Let me take you back to the darkest, yet not so dark, early middle ages, or, to be precise, the three or four centuries preceding the first millennium. This period of history is often referred to as the monastic age. Monks copied books by hand in various scriptoria, indentations in the walls of monasteries, or an actual room, a scriptorium, ensuring the survival of the many masterpieces of antiquity and the dissemination of more recent works.
Interestingly, as monks kept alive the literature of antiquity, including Hesiod (8th century BCE) and Horace (8 December 65 BC – 27 November 8 BC), beast fables became a source of entertainment for copyists who not only copied these poems and reworked them, but who also created beast fables of their own. Anthropomorphism (talking animals) was an effective way of speaking anonymously, a satirist’s delight. Among beast fables, two tellings of the Sick-Lion tale would lead to Nivardus of Ghent’s 12th-century Ysengrimus and to the Roman de Renart, written in Roman, the vernacular, by Pierre de Saint-Cloud and other authors.
Paul the Deacon’s Ægrum fama fuit
The Sick-Lion tale would be an inspiration to two authors. The first is Paul the Deacon, or Paulus Diaconus (720s – 13 April 799 CE), a Benedictine monk, a scribe, the renowned historian of the Lombards, and the author of the Ægrum fama fuit, Once upon a time, a fable identified by its first words.
Professor Jan M. Ziolkowski translated the first words of Paulus Diaconus’ Ægrum fama fuit as follows:
“Once upon a time there was a report that the lion had lain ill and that he had already reached almost his final days.”
Yet the title of Paul the Deacon’s Ægrum fama fuit is also “Leo æger, vulpis et ursus” (The sick lion, the fox and the bear), which could be the title 1st-century Roman fabulist Phædrus gave his Sick-Lion tale when he translated and put into written form his collection of Æsopic fables. George Fyler Townsend translated his beast fable as “The Lion, the Fox and the Wolf,” which would be consistent with his view that the “Fox should be always cunning, the Hare timid, the Lion bold, the Wolf cruel, the Bull strong, the Horse proud, and the Ass patient.” (Preface [EBook #21]). It was Townsend’s opinion that beasts should be stock characters. George Fyler Townsend’s translation of Æsopic fables is the Gutenberg project publication [EBook #21]. The Sick-Lion tale is fable number 258 in the Perry Index and type 50 in the ATU (Aarne-Thompson-Üther) classification system.
The Ecbasis captivi
Also culminating in the Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart is the anonymous 11th-century Ecbasis captivi, a beast tale containing an inner tale. The outer fable is about the escape of a certain captive, a calf, and the inner fable is the Sick-Lion tale. The two narratives are linked because the calf escapes when the flayed wolf / bear shows himself, catching everyone’s attention. So, how did the Wolf / Bear lose his coat?
The Sick Lion tale
Here is our tale. A sick lion, believing that one could cure old age, called various doctors asking for a remedy. The Lion and the Wolf arrived promptly, but the Fox, suspecting that the Wolf / Bear was doing him in (lui faisait son affaire), went to Court concealed and quiet, “clos et cloi.” He heard the Wolf / Bear planning his demise. The Wolf / Bear told the Lion that the Fox wasn’t at Court: treason! At the Lion’s bedtime, the king demanded that the Fox / Bear be smoked out of his home (sa demeure) and brought to court.
When the Fox arrived at Court, he told the king that he feared someone was lying about him and scorning him. He explained that he had been on a pilgrimage: “mais j’étais en pèlerinage[,]” (but I was on a pilgrimage), and claimed he was dutifully praying for the Lion, as he had vowed. He also said that he had sought experts and told them to what extent the ailing Lion was suffering. The Lion lacked warmth, said the experts. That was the Lion’s problem! In order to cure the lion, one had to wrap him up into the skin of a Wolf/ Bear whose description fit the Wolf Ysengrin / Isengrin. Given the lion’s age, wrapping him up did help him.The Lion recovered and “courtiers sing songs comparing the Lion’s suffering to the passion of Jesus Christ, and the fox supplants the wolf as regent.” (See Ecbasis captivi, Wikipedia.) The flayed Wolf’s coat, or the Bear’s coat, would be the Lion’s dressing gown (sa robe de chambre).
My favourite version of the Sick-Lion tale is Paul the Deacon’s. The Fox arrives at the Lion’s Court carrying a bag filled with the many shoes he has worn out searching for a cure.
“Beware you courtiers, lest you gain,
By slander’s arts, less power than pain;
For in the world where we are living,
A pardon no one thinks of giving.”
Reynard’s Triumph. Scene from the famous medieval fable “Reynard the Fox” (10th canto). Hand-colored steel engraving after a drawing by Heinrich Leutemann (German painter, 1824 – 1905) from the book “Reineke Fuchs (Reynard the Fox)” by Julius Eduard Hartmann (after the medieval poem). Published by Albert Henry Payne, Leipzig and Dresden, 1st edition, c. 1855
The Ægrum fama fuit and the Ecbasis captivi are forerunners of Nivardus’ Ysengrimus and the more popular Roman de Renart, written in the vernacular, or Roman. The importance of the Sick-Lion tale stems, to a large extent, from the literary fortune of the Roman de Renart. The medieval bestiary differs from the Roman de Renart. It is allegorical. Fables, however, were used in schools, and the main collection was the Ysopet-Avionnet. Marie de France wrote mostly Æsopic fables. So did Gualterus Anglicus (Walter of England, Gautier d’Angleterre).
In Beast fables, irony is our primary figure of speech. Talking animals do not talk despite their eloquence. Their inability to talk, except “en son langage” (La Fontaine), allows them to say what they haven’t said. In fact, the anthropomorphic Ecbasis captivi is all the more eloquent since the Beast poem is also a fable within a fable, as are Vishnu Sharma’s Sanskrit Panchatantra and Kalīlah wa Dimnah, its Arabic reworking by Persian scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa.
In short, these Beast fables are all the more ironic because the animal world is a world- upside-down. For instance, the animals live at court. The Fox is a regent the Wolf / Bear wants to vilify. La Fontaine’s epimythium refers to courtiers. These are courtiers who should inhabit the basse cour, the barnyard where farmers keep hens and chickens. Anthropomorphism has clever twists.
Another reversal is the farcical “trompeur trompé,” the deceiver deceived. The Wolf attempts to elevate himself to the fox’ rank, that of regent, but circumstances, the Fox, damn him, Let us note, moreover, that the Ecbasis captivi is written in hexameters with Leonine internal rhyme. (See Ecbasis captivi, Wikipedia.) The author of the Ecbasis writes well, but the tale is about animals. That discrepancy is another source of irony, comic irony.
Therefore, although the Sick-Lion tale prefigures the Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart, the weight of tradition is such that the medieval bestiary does not deprive the Lion, the Wolf and the Fox of their function, at least not altogether. The Lion is king and the Fox, wily, but they no longer talk and are allegorical. Yet, the Roman the Renart, a masterpiece of medieval literature, has been described as a fabliau, which is, to a large extent, grotesque literature. Fabliaux are not literature for children and most misericords are repulsive. The progeny of the Sick-Lion tale, the Roman de Renart in particular, could be seen as the underside of the Roman de la Rose, “courtly” literature.
There is more to discuss, such as fox doctors and the Christian spirit of the Ecbasis captivi, but I will comment no further.
I apologize for the delay.
Love to everyone ♥
- Belling the Cat: more Bells (30 July 2015)
- Mostly Misericords: the Medieval Bestiary (10 November 2014)
- Donkey-Skin: a Tale Labelled “Unnatural Love” (23 May 2013)
Sources and Resources
- Glossary of drama terms
- A Review of Professor Ziolkowski’s Talking Animals
 Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750- 1150 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 295.
 Op. cit. pp. 295-297.
Reineke Fuchs pictures by Wilhelm von Kaulbach
© Micheline Walker
19 March 2017