Aesop’s fables constitute one of the few traditions in ancient Greco-Roman literature which enjoy an unbroken line of popularity over the past three thousand years. Unlike the other genres of ancient literature which European scholars had to rediscover in the Renaissance (the “rebirth” of classical studies giving that era its name), the fables did not have to be rediscovered at all, because they retained their popularity throughout the so-called “Dark Ages” and “Middle Ages.”
Unlike other genres of ancient literature, Aesop’s fables were easy to assimilate into the European Christian tradition because of their resemblance to the parables of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Like the parables of Jesus, Aesop’s fables are short, simple stories that teach a moral lesson. Moreover, the adventures of Aesop’s talking animals provided some welcome humor, being filled with comic elements that are lacking in the parables of Jesus. As they rewrote the fables, the Christian monks would freely elaborate on the morals of the stories, adding in Bible verses in order to bring the fables more fully into the Christian tradition. Sometimes they would allegorize the fables, looking for Christian symbols, such as the treacherous serpent or the peaceful dove. They sometimes supplemented the traditional fables of Aesop inherited from ancient Greece and Rome with similar animal fables, drawing on local storytelling traditions, or making up stories of their own. These fable books were used as reference materials for preachers as they crafted their sermons, much as in the ancient Greek world the first collections of Aesop’s fables had been created as a reference work for orators looking for anecdotes to use in a speech.
One of the most famous of these medieval fable collections was written by Odo of Cheriton, a 13th-century English preacher and scholar. Odo’s Latin fables were well-known and circulated widely, as evidenced by numerous manuscript copies as well as translations into Spanish, French, and Welsh. Odo was a very learned man for his time, having studied in the schools of Paris, but he was not a high-brow scholar. Instead, he intended for his writings to appeal to a general audience, embracing both the clergy and lay people. Many of the fables evince a strong sympathy for the poor and oppressed, with often sharp criticisms of high-ranking church officials. At the same time, Odo also looked for theological messages in the fables, interpreting the stories of the animals as a symbolic code for the workings of God in the world. Odo’s fables thus provide evidence of both the “humanistic” and “religious” types of storytelling which Randy introduced in an article from a previous issue, God And Man: Two Themes.
For an example of Odo’s humanistic social satire, let’s look at the little story of the rat, the cheese and the cat. The story is a simple one: There was a certain man who had some cheese in his pantry, and a rat came and gnawed on the cheese. The man decided that the best thing to do would be to get a cat to guard the cheese — but the results were not what the man expected: the cat ate the rat, and then ate up all the cheese, too. In the moral to the story, Odo explains:
So likewise many bishops put a parish into the hands of a chaplain who devours the parish. Finally the bishop puts an archdeacon in charge, and the archdeacon devours both the chaplain and the parish, just like the rat and the cheese.
Odo thus uses the story of the greedy cat to criticize the greedy church officials of his time.
Odo is also one of our earliest recorded sources for the story of belling the cat, and this story, too, he turns into a criticism of corrupt church officials. Here is the story: the mice held a council to decide how to protect themselves from the cat. A wise mouse said that they should tie a bell around the cat’s neck so that they could hear when he was coming. All the mice like this idea, and then one of the mice said asked who was going to tie the bell around the cat’s neck, whereupon each of the mice squeaked, “Not me! Not me!” Here is the moral that Odo gives to the story:
So it often happens when preachers and monks rise up against a bishop or a prior or an abbot, saying, “If only so-and-so could be removed so that we could have another bishop or abbot.” Everybody likes the idea, but finally they ask: “Who will stand up against the bishop? Who will accuse him?” Everybody is afraid and says, “Not me! Not me!” So in this way the less powerful people allow the more powerful people to exist and dominate them.
In this story, Odo again interprets the predatory cat in terms of a powerful church official, with the mice being too timid to defend themselves.
Yet while Odo is not afraid to criticize the authority of the church, his humanistic impulses extend only so far. When it comes to the question of God himself and obedience to divine authority, Odo was no rebel. We can see this very clearly in the way that he interprets the fable of the lion’s share. In this story, a lion goes hunting with a fox and a wolf as partners. The lion catches a fat ram, the wolf a skinny cow, and the fox a goose. The lion tells the wolf to divide the spoils. The wolf says each animal should take what he caught, whereupon the lion flays the wolf’s head, leaving it bloody. Then the lion tells the fox to divide things up. The fox tells the lion to take the fat ram and the goose because they are good to eat; he tells the lion to leave the skinny cow for the lion’s followers, since it is not very good to eat to begin with. The lion praises the fox and asks how she learned to do division so well. The fox replies: “The red cap of my colleague taught me, his flayed head providing the lesson.”
When Odo interprets this story, the predatory lion is not seem as the emblem of a dangerous and greedy church official. Instead, this lion is a symbol of God, and his actions are interpreted as a perfect expression of divine justice. Odo explains that the lion punished the wolf just as God punished Adam for the sin of disobedience. The moral of the story is to learn from Adam’s punishment to show reverence to God, just as the fox reverenced the lion after seeing the wolf’s punishment.
Odo’s approval of the lion’s actions as an emblem of divine authority is something quite different from what we find in traditional interpretations of the fable of the lion’s share. The usual moral of the story is that the lion is a very greedy and dangerous beast; the best solution is simply not to make a partnership with the lion to begin with! If an animal is foolish enough to become partners with a lion, that animal should be prepared to pay the consequences. Leonina societa periculorum plena, as the old Latin saying reminds us: Keeping company with a lion is full of danger. For Odo, however, the lion is not just another animal; the lion is a symbol of God, and as such his authority is to be obeyed without question. (The Islamic poet Rumi took exactly the same approach to the fable of the lion’s share, interpreting it as a lesson in religions obedience; I have discussed this in a previous article, Rumi: The Fable of the Lion’s Share.)
As you can see from the range of Odo’s interpretations of the fables, there are no objective or absolute rules for interpreting a given fable. Sometimes a predatory animal is a symbol of a greedy bishop or deacon, as in the story of the cat, the rat, and the cheese, or in the story of belling the cat, prompting a humanistic message that defies false claims to divine authority. Yet a predatory animal can also be a symbol of divine authority which must be obeyed without question, as in the story of the lion’s share. Even if the ancient Romans did not interpret the lion’s share as a story of divine authority, there is nothing to stop Odo from taking that approach to the story, fitting the story firmly into a Christian framework. The adaptability of the fable genre allows Odo to use the old fables to express a wide range of meanings, from social satire to theology, with morals that suit his life and time.