, , , , , , ,

An illustration from a Syrian edition dated 1354. The rabbit fools the elephant king by showing him the reflection of the moon.

An illustration from a Syrian edition dated 1354. The rabbit fools the elephant king by showing him the reflection of the moon.

When he published his Caractères (1688), portraits, seventeenth-century French author, Jean de La Bruyère (16 August 1645 – 10 May 1696) was using Theophrastus (371 – c. 287 BCE) as his main source. He noted that the Athenians (Theophrastus) depicted life two thousand years ago, but we would admire seeing ourselves.

…il y a deux mille ans accomplis que vivait ce peuple d’Athènes dont il fait la peinture, [mais] nous admirerons de nous y reconnaître nous-mêmes[.]

Human Nature

The link, in this regard, is human nature.  We invent new technologies, but human nature does not change, except that there is variety among human beings.  There is constant newness in texts as old as Nivardus of Ghent’s Ysengrimus, a literary masterpiece and the birthplace of Reynard the Fox, and newness in stories told in the Pañchatantra and retold in Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa’s Tales of Kalila wa Dimna.

We know that La Fontaine drew content for the second volume his Fables (1678) in a seventeenth-century book, Le Livre des lumières (1644), a translation of stories or fables told by a Dr Pilpay, the sage featured in the Pañchatrantra and in Kalila wa Dimna.  This translation may well find its origins in Kashefi’s fifteenth-century Persian Lights of Canopus.

Jātaka Tales

From the ancient texts, also stem parables, proverbs, exempla (plural for exemplum), Buddhist Jātaka Tales, etc.  In fact, in the Preface to the first volume of his Fables (1668), La Fontaine wrote that Christ spoke in “parables.” Parables do indeed resemble and fables.  These I will not discuss.


Animals inhabit fables and beast epics, but they may also inhabit Bestiaries,
medieval and modern Bestiaries. Medieval Bestiaries belong, at times, to the
courtly love tradition. I believe that Richard de Fournival’s (1201- ?1260) Bestiaire d’amour is our finest example. In the anthropomorphic and allegorical Bestiaire d’amour women are looked upon as objects of worship.

But Bestiaries they may also be moralistic: ‘to improve the minds of ordinary people, in such a way that the soul will at least perceive physically things which it has difficulty grasping mentally: that what they have difficulty comprehending with their ears, they will perceive with their eyes’ (Aberdeen MS 24, f25v). The Aberdeen Bestiary is a  twelfth-century illuminated (illustrated) manuscript.

The Aberdeen Bestiary

© Micheline Walker

27 October 2011