Fables


Fables
   by Marie de France
(ca. 1160–1215)
   Although currently less popular than her LAIS, particularly her well-known LANVAL, the Fables of MARIE DE FRANCE were her best-known work in the Middle Ages, with some 25 extant manuscripts dating from the 13th through 15th centuries. This collection of 102 fables—short didactic narratives ending with explicit moral lessons in the manner of Aesop—is the first such collection surviving in a vernacular European language. In her 40-line prologue, Marie claims that Aesop translated his fables from Greek into Latin for King Romulus, who intended them for the edification of his young son.
   In her 20-line epilogue, she reveals that she has translated the fables into French from an earlier English version by King Alfred. She says that (like Aesop) she is making the translation at the behest of a noble patron, one Count William (a claim that has led some critics to suggest that the collection was intended as a “mirror for princes,” such as, for example, Thomas HOCCLEVE’s 15th-century Regiment of Princes).Marie also asserts in the epilogue her own authorship for the fables, ending the whole collection with a moral to the effect that “only a fool will allow himself to be forgotten.” There is no evidence that King ALFRED THE GREAT ever produced a collection of fables (though a number of PROVERBS were attributed to him), so that allusion is puzzling. It appears that 40 of Marie’s fables were translated from the fourth-century Latin text known as Romulus Nilantinus, but the remainder of the fables are gathered from a variety of other sources, including Arabic collections, and it appears that Marie was the first to present the collection in this particular form. The majority of Marie’s fables—about 60 of them—use human-like animals as the sole characters, and in a manner that recalls the popular ROMAN DE RENART cycle,Marie’s beasts inhabit a feudal society, in which the Lion is the king—though sometimes greedy and prideful. The Wolf is presented as a breaker of oaths, and the Fox as a trickster who, in Fable 60, is outsmarted by a Cock in a story that may have been one of the sources for CHAUCER’s NUN’S PRIEST’S TALE. In about 20 other tales, human beings relate to talking animals in the narratives, while 18 of the fables contain only human characters. There is even one fable in which the characters are all inanimate objects that interact with one another.
   Marie relates her fables in witty octosyllabic (eight-syllable) couplets, and they range in length from a scant 10 lines to more than 100.Most of the tales are between 20 and 60 lines long. Marie frames her Fables with two stories (Fable 1 and Fable 102) in both of which the protagonists fail to take advantage of something offered to them: in the first, a cock ignores a precious stone that he finds in his barnyard; in the last, a hen spurns the food given her by a woman. It is as if Marie frames her collection with a warning that the wisdom offered by these fables must be recognized as valuable by the readers, or it will go to waste.
   Fables were in general popular texts in medieval education, and Marie succeeds in making them available to a more vernacular audience, including women like herself. Indeed, critics have noted how sensitive Marie is to the gender of her animal characters, such as a pregnant sow in one fable or a raped she-bear in another. She even softens the antifeminist morals of some traditional fables, as when she shows sympathy for the usually maligned and inconstant Widow of Ephesus (Kruger 2003, 178). Taken as a whole, the Fables do not give a single simple formula for moral living, but reflect a more complex and thoughtful morality. In general, though, they do reflect the feudal ethos of the 12th century, condemning oath-breaking, bad masters, greed, pride, envy, and the self-seeking of members of the nobility.
   Bibliography
   ■ Jambeck, Karen. “The Fables of Marie de France: A Mirror of Princes.” In In Quest of Marie de France, a Twelfth-Century Poet, edited by Chantal E. Maréchal, 59–106. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.
   ■ Kruger, Roberta L. “Marie de France.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, edited by Carolyn Dinshaw and David Wallace, 172–183. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
   ■ Marie de France. Les Fables. Edited and translated by Charles Bruckner. 2nd ed. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters, 1998.
   ■ Mickel, Emanuel J., Jr. Marie de France. New York: Twayne, 1974.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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