Renaissance,” writes Fahy, and it’s possible that the Medici Aesop was created as a learning text for one of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s sons. I’d find it difficult to concentrate on the words, with all the brilliant colors dancing just off to the side, but perhaps that’s just me.

I’m not going to delve into the question of whether Aesop did or didn’t create all the fables ascribed to him. For now, just think of “Aesop” as a category, rather than the name of a single author. It’s certain, at any rate, that Aesop didn’t write them down. Like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, these tales were memorized, and centuries passed before they saw pen and ink.

Their brevity must have been a plus for easy memorization. Few exceed 150 words, and most can be read aloud in about a minute. Here’s “The Geese and the Cranes”; note that the moral is longer than the fable:

A flock of geese and some cranes were searching for food in a small valley. Suddenly, hunters appeared; the agile cranes flew off, but the heavy geese, unable to move quickly because of their weight, were all captured and killed.

The moral of this fable is: So, too, with men — when a city is victimized by war or revolution, the poor (having little to carry or leave behind) are free to flee to another country and thus save themselves. But the rich are impeded by the bulk of their possessions, and must often remain, to either perish or be enslaved.

Somehow, I still don’t feel sorry for the rich; nor do I expect that this story impelled any wealthy people to become poor.

If you’re in the mood for one-minute-stories, Aesop is a great resource. All kinds of editions are available on line, but I suggest the version with Arthur Rackham’s illustrations (thanks to Project Gutenberg).

And if you want a truly remarkable read, check out William Caxton’s first English edition of the fables, published in the late 1400s, nearly contemporaneous with the Medici Aesop. It’s just 100 years younger than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but within just a century the English has become so much more familiar to our modern eyes.

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