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John Edwin Noble (Photo credit: Bridgeman Images)

This post is a continuation of recent posts featuring bells.  It also belongs to a series on Fables and other works featuring animals.

Sources and Classification

Aesop (620 and 560 BCE) was a Greek story teller who told Fables. It could be that he also wrote the fables he told, but these appear to have been transmitted orally from generation to generation. They therefore belong to an oral tradition as is the case with fairy tales. It has been claimed Aesop was a  “Levantin,” i.e. from the Middle East,[1] that he was a freed slave, that he was forced to jump to his death or pushed down a cliff, but the truth is that we do not know whether or not there ever lived an Aesop.

Aesop however is not the first Greek story teller to write fables. A “Goose with the Golden Eggs,”entitled  “Une femme et une poule,” is attributed to Luqman (c. 1100 BCE).

Biographies of Aesop

  • Maximus Planudes
  • Jean de La Fontaine

Yet, not only do we have written collections of fables by Aesop, but biographies, hence the information given above. The main biography of Aesop is by Maximus Planudes (c. 1260 – c. 1305), a Greek monk and scholar who lived in Constantinople, the former Byzantium and current Istanbul (Turkey). Planudes was a compiler of the Greek Anthology, yet was also famed for his command of Latin and polished translations of Aesop’s Fables. Planudes published the first annotated collection of Aesop’s Fables.

La Fontaine also wrote a short biography of Aesop entitled La Vie d’Ésope, le Phrygien. It prefaces his first collection of fables, 6 books, published in 1668.

India and the Middle East

La Fontaine’s second collection shows the influence of fables originating in the Sanskrit Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma and versions of Abdullah Ibn Al-Muqaffa’‘s Persian Kalīlah wa Dimnah, fables based on the Panchatantra. There are two more renditions of Kalīlah wa Dimnah, but all three are linked to one another and to the Panchatantra because the story-teller within the book is Pilpay, Bidpai, or Bidpaï.

  • Ibn Al-Muqaffa’s Kalīlah wa Dimnah. Ibn Al-Muqaffa (died c. 756-759) was a Muslim Persian scholar;
  • Kalīleh o Demneh (12th century CE; author not specified) Persian;
  • Kashefi’s Anvār-e Soheylī, or “The Lights of Canopus” (15th century) Persian.

Had Jean de La Fontaine (8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695) read Gilbert Gaulmin‘s 1644 Livre des lumières before publishing his first volume of fables, we could suggest a direct oriental influence. I am writing “direct” because India and the Middle East are the birthplace of a substantial number of fables and, in particular, fables featuring animals. Gilbert Gaulmin’s Livre des lumières is probably rooted in Kashefi‘s “The Lights of Canopus.”  Lumières means “lights.”

However, La Fontaine had not read Gaulmin’s Livre des lumières when he wrote his first volume of fables (6 of 12 books). “Le Conseil tenu par les rats” (“The Mice in Council) is included in La Fontaine’s first of three recueils (collections) of fables, published in 1668, 1678, and shortly before 1695, the year he died.

Gustave Doré
J. J. Grandville
Auguste Vimar
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An Oral and a Learned Tradition

  • Phaedrus 1st century CE (Latin)
  • Babrius 2nd century CE (Greek)
  • Flavius Avianus 5th century CE (Latin)

In the absence of a text, Aesop’s Fables have been considered an example of the oral tradition, fables transmitted orally from generation to generation. It seems Aesop’s Fables did not enter a “learned” tradition until Latin author Phaedrus, who lived in the 1st century CE, published a book of fables attributed to Aesop (Gutenberg [EB #25512]). So did Greek author Babrius (Gabrias), in the second century CE. Babrius may have been a Levantin (from the Middle East).

Collections of fables by Aesop are based on the learned tradition inaugurated by Phaedrus and Babrius. But neither Phaedrus nor Babrius wrote a “Mice in Council.”

A third early translator of Aesop is Flavius Avianus (400 CE/5th century), the author-translator of 42 Aesopic fables. However, “The Mice in Council” is not included in Avianus’ translations.


  • Avianus, (Avionnet, 5th century)
  • Walter of England (12th century)

After some reflection, I looked for a copy of the Ysopet-Avionnet on the internet and found “The Mice in Council.” The Ysopet-Avionnet is a collection of fables that was used as a school text from the Middle Ages until the early part of the 20th century. It is an Internet Archive publication, p. 191, printed near the end of the book (please click on Internet Archive). In the Ysopet-Avionnet, “The Mice in Council” is entitled “Des Souris qui firent concile contre le chat(“De muribus concilium facientibus contra catum”). 

However, the Ysopet-Avionnet’s “The Mice in Council”  or “Belling the Cat” seems to have come out of nowhere. Neither 5th-century Avianus nor 12th-century Anglo-Norman fabulist Walter of England, Gualterus Anglicus, wrote a “Mice in Council.” Yet, the fables published in the Ysopet-Avionnet are by Walter of England for the most part. Walter of England, who wrote in Anglo-Norman, is also known as the “anonymous Neveleti.” The Neveleti we know is Isaac Nicholas Névelet, the Swiss author of a 1610 Mythologia Aesopica, La Fontaine’s main source.[3] 

Consequently, although it was published in the Ysopet-Avionnet, 15th-century Italian fabulist Laurentius Abstemius’ is considered the first writer—i.e. the “learned” as opposed to the oral tradition—of “The Mice in Council.” His Hecatomythium was published in 1495, nearly three centuries after the publication of the Ysopet-Avionnet. (See French site shanaweb.net.)

An English Tradition

Laurentius AbstemiusHecatomythium (1495) is the source of Sir Roger L’Estrange‘s Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists (1692). A collection of fables by Aesop had been printed and possibly translated by famed English translator and printer William Caxton, in 1484, too early to include Abstemius’ “Mice in Council.” Caxton printed The fables of Aesop, as first printed by William Caxton, in 1484, with those of Avian, Alfonso and Poggio, now again edited and induced. A third English fabulist was Samuel Croxall (c. 1690 – 1752), the author of The Fables of Aesop; with Instructive Applications. Aesop’s Fables 100 Cuts. Croxall was an Anglican churchman. Moralizing would be his chief objective.

Ysopets and Romulus

  • the 12th century
  • Aesop>Ysopet
  • Romulus>a Romulus
  • Marie de France

The 12th century is a turning-point and a culmination. In fact, it has been called a Renaissance. Marie de France lived at the end of the 12th century and Walter of England published his fables a smidgen earlier but in the 12th century. In France, collections of fables by Aesop were by then called Ysopets or Isopets and became textbooks used in schools. An Ysopet could also be called a Romulus. As well, Reynard the Fox was born in 1148-1149 as Reinardus in the Ysengrimus, a beast epic not intended for children.

There may have been a fabulist named Romulus, who wrote Latin prose fables, but he is now considered a legendary figure. However a Romulus could be a collection of prose fables written in Latin and rooted in Phaedrus. (See Romulus, Wikipedia.) We have several and among these:

  • The Romulus Ordinarius (Romulus Vulgaris), 83 tales known in a 9th-century text;
  • The Romulus Roberti;
  • The Romulus of Vienna;
  • The Romulus of Nilant or (Romulus Nilantinus), 45 fables, published in 1709 by Johan Frederik Nilant (Jean-Frédéric Nilant).
  • The Novus Aesopus was put together at the end of the twelfth century by Alexander Neckam

These may have been versified by Walter of England  Gualterus Anglicus, Alexander Neckam (Novus Aesopus), Adémar de Chabannes (c. 989 – 1034; 67 fables), and other translators or fabulists.

French author Marie de France used a Romulus as a source for her collection of 102 fables written in Anglo-Norman. (My copy has 103 fables.) Marie de France is a major author who will be discussed in a later post.

The texts

La Fontaine’s “Le Conseil tenu par les rats” (1.II.2) (full text)
La Fontaine’s “The Council held by the rats” (1.II.2) (full text)

Milo Winter
(Photo credit: The Gutenberg Project [EBook #19994])

Belling the Cat

The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.

Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last a very young Mouse got up and said:

“I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat’s neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming.”

All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said:

“I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?”

It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite a different matter to do it.


Prudence or foresight is the moral of nearly all Aesopic fables. One has to think. Prudence makes it unrealistic for a mouse to try to hang a bell down a cat’s neck. In La Fontaine’s fable, the solution to the rats’ main peril, being devoured by the cat, would cause a rat to be devoured, certain death and, therefore, the greater peril. No rat can bell a cat.

In An Argosy of Fables,[4] the translator, Thomas James, has the mice applaud when it occurs to them that they need simply bell the cat. A mouse then gets up and asks the relevant question: Who will bell the cat?

In La Fontaine, we have what he calls a comedy: “[u]ne ample Comédie à cent [one hundred] actes divers.” (“Le bûcheron [the lumberjack] et Mercure” [1.V.1].) The cat is named after François Rabelais‘ Rodilardus (the Latin form of Rodilard [round and fat]). There is, moreover, a reference to the French court, which 1s to be expected from Jean de La Fontaine, whose patron had been Nicolas Fouquet. Courtiers waste time. They are mindless.

In English, the “who will Bell the Cat” is idiomatic. It has entered the English language and is now proverbial. Fables are the illustration of a proverb, but in our fable the illustration has returned to a proverb, which probably means that the illustration, or exemplum is very powerful.


The “Mice in Council” may be difficult to trace and is sometimes confused with “The Cat and the Mice.” However, it was included in the widely-read Ysopet-Avionnet, as well as Laurentius Abstemius’ Hecatomythium (1495). So it appears to date back to the 12th century and the 15th century, except that we do not know who wrote the 12th century “Mice in Council.”

“Belling the Cat” is Jean de La Fontaine’s Le Conseil tenu par les rats, Walter Crane left an image and it is incorporated in the Aesop for Children, exquisitely illustrated by Milo Winter [EBook #19994]. It is also featured in the An Argosy of Fables, 1921, a Wikisource publication where it is attributed to Abstemius. Laura Gibbs has classified it as Aesopic, which makes perfect sense since it is featured in the Aesop for Children, 1919. (See MythFolklore.net.)

It seems to me that Wikipedia’s view of the provenance of “Belling the Cat” is also very sensible.

“In the classificatory system established for the fables by B. E. Perry, it is numbered 613, which is reserved for Mediaeval attributions outside the Aesopic canon.”

The Mice in Council

The Mice in Council by Nora Fry

An Argosy of Fables

An Argosy of Fables, 1921 (Wikisource)


Warm greetings to all of you. ♥ 

Sources and Resources

Nora Fry YouTube
The Aesop for Children, Project Gutenberg [EBook #19994] EN
Laura Gibbs, Latina Bestiaria EN
The Fables of Pilpay, Internet Archive EN
Les Fables de Pilpay, philosophe indien; ou la Conduite des rois (Google Books) FR
The Fables of Phaedrus, Project Gutenberg [EBook #25512] EN
Robinson Ellis, The Fables of Phaedrus, Internet Archive EN
Ysopet-Avionnet, Internet Archive, p. 191 Latin FR
Aesop’s Fables by William Caxton, Internet Archive EN
Fables de Loqman le Sage, J. Derembourg, 1850 Internet Archive FR

[1] Stated in Les Fables de Pilpay, philosophe indien; ou la Conduite des rois. (See Internet Archive FR.)

[2] Avianus is possibly Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, the author of Saturnalia. (See Macrobius, Wikipedia.)

[3] La Fontaine’s main source was Swiss fabulist Neveleti’s who used Avianus. Névelet or the anonymous Neveleti, did not write a “Belling the Cat.”

[4] Frederic Taber Cooper (ed.) and Paul Bransom (illust.), An Argosy of Fables, a Representative Selection from the Fable Literature of every Age and Land (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company Publishers, 1921).

Aaron Copland plays “The Cat & the Mouse”

Robinson Ellis, a fabulist

Latin Literature, Spy in Vanity Fair, 1894

© Micheline Walker
29 July 2015