Day 4 – Robert Henryson, Fables

Caxton AesopWe used the Parkinson Edition of the Fables.

We started by remarking on the proliferation of animal studies by looking briefly at this round up of articles on animals and animal rights available on, and also briefly examined this record of a very recent classics conference at NYU on animals.

We wondered at the newly online Hereford Mappamundi.

We also had a report from the 3 members of the class (and the professor) who attended Susan Crane’s “Medieval Dogs at Work” presentation at NYU’s Maison Française. We heard about the Guinefort legend, and the affective connections between humans and their working dogs: when a knight unjustly kills his dog, he breaks his lance in three parts and then goes to the Holy Land in penance (or, in some versions, he kills himself). We heard aboutGaston Phébus’ //Book of the Hunt//, which requires that hunters speak only the truth to their dogs, and in which dogs can show a “bestesse” that is their own kind of canine logos. And we heard about Modwenna’s taming of the wolf that had killed a cow, and how the affection the wolf receives from a calf helps transform it, and how the smallness and white-spotted foreheads of its domesticated descendants recalls the neotenization that any domesticated animal undergoes. We even heard about the much debated possibility that humans are neotenized apes, what with our ‘softer’ features and various other infantile physical qualities, and especially with our lifelong capacity to learn new things.

Having done all that, we then looked at Henryson. Your professor started by outlining some aspects of medieval fables, distinguishing them from beast epics, another major medieval animal literature tradition. A key source for this was Jill Mann’sFrom Aesop to Reynard.

First, the newer genre, the beast epic. These works were long narratives in which animals get into and (sometimes) out of trouble. They tend to be comic (often violently so, and often about things no decent person now would find funny), and often very rowdy. These include Ecbasis Captivi, Ysengrimus, the Speculum Stultorum, and above all the vernacular Renard stories (here in this ridiculously expensive paperback). These have no epimythia (that is, no “morals”) except what the animals themselves use to try to win their arguments. There’s no sense, then, of some larger, guiding morality distinct from the practical efforts of the animals to thrive or survive. And there’s no sense that these works are for children (indeed, the Ysengrimus is difficult to read even for adult medievalists: hence the need for a translation).

Fables by contrast were one of the set of primary texts that children used to learn to read, and have been for centuries upon centuries. Thus, for most literate medieval Europeans, and not only Christians, animal narrative is at the heart of their socialization into literacy. Becoming an adult, in some sense, requires first identifying with animals and then gradually disidentifying from them; it required learning, against all educational and indeed even practical evidence, that animals were only mute beasts. The sheer number of versions of “Aesop” astonish. I list some in this ancient blog post:the “Romulus” (attributed sometimes to a “Walter of England,” and itself coming from the Phaedrus collection), Odo of Cheriton, Marie de France,Berechiah ha-Nakden, and John Lydgate, certainly among others. Usually, fables can be distinguished by their brevity and the distinction between a narrative and a separate moral.

Henryson plays with the limits of the genre in many ways. He transforms the holy and degraded fool Aesop into a noble auctor; he folds in several stories from the Reynard cycle; he increases the size of the morals to great length (that of the “Wolf and the Lamb,” for example, is some 76% as long as the tale itself), while inflating the openings of many of his fables with material from the Chanson d’aventure tradition (idyllic nature poetry, chiefly, which we encountered in force already in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls); and the animal characters themselves use sententia — moral statements — as arguments for their own local purposes, somewhat muddling the trustworthiness of the separate morals. This is particularly evident in Henryson’s version of the “Wolf and the Lamb,” as the Lamb doesn’t just use the typical argument from physics (“I couldn’t muddy your drinking water because I was upstream from you”) that we find in Marie and Lydgate, but it also uses arguments from law, as does the Wolf, to argue back and forth until the wolf finally, inevitably, devours the sheep. And, most surprisingly, we find a shivering sheep, cheated out of its fleece by lawyers (“The Sheep and the Dog”), appearing in the moral itself to cry out against the injustice of a God who sees everything but does nothing to help, as a kind of Ovine Job, whose very skin might have provided the support for the story we were reading. We never even had a chance to discuss the “bird-watcher” Henryson, who himself crops up in his fables often as someone just watching as things happen, something that, to my knowledge, never appears in another medieval fable collection.

We then used this video to help us with our pronunciation, remembering that Henryson wrote //after// the Great Vowel Shift.

