Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Aesop's Fables: Odo of Cheriton's "De Lupo, Vulpe et Asino"

Since I am not well informed, this precis on Aesop is a bit of an 'Aesop for Dummies' case:

AESOP was, according to Herodotus and by way of a certain online encyclopaedia, a slave who lived in Greece in the fifth century before Christ. It is also possible that the fables are cribbed from the lore of Mesopotamia or even more easterly lands, or that Aesop himself did not exist at all. Divers Latin translations already existed six hundred years afterwards, by Phaedrus, Ennius and Aphthonius of Antioch and others.
During the crepuscular Middle Ages a certain Romulus turned a prose version of Phaedrus's into even better prose and from there it became famous and scattered throughout northern Europe. Succeeding writers added their own tales to fit the times and, it seems, suit their own creative ambitions.

Among these inheritors of Aesop's fables was the Englishman, Odo of Cheriton. One tale in his tome, Fabulae, which was evidently published in the 12th or 13th centuries, is "Of a Wolf, a Fox and an Ass."



SEMEL Lupus audivit animalium confessionem, et cum multa ex eis fuissent sibi magna peccata confessa, tandem Vulpes dixit, quod multas gallinas rapuit et comedit non benedicendo, et sic de aliis. Postremo venit Asinus, qui confessus est et dixit: Ego subtraxi unum paruum gelima feni, quod ceciderat cuidam de curru, et hoc feci propter famem, quam patiebar. Dixit Lupus ad Vulpem: Tu non peccasti, quia est tibi innatum et naturale, ut rapias gallinas; sed maledictus sit Asinus, qui alienum subtraxit! Et sic mandavit Asinum percutere et sententiavit eum fore suspendio dignum; sed Vulpem dimisit illesam.

From Léopold Hervieux: Les fabulistes latins depuis le siècle d'Auguste jusqu'à la fin du Moyen-Age (1893-1899). Via Aesopica.

The Ashmole Bestiary, Folio 14v: Unicornis
in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
English, early 13th century
via Wikimedia Commons
Once (long ago) the Wolf heard the confession of the animals, and when many of them had confessed them large sins, the Fox finally said, that he had stolen and devoured many chickens without blessing them, those chickens being the property of others. After that the Ass came, who confessed him and said, "I substracted one little sheaf of hay which had fallen off somebody's wagon, and I did it out of the hunger which I was suffering." The Wolf said to the Fox: "You did not sin! This is intrinsic and natural, to steal chickens. But damned be the Ass, who took that which belonged to another!" And thus he delivered the Ass to be beaten and considered it fitting to let him be hung; but he let away the Wolf uninjured. /e
It might be silly, but I've used "them" and "him" in the place of "themselves" and "himself" to suit a more antiquated manner of speech.

This is clearly a very sad and cynical commentary on the morality of might. The predator is being let off not because he is the finer individual but because he has carte blanche. Besides the fable seems to be demonstrating in rather socialist ( (c: ) wise that the sins of poverty are punished worse than the sins of affluence — that it is not only in the material sense but also in terms of the worldly social order where the philosophy which is described in the Bible under Matthew 25:29, "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath," reigns.

On the other hand, the 1980s translation by John C. Jacobs makes clear that the Wolf only thought that the Ass ought to be hung, theoretically. As for the rest of his punishment, dictionaries tend to translate "percutere" rather distressingly as 'struck' or 'thrust through' or 'pierced,' but Jacobs uses 'whipped.'

At any rate the Wolf — by very reason of his being a wolf and prone to earning his living much as foxes do — does not strike one as an appropriate arbiter. It's tempting to suggest that Odo of Cheriton was thinking here of barons or other officials who received the complaints of their abused and exploited serfs with unreacting neutrality or, worse, condemnation directed toward the plaintiff.


 "Matthew 25:29" [Bible.cc]

The Fables of Odo of Cheriton. Translated, with an introduction by, John C. Jacobs. Syracuse University Press, 1985. p. 165

A tip of the hat to Wiktionary for providing Latin-to-English translations of the individual words, and to "Aesop's Fables," the article on its sister site, i.e. the encyclopaedia.

No comments: