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Isopes Fabules: Introduction

1 Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 22.

2 Pearsall, John Lydgate, pp. 192–93. Pearsall points out that Shirley attaches his rubric to the only fable that appears in the Ashmole Manuscript, “The Hound and the Cheese,” which is the shortest and simplest of the seven. Therefore it is possible that the lengthier, more ambitious fables in the two more complete manuscripts could have been written later elsewhere.

3 Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 29.

4 Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 32.

5 Pearsall, John Lydgate, pp. 29–30.

6 Norton-Smith, John Lydgate: Poems, p. 195, n. 1.

7 Lydgate uses the word suffisaunce five times in the collection; he introduces the concept in the Prologue (line 53) and it appears in three fables (lines 221, 404, 466, 952). The poet also uses the verb to suffice in The Marriage of the Sun (lines 897, 902) but it does not have particularly virtuous connotations there.

8 Tyranny and tyrant appear thirteen times in three fables (lines 435, 803, 806, 815, 830, 836, 840, 841, 848, 902, 906, 920, 930). It also appears in the title of the Tale of the Wolfe and the Lamb in the Trinity manuscript and in the postscript of The Marriage of the Sun in the Harley manuscript.

9 See, for example, Saul, Richard II, p. 203.

10 In “Of the Sodein Fal of Princes in Oure Dayes,” Lydgate writes that “yvel counseyle” rules Richard, who was dethroned “[f]or mys-treting lordes of his monarchye” (MacCraken, Minor Poems, p. 660, lines 12–13). In his second redaction of “The Kings of England sithen William Conqueror,” Lydgate mentions the Uprising of 1381 and then Richard’s executions of Gloucester and Arundel, again through “evyll counseill” (MacCracken, p. 721, lines 139–44).

In Poetry of John Lydgate, Alain Renoir states that Isopes Fabules “is believed to have been completed before 1400" (p. 53), though he does not mention who believes this.

12 Sauerstein, Über Lydgate’s Aesopübersetzung, pp. 1–5, 26–30.

13 Wheatley, Mastering Aesop, pp. 34–51.

14 Wheatley, Mastering Aesop, pp. 3–4.

15 Wheatley, Mastering Aesop, p. 89.

16 Fable 29, “The Wolf King,” is the longest, with Fable 73, “The Peasant and the Snake,” reaching 116 lines.

17 The most influential grammarian to espouse amplificatio was Priscian, whose Praeexercitamina gives detailed examples of the process. See Wheatley, Mastering Aesop, pp. 35–37.

18 See, for example, The Man of Law’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale, and The Prioress’s Tale.

19 Mooney, “Scribes and Booklets,” p. 241, 252. Mooney also suggests the possibility that Stow may have compiled and owned the manuscript (p. 266).

20 MacCracken, Minor Poems, p. 575.

21 Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 193. Pearsall mistakenly thought that both of these manuscripts were complete; the incompletness of the Trinity manuscript makes his assertion even more persuasive.

22 For a comprehensive study of Shirley’s life and work, see Connolly, John Shirley: Book Production; for a brief consideration of Shirley’s copies of some of Lydgate’s works, see Sponsler, John Lydgate: Mummings and Entertainments.

23 Pearsall, John Lydgate, p. 74.

Isopes Fabules by John Lydgate appears to be the unfinished work of a relatively young writer, but the short collection also shows a poet who challenges himself by bringing together his knowledge of vernacular fable, Latin scholastic practice, and the most demanding stanzaic form used by his poetic model, Geoffrey Chaucer. Although the work is not consistently aesthetically successful, it is useful for what it shows readers about how a medieval English poet might begin to synthesize various literary elements and traditions — continental and insular, scholarly and popular, pagan and Christian — to contribute to the burgeoning corpus of Middle English literature by attempting the first fable collection in English.


It is generally accepted that