The Child Gives Himself to the Wolf

A few months back, I heard Peter Travis give a talk, “Aesop’s Animots,” on a fable in which Aesop feeds a group of philosophers ox tongues. Along the way, Travis discussed The Silence of the Lambs, Aesop’s ugliness and muteness, the latter of which he overcame only in middle age, and the prevalence of corporeal punishment as a pedagogical technique. He also briefly gave his attention to a fable by Caxton in which a nurse threatens a crying child with being thrown to a wolf:

Men ought not to byleue on al maner spyrytes / As reherceth this fable of an old woman / which said to her child bicause that it wept / certeynly if thou wepst ony more / I shal make the to be ete of the wulf / & the wulf heryng this old woman / abode styll to fore the yate / & supposed to haue eten the old womans child / & by cause that the wulf had soo longe taryed there that he was hongry / he retorned and went ageyne in to the wood / And the shewulf demaunded of hym / why hast thow not brought to me some mete / And the wulf ansuerd / by cause / that the old woman hath begyled me / the whiche had promysed to me to gyue to me her child for to haue ete hym / And at the laste I hadde hit not /
And therfore men ought in no wyse to truste the woman / And he is wel a fole that setteth his hope and truste in a woman / And therfore truste them not / and thow shalt doo as the sage and wyse.

Our blog has considered children and animals before. JJC wrote:

As the Disney megacorporation realized long ago, and Katherine [kid #2] is realizing just now, animals teach children how to become human. They also provide kids with a temporary, imaginative escape from that burden.

Children readily identify with, sympathize with, and think through animals, especially talking animals: I grew up with Narnia, Watership Down, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, 101 Dalmations, The Rescuers, Charlotte’s Web, Peter Rabbit, and The Wind in the Willows. Assuming that this ready identification is transhistorical, fables no doubt worked so well for early education—Travis observed that fables were the second text children read, right after the Distichs of Cato—precisely because children want so much to listen to talking animals.

The fable of the nurse, the child, and the wolf is the first tale in Avianus’s collection, which was enormously popular in the Middle Ages (“Rustica [note this difference] deflenti parvo iuraverat olim, / ni tacaet, rapido quod foret esca lupo”); it ends with the same misogynist moral. Naturally enough, the collection of fables opens, as any classroom should, with a plea for silence. The crying child clearly stands in for a crying, complaining child, an uncompliant student who must calm down before he (likely a he) learns anything. By heeding the nurse, he’s heeding the analog for his teacher. But by doing so, he’s heeding someone whose gender–and/or class, if she’s a “rustica”–makes her untrustworthy (and besides, he’s imagining his teacher as a woman). Untrustworthy for whom? Not for the child, but for the (male) wolf, clearly the figure at whom the fable directs its moral: don’t trust women. If the child places himself in a position to receive the moral, he imagines himself as an animal. Not a problem, sort of, since this is what child should do with fables in order to allow them to work their pedagogical magic. But in identifying with the wolf, he imagines himself as something that wants to eat him.

The child can identify with the child and obey the “ni tacaet” of the nurse/rustica/teacher, even though this is what the moral tells him he shouldn’t do, or he can identify with (one of) the animal(s), which he must do to hear morality of fables as his, but in so doing, he imagines himself edible, desirable. He might even imagine himself an erotic object, if the male wolf is imagined as a frustrated suitor and the nurse as a common figure from the fabliaux, the star of a certain nasty Beatles song (on my mind only because my bedtime reading has been the Robbins translation of Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles: but, given the wolfwife, I’m pushing a bit too hard here). I had once thought that the collection started here to frustrate the child’s cathexis with animals to teach the child not to identify with animals so readily. Clearly not satisfactory. Here’s a interpretative knot, which I humbly present to you, blog-readers, for unraveling. Lend me your hands.


* A related question. Fables were a very popular medieval genre. We have major collections not only in the pseudonymous Ysopet tradition and the Avianus collection, but also collections by Babrius and Phaedrus (also pseudonymous?), Odo of Cheriton, Marie de France, Berechiah ha-Nakden, Walter of England, Lydgate, Robert Henryson, and no doubt some others I’m forgetting. There are also beast epics, like Ecbasis Captivi, Ysengrimus, and (amoral?) animals tales, like Ramon Llull’s Book of Beasts and the many Raynard the Fox stories. There’s also Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, which either participates in this tradition or sends it up or both. I can’t imagine this huge body of medieval animal literature was meant only for children. Certainly no child, and few adults, could read Ysengrimus‘s very difficult Latin. Yet at some point adults stopped telling animal stories to each other. When and why? Is this an actual break between the medievals and moderns (barring La Fontaine)? Certainly fables still get told between adults. Not often, but sometimes. Nonetheless, it strikes me that modern adult fabulists–Thurber, for instance–are putting us on, and part of the pleasure in reading Thurber comes in being in on the joke: the moral’s there, Thurber’s earnest (particularly in his anti-McCarthy fables, like “The Very Proper Gander”) but it’s almost as if he’s disavowing that earnestness. There’s also Animal Farm. I don’t want to offer up the medievals–excepting Chaucer as always–as unselfconscious (childlike?) consumers of fables, but perhaps that’s what I’m leading myself to do. So, again, when and why? Any suggestions short of, you know, finally reading Jan Ziolkowski and/or Annabel Patterson’s Fables of Power or returning to R. Howard Bloch’s chapters on Marie’s fables?

Ysopet-Avionnet: The Latin and French Texts. Kenneth McKenzie and William A. Oldfather, eds. University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 5. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1919.
Minimus the Mouse


Avianus isn’t a slasher film or pornography. Unlike these other kinds of work (which includes, well, just about every fiction that isn’t a fable), not only the genre but also the location of the fable in the Avianus collection demands (insists on? asks for?) pedagogical, moral identification. It has a moral, it’s an introduction to a set of works that, similarly (although perhaps less jarringly), have morals, and it’s meant to teach. It’s meant to be useful for teaching likely because children so readily identify with animals, which means, I think, we have to assume that in a fable with animals that the identification with animals is primary.* Finally, given its essential role in language instruction from the Carolingian era on, it a work that likely numbers among, say, the top 10-most read works in the Middle Ages. In other words, it’s essential that I get it: but I don’t.

For example, the fable “de rustico et bove” (a rare one, but it appears in Marie), in which an overworked, sweaty ox complains about being compelled to take its own dung (out of its barn?). The peasant points out that since the ox is responsible for its own shit, it shouldn’t pain him to carry it out (“Respondit Homo : Interrogo te quis istum fimum congessit. Bos ait : Congessi ego, ego illum pedibus conculcavi. Propterea, inquit Dominus, quia fetiditatem congessisti, non te pigeat eam laboriose extrahere.”). The moral is one against wicked servants blaming their masters for their suffering. I have no idea how to take this (although I do think it interesting to track the identifications of the peasant: first he’s a rustico, then dominus, homo, then finally dominus again)

BUT Hate to keep talking to myself on this, but it just came to me that this angle doesn’t work. Let’s assume that fables become central in pedagogy c. 800. Yet adults continue telling animal stories to each other for, oh, another 700 years (at least). There doesn’t seem to be any perceived puerility in telling animal stories (or am I wrong on this? Am I forgetting something key? I’d have to check the openings of the various works I mentioned above + the Speculum Stultorum, which I’d forgotten). Given my irritation with periodicity, I hate to think I’ve stumbled across an actual discursive difference between the Middle Ages and now: but I think I might have. – See more at:

– See more at:

– See more at: