IF HE ASK BREAD WILL YE GIVE HIM A STONE?Photo credit: Walter Crane [Gutenberg EBook #25433] (Please click on the image to enlarge it.)
“The Cock and the Pearl”
It is within the nature of fables, and literature, to be ambiguous, but not necessarily impenetrably closed. Although Jean de La Fontaine‘s “The Cock and the Pearl” suggests that we do not always see an object’s intrinsic worth nor, for that matter, a person’s intrinsic worth, it may be interpreted differently. “The Cock and the Pearl” presents a riddle as does Walter Crane‘s shortened “Cock and Pearl,” a limerick, or five-line poem, with the rhyme scheme aabba. Its moral is not altogether apparent: “If he ask bread will ye give him a stone?” However, the exemplum, or illustration, makes the limerick clearer. This cock needs food more than he needs jewels.
As for La Fontaine’s full length but very short “Cock and the Pearl,” it has a second exemplum that further illustrates the first exemplum. This doubling is intentional. In “Le Bûcheron et Mercure” (“The Woodman and Mercury” [1.V.1]), La Fontaine writes that he sometimes provides a “double image,” or second exemplum, which is the case in “The Cock and the Pearl.” Having told about the cock who gives a pearl to a jeweller in exchange for a “crumb of bread,” La Fontaine also tells about a “dunce” who finds a rare manuscript, takes it to a bookstore, and leaves it there in exchange for a gold coin (un ducaton). In “The Cock and the Pearl,” the fabulist himself, transforms the cock into a “dunce.” As a result, the fable is not altogether anthropomorphic.
The First Exemplum
In the first exemplum, or “ìmage,” the finder knows he has unearthed a precious jewel. He would not otherwise take the pearl to a jeweller saying “I think it fine,” « Je la crois fine ». La Fontaine’s translator also writes that the cock scratched up “a pearl of purest ray” and he refers to the jeweller as a beau premier Lapidaire, i.e. someone the cock does not know or someone who was not recommended to him. La Fontaine then resets his narrative using a mirror-image esthetics or “double image” (“The Woodman and Mercury” [V.1]).
The Second Exemplum
In the second image, a “dunce,” now a man, finds a “manuscript of merit,” takes it to a bookstore and leaves it there in exchange for a gold coin. The word “dunce” is derived from the name of John Duns Scotus[ii] (c. 1266 – 8 November 1308) and, by calling someone a “dunce,” un ignorant or ignoramus, La Fontaine himself provides his fable with an interpretation. The fable is about a dunce or un ignorant. Consequently, although the moral is not summed up in a sentence judiciously placed at the end or beginning of the fable, in “The Cock and the Pearl,” the protagonist of the moral, a cock or a man, is un ignorant or a dunce.
Yet, the “The Cock and the Pearl” invites other interpretations, but the use of the word “dunce” (un ignorant, or ignoramus) could say it all, or almost. Fables may be very unkind to humans who often deserve a lesson or two.“The Cock and Pearl,” by Arthur Rackham (1912) (Photo credit: Gutenberg [eBook #11339]) Wenceslaus Hollar, illustrator
The Ysopet-Avionnet: a Grammar Textbook
Phædrus and Babrius: two traditions of fables
However, in the Middle Ages, “The Cock and the Jewel” was the first fable of a widely-used grammar book. (See “The Cock and The Jewel,” Wikipedia). In France, this grammar book was called the Ysopet-Avionnet,[i] which suggests a combination of the two traditions of Æsopic fables: the Latin tradition and the Greek. At one point, it was believed the word ‘Ysopet’ [a diminutive of Ésope] stood for the Latin tradition and that the word ‘Avionnet’ [also a diminutive] referred to Avianus’ popular collection of 42 fables written in Latin, but substantially rooted in the Greek tradition, Babrius’ fables. According to the presentation page of the online Ysopet-Avionnet (please click on the Ysopet-Avionnet) I have used, “[t]he title Ysopet-Avionnet was originally given to the fables of Avianus alone.”
However, because the Ysopet-Avionnet contained and still contains 64 Æsopic fables, translated by “Romulus,” and 18, translated by Avian or Flavius Avianus, there had to be a Romulus or a person using the name Romulus as a pseudonym. It would appear, however, that the fables contained in the Ysopet-Avionnet are rooted in both the Latin tradition, the fables of Phædrus (c. 15 BC – c. 50 AD), and the Greek tradition, the fables of Babrius (c. 2nd Century CE).
Avianus lived in the 5th century CE, the 400s. His collection of 42 fables, translated into Latin, proved a success. Famed English printer and translator William Caxton (ca. 1415~1422– ca. March 1492) printed Avianus’ 42 fables in the 15th century (1484) and then translated them into English naming his collection The Fables of Avian.Le Coq et la Perle Un jour un Coq détourna Une Perle, qu’il donna Au beau premier Lapidaire. “ Je la crois fine, dit-il ; Mais le moindre grain de mil Serait bien mieux mon affaire.” Un ignorant hérita D’un manuscrit, qu’il porta Chez son voisin le Libraire. “Je crois, dit-il, qu’il est bon ; Mais le moindre ducaton Serait bien mieux mon affaire.” (Photo credit: Gutenberg [EBook #18732])
“The Cock and the Jewel” is the first fable of the Ysopet-Avionnet where it is entitled “Du coc et de l’esmeraude” (“The Cock and the Emerald”), in old French, and “De Gallo et Iaspide,” in Latin. “The Cock and the Emerald” most certainly owes some of its prominence to its being the opening fable in a widely-used textbook. The Ysopet-Avionnet can be read online (please click on the title) but the jewel is an emerald rather than a pearl and the fable entitled “Du coc et de l’esmeraude,” “The Cock and the Emerald” (“De Gallo et Iaspide”). Therefore, the pearl is a function and so is the cock himself. In other words, the pearl’s role could be played by any precious jewel. As for the cock, La Fontaine transforms him into a human being before our very eyes.