Our presentation engaged with two articles that, unlike a lot of Henryson Fable criticism, concerned the animals rather than (for example) the genre:
Rudd, Gillian. “Making Mention of Aesop: Henryson’s Fables of the Two Mice.” The Yearbook of English Studies 36.1: (2006), 39-49.
Murtaugh, Daniel M. “Henryson’s Animals.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14.3: (1972), 405-421

We discussed whether animals that “knew their place” were somehow better off than animals that were more thoroughly anthropomorphized, looking especially at the tale of the two mice, one of whom notably sets out on a journey with a staff (indicating that it stands upright) and bare feet (indicating that it’s a pilgrim…or a mouse). Animals that know their place tend to come off better, or is this really true? After all, the Rooster’s condemned, in a fable that opens EVERY medieval fable collection, for not preferring a gem to its filthy food.

We observed that in the “The Two Mice,” the distinctions between the mice seem to matter more than the differences between mice and human. We also considered how our identification with the mice changed our relationship to Gib Hunter, which is at once a “jolie cat” (326) and a “crewell beist” (349), depending on where and what we are. We wondered as well at the animals of the animals, like the silent cows of “The Fox, the Wolf, and the Husbandman,” or Gib Hunter the cat, and also the problem of animal morality. How is a fox to live? If a fox’s behavior is theft, and if it can’t eat fish, how can we condemn it at all? We also pushed back against Murtaugh on the “inhumanity” of the dead birds in “The Preaching of the Swallow,” since the most “inhumane” character is the churl himself, while the most human, because the most rational, is the preaching Swallow.

We wondered whether carnivorous animals tend to feature most strongly in the tales (maybe) and whether we identify with them more than others (maybe, but chiefly in the tales taken over from the Reynard cycle).

We spent a lot of time on the “The Paddock [Toad] and the Mouse,” the very last Fable, at least in this present arrangement. The toad argues that it shouldn’t be judged by its appearance, an argument that simultaneously endorses how we should read the fables (don’t judge on appearances), that runs counter to the way that animals work in fables (we know what a lion is as soon as we see it, likewise with a wolf, a fox, and a toad), and then undoes the logic of fable interpretation when the toad turns out to be, after all, exactly what it looks like.

What is the relationship between the body and soul in this arrangement (given that this question matters so much, especially in the moral to this tale)? In what sense is physiognomy a kind of gesture or even speech? And what about the fact that the tale ends (and thus the narratives of the fables end) with the mouse and toad’s argument and struggle interrupted by a kite, which sees these two animals not as moral actors, not as fable beasts, but just as food. And with that transformation into meat (and not even satisfying meat (“Bot all thair flesche wald scant be half ane fill”), the fables proper end.

A few last points from me, though I know I’m forgetting MANY points that others made (say, about animal bodies, or about the Fox telepathy (!!) in “The Cock and the Fox,” or about how the infinite variety of animal inclinations are a kind of “black noise,” to put this in Ian Bogost’s terms).

  • How this idyllic statement runs counter to the experience of the animals: “All creature he maid for the behufe / Of man and to his supportatioun / Into this eirth, baith under and abufe, / In number, wecht, and dew proportioun, / The difference of tyme and ilk seasoun / Concorddand till our opurtunitie / As daylie be experience we may se.” It’s obviously not so good for the sheep!
  • “Reason” works oddly in the Fables. Reason is of course that thing that separates humans from animals. But what is it? When Henryson says that Aesop’s fable had “ane sentence according to ressoun,” what does that mean? If animals have only inclination and not discretion, as Henryson tells us in the opening to the “Cock and the Fox,” then they don’t have choice. They’re mechanical creatures, bound by the laws, essentially, of physics, while we at least have choice. But there’s another meaning of “reason,” namely, when someone says “be reasonable,” that is, “accord with the fact as they stand.” Here “reason” is perfect description, perfect measure, and thus the very opposite of that “extra” something that reason-as-choice would seem to grant. Given this, what animal is the “most reasonable” in the fables? The fox, with its craftiness (or is its “inclination” just to be excessive?)? The sheep clever enough to disguise itself as a dog (but not clever enough to resist the dogginess that the disguise grants it)? Or the country mouse, whose life accords best with the mousy way of life and indeed the contempt for worldly glory Henryson’s morals preach ad nauseum?

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:

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