Universal Wisdom in Medieval Fable Literature

We thank Albrecht Classen for his extremely interesting and thought-provoking discussion on fables and how these have enjoyed universal popularity. Professor Classen’s most recent publication Charlemagne in Medieval German and Dutch Literature, which looks at the legend of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne through critically analysing how this myth emerged and developed in medieval German and Dutch literature, was published earlier this year and is part of the Bristol Studies in Medieval Cultures series.

Our world is characterized by a huge number of very different languages (ca. 6000) and countless dialects, and each of them represents a unique culture. How would we thus ever be able to overcome tensions, conflicts, hostilities, and wars, if we cannot even understand each other on a very basic level? But we do, surprisingly, across languages and despite so many political and military confrontations, especially because there are universally accepted ethical standards, as perhaps best formulated, for instance, in the Ten Commandments, by Confucius’s teachings, the Qur’anic verses, the New Testament, and ancient Sanskrit text. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” holds true throughout the ages and by virtually all people here on earth. Murder, theft, physical and mental violence, treason, deception, rape, lying, and many other sins and evil deeds are equally condemned in Asian or in African countries, for example, irrespective of smaller variances here and there conditioned by individual religious or ideological criteria.

In general, however, humankind has survived already for a very long time because there are those collectively shared and deeply held values and ideals. Ethics and morality are of global relevance, despite the constant problem with criminality. Understandably, every ideal or norm faces the perpetual challenge of being transgressed, which easily explains why there are laws, police, courts, and prisons in every country of this world.

In response to that phenomenon, poets from throughout time have engaged with those countless major or minor infractions by resorting to one literary genre, above all, the fable, which has truly enjoyed universal popularity. Even though many people especially in the West today regard fables as didactic stories for children, we would badly misunderstand that genre if we limited our perception so myopically. Fables were composed in ancient and medieval Europe, in early modern Japan and China, in Africa, South America, in Canada or in Australia, both in the tenth and in the twentieth century. Some of the greatest authors have tried their hand at fables although the largest number of them has come down to us anonymously. As this wealth of literary documents confirms, talking about basic human shortcomings through topical animals (lion, fox, bear, wolf, crow, peacock, ass) or birds (duck, goose, eagle, nightingale) allows for critical reflections concerning sinfulness, evilness, weakness of character, selfishness, and greed, for instance.

Two of the most important medieval fable authors, who in turn drew from ancient sources (Aesop), were the Anglo-Norman poet Marie de France (ca. 1200) and the Swiss-German Dominican writer Ulrich Bonerius (ca. 1350). The former has been studied already for a long time, whereas the latter has remained unknown pretty much outside of the German-speaking world until my English translation appeared in print in 2020 (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing), which finally makes his 100 fables accessible to a global audience once again.

Bonerius was extremely popular with his fables, as documented by thirty-six manuscripts and two incunabula containing his work. Nevertheless, he mostly disappeared from public view since the early sixteenth century, until he was rediscovered at the end of the eighteenth century by German Enlightenment philologists, such as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. There are many good reasons to appreciate Bonerius’s fables because they express, very similar to those by Marie and many other medieval poets, timeless messages, such as pertaining to false friendship, giving of false oaths, the fakeness of physical beauty, regarding the lack of foresight and planning for the future, hypocrisy, lack of constancy and loyalty, arrogance, false fame, mockery, treason, narcissism, envy and hatred. Unfortunately, none of those evil features have disappeared from our modern life, if they do not even make their impact more noticeable today than in the past. The messages or lessons contained in Bonerius’s fables are often quite the same as in those by his predecessors, a typical feature of medieval literature.

One example, however, deserves closer attention because it undermines many of our modern notions about the medieval past. In the fable of the dog and the wolf (no. 59), the latter finds the dog’s pleasant life quite attractive and would like to profit from that as well. But when he realizes that all that good food is paid for with the dog’s servitude, the wolf quickly disappears. Freedom is of highest value for him.

Medieval fables like those by Bonerius prove to be of timeless value and deserve to be studied today as well; they contain many kernels of universal wisdom and expose people’s many shortcomings and failures. Although composed around 1350, this Swiss poet deserves high recognition for his profound understanding of people’s behavior, weaknesses, and failures, and his fables prove to be astoundingly insightful and instructive globally, and this very much for us today as well.

This guest post was written by Albrecht Classen, University Distinguished Professor of German Studies at the University of Arizona; he received the title of Grand Knight Commander of the Most Noble Order of the Three Lions in 2017, in recognition of his outstanding service to German studies.

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