“Du coc et de l’esmeraude:” The Moral
More importantly, however, “Du coc et de l’esmeraude” has a moral. Unlike more modern translations of Æsop’s fables, “Du coc et de l’esmeraude” does not present a riddle. It has in fact a long moral according to which the stone, the emerald, means wisdom and the cock, folly. The fool is foreover a fool and he cannot stay still. Fools have no stability, or fermeté. The online edition I have used is dated 1919, and is based on three manuscripts of the 14th century (Brussels, Bibl. roy. 11193; Brit. mus. Add. 33781; Paris, Bibl. nat. fonds franç. 1594). It was edited by Kenneth McKenzie and A. Oldfather and published by the University of Illinois. However, the French is old French. (See Ysopet-Avionnet.)
Jean de La Fontaine
Which takes us back to La Fontaine. The moral of his “Cock and Pearl” is somewhat veiled, but thinly so. As noted above, the finder goes to the beau premier Lapidaire (jeweller) and is called un ignorant (ignoramus). He is a “dunce,” in an English translation. Fables being anthropomorphic, i.e. humans in disguise, the “dunce” fares poorly among humans. If such persons can settle for a “crumb of bread,” they are unlikely to choose a good leader or a good spouse. As well, it would also be difficult for a “dunce” to tell right from wrong. Dunces may, in fact, be so foolish as to believe they are harming others when they are harming themselves. To La Fontaine’s “double image,” or two exempla, we could add a third or a fourth exemplum. But the moral of the fable would always be that fools are fools and will forever remain fools. Other fabulists have offered different interpretations, but it could well be that “The Cock and the Pearl” is about human folly and fools. Fools cannot see the intrinsic value of an object or human being.
Other fabulists include John Lydgate‘s (c.1410), Samuel Croxall (1722), John Ogilby (1665) Wenceslaus Hollar (17th century), Robert Henryson (The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian [Greece], c. 1480), William Caxton (1484), etc.
Marie de France
“The Cock and the Pearl” is also the first fable of Marie de France‘s (1160-1210) famous collection, where “The Cock and the Pearl” is entitled “Del cok e de la gemme” (“The Cock and the Gem”). Normandy-born Marie de France lived in England. She will be discussed in a later post. However, in closing, I should point out that according to Wikipedia’s entry on “The Cock and the Jewel,” this fable can be compared to Zen Buddism‘s kōan, a story, dialogue, question, or statement, that may provoke “great doubt.” (See kōan, Wikipedia.) I must end this post as it is already far too long. However, I will first provide the English translation, by Harriet Spiegel,[iii] of Marie de France’s moral for “Del cok e de la gemme.” True to anthropomorphism, the moral begins with a “Many people are like this…”
The Cock and the GemMany people are like this When something does or suit their wish. What for the cock and gem is true We’ve seen with men and women too: They neither good nor honour Prize; The worst they seize; the best, despise. Marie de France, illuminated manuscript (Photo credit: Wikipedia) (Please click on the image to enlarge it.) _________________________ [i] The Ysopet-Avionnet is available in English, from Amazon.France [ii] “He was known as “Doctor Subtilis” because of the subtle distinctions and nuances of his thinking. Later philosophers in the sixteenth century were less complimentary about his work, and accused him of sophistry. This led to his name, “dunce” (which developed from the name “Dunse” given to his followers in the 1500s) to become synonymous for ‘somebody who is incapable of scholarship’.” (See Duns Scotus, Wikipedia.) [iii] Harriet Spiegel, editor and translator, Marie de France, Fables (Toronto: the University of Toronto Press, 2000 ), pp. 31-32.
- The Fox and Crane, or Stork
- “Le Chêne et le Roseau” (The Oak and the Reed): the Moral
- La Fontaine’s Fables Compiled & Walter Crane
Sources and ResourcesYsopet-Avionnet http://archive.org/details/ysopetavionnetla00aeso http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/index.htm http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/perry/503.htm Perry Index 1. Le Coq et la Perle S. Vernon Jones, (tr) G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Rackham (ill) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11339/11339-h/11339- [EBook #11339] 3. George Fyler Townsend, translator http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21/21-h/21-h.htm#link2H_4_0008 [EBook #21] 4. Harrison Weir, John Tenniel and Ernest Griset, illustrators http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18732/18732-h/18732-h.htm [EBook #18732] 5. The Æsop for Children, Milo Winter, illustrator http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19994/19994-h/19994-h.htm http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19994/19994-h/19994-h.htm#Page_39 [EBook #19994] 6. The Baby’s Own Æsop, Walter Crane, illustrator http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25433/25433-h/25433-h.htm http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25433/25433-h/25433-h.htm#Page_10 [EBook #25433] Le Coq et la Perle Un jour un Coq détourna Une Perle, qu’il donna Au beau premier Lapidaire. “ Je la crois fine, dit-il ; Mais le moindre grain de mil Serait bien mieux mon affaire. ” Un ignorant hérita D’un manuscrit, qu’il porta Chez son voisin le Libraire. “ Je crois, dit-il, qu’il est bon ; Mais le moindre ducaton Serait bien mieux mon affaire. ” (Photo credit Gutenberg [EBook #18732])
Le Chant des oiseaux – Clément Janequin (c. 1485 – 1558)© Micheline Walker 10 October 2013 WordPress “The Cock and Jewel” by Wenceslaus Hollar (Please click on the image to enlarge it.)