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Physiologus Cambrai, vers 1270-1275 Douai, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 711, fol. 17

Physiologus, Adam nomme les animaux (Adam names the animals)
Cambrai, vers 1270-1275
Douai, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 711, fol. 17 (Photo credit: BnF) (click)

The Fable

One particular collection of fables, the Ysopet-Avionnet, was used in the schools of medieval France and continued to be published for centuries (see “The Cock and the Pearl,” La Fontaine cont’d). The word “Ysopet,”[1] was a diminutive for “a collection of fables by Ésope,” or Æsop. The term Ysopet, or Isopet, was first used to describe a collection of 102 fables by Marie de France (late 12th century), written in Anglo-Norman in octosyllabic couplets. As for the word Avionnet, it was derived from Avianus (c. 400 CE), the name of a Latin writer of fables whose fables belong to the Babrius (Greek) tradition and “identified as a pagan.” (See Avianus, Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia). The goal of fabulists was the Horatianto inform or delight.” Horace advocated a mixture of both: information and pleasure.

Beast Literature and Christianity

Medieval Bestiaries
the Moral
legendary or mythical animals
St. Augustine

Bestiaries differ from fables in that they contain a Christian moral/ allegory, but like fables, they are a form of instruction. The fox is the devil, and the lamb, Christ, etc. However, Bestiaries closely resemble fables because both genres feature animals and are more or less a form of teaching. The presence of animals sets a distance between the reader and the teaching provided by a fable or a bestiary. The moral is instructive in both genres, but not directly. The animal functions as a buffer.

Moreover, as we have seen, the attributes of animals were defined by “universal popular consent.” Such was particularly the case with Medieval Bestiaries. Animals dwelling in fables and Bestiaires are neither zoological animals, nor humans in disguise. They are allegorical and most are zoomorphic, especially Christian Medieval Bestiaires. (See The Medieval Bestiary, David Badke, ed.)

Interestingly, Medieval Bestiaries feature a large number of legendary or mythical animals. The better-known are the Unicorn, the Dragon, the Griffin and the Phoenix, but Christian Medieval Bestiaries featured several other fantastical beasts, now mostly forgotten. It would be my opinion that Christianity had its prerogatives and that the relatively new Church needed several animals to exemplify human and sinful conduct.

Moreover, many Natural Historians were Christians. At any rate, the Bonnacon shown below was not exactly real and its manners were questionable.


Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 10r

“A beast like a bull, that uses its dung as a weapon.” (F 10r) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)

St. Augustine and Truth

Allow me to quote Book 21, Chapter 5 of  Augustine of Hippo‘s City of God. Augustine of Hippo was St. Augustine and he writes “[t]hat There are Many Things Which Reason Cannot Account For, and Which are Nevertheless True.” Augustine of Hippo published his City of God in 426 CE. (See City of God, Wikipedia.)

This kind of truth is what I have grown to describe as “poetical” truth (my term).

Bestiaires d’amour

However, some Medieval Bestiaries were love Bestiaries and were therefore associated with courtly love and the very popular  Roman de la Rose. The Roman de la Rose, authored by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1200 – c. 1240) and Jean the Meun(g) (c. 1240 – c. 1305), was allegorical:

“At various times in the poem, the “Rose” of the title is seen as the name of the lady, and as a symbol of female sexuality in general. Likewise, the other characters’ names function both as regular names and as abstractions illustrating the various factors that are involved in a love affair.” (See Roman de la Rose, Wikipedia.)

In my last post, I featured a lion belonging to a Bestiaire d’amour. It was breathing life into dead offspring. This is what a lady was to do to revive a man after lovemaking, or “petite mort.Petite mort is an orgasm. The symbolism attached to Beasts dwelling in Love Bestiaries (Bestiaires d’amour) was, therefore, less Christian than the symbolism of animals inhabiting other Bestiaries. The most famous Love Bestiary is Richard de Fournival‘s (1201 – ?1260).

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1951, Folio 18r

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1951, Folio 18r (Richard de Fournival)

“‘le lyon [above] qui fait revivre ses lyonciaus’ – The lion revives its dead cubs. In the Bestiaire d’amour the man says that in the same way the woman can revive him from his love-death.” (fol. 18r) (Photo credit: BnF)

The courtly love traditional therefore incorporated animal lore, just as it included the lyrical poems of troubadours, trouvères, the Minnesingers, and lyric poets associated with movements such as trobadorismo or trovarismo. By the way, there were women troubadours: the Trobairitz.

Troubadours (Berlin) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


William IX of Aquitaine portrayed as a knight, who first composed poetry on returning from the Crusade of 1101(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Animal Lore

Jan M. Ziolkowski writes that “beasts override genre.”[2] He does so on page 1 of his Introduction to Talking Animals). Professor Ziolkowski is perfectly right. In Medieval Bestiaries, beasts were mostly the same from genre to genre: fables, Medieval Bestiaries and the satirical Roman de Renart. Beasts even override paganism and Christianity as well as the Old and the New Testaments. After all, Christmas replaced the pagan Roman Saturnalia. There had to be a feast on the day of the longest night.

To return to “beast literature” (Ziolkowski, p. 1), “The Dog and its Reflection” is included in the Æsopic corpus (Perry Index 133)[3] and is also a fable told in Kalīlah wa Dimnah, and, according to one source, it is included in Le Livre des Lumières or Les Fables de Pilpay, philosophe indien, ou la conduite des rois (a 1698 edition [1644]), Æsop was a Levantin, i.e. from the Levant. With respect to fables, West meets East.

Kalīlah wa Dimnah is an Arabic rendition, by Persian scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa’, of the Sanskrit Panchatantra and Jean de La Fontaine, the author of Le Chien qui lâche sa proie pour l’ombre  (1.VI.17), read fables by Pilpay. Yet, the Christian Medieval Bestiary tells that dogs leave the prey they have caught for a prey they may not catch. It may be a mere shadow.

When I was assigned a course on best literature, I divided my material in the following the following genres, roughly speaking:

  • fables (Æsop and retellers),
  • beast epics (Reynard the Fox and fabliaux),
  • the Medieval Bestiaries (The Ashmole Bestiary, etc.),
  • and Natural Histories (The Physiologus, etc.), yet to be listed.

However, I had to mention mythological beasts, lycanthropes, and also discussed children’s literature.  Kenneth Grahame created a “reluctant dragon,” and the use of a toad as the protagonist of The Wind in the Willows made for an upside-down-world, a mundus inversus.

Moreover Æsop, who lived in Greece, was a “Levantin.” There is an Eastern tradition to Æsop’s fables even though, according to some sources, there never lived an Æsop. I was on sabbatical writing a book on Molière when I was assigned a course on Beast literature. I could not refuse to teach it. I therefore joined the International Reynard Society and gave a paper at the forthcoming meeting of the Society, in Hull, England.

A Dutch colleague steered me in the right direction, but the course nevertheless ended my career as a teacher. Would that I could have changed the course into animals in Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’Oye and Madame de Villeneuve’s La Belle et la Bête, but someone else was teaching a course on fairy tales. Beast literature includes fairy tales.

My  kindest regards to all of you.


Sources and Resources


[1] “Ysopet”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 29 sept. 2014

[2] Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750 – 1150 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 1.

[3] Ben Edwin Perry (1892–1968) catalogued Æsop’s fables.

E, Dame Jolie & Douce Dame Jolie
Love song 13th-14th century
Chanson d’amour du Moyen-Âge.

© Micheline Walker
30 September 2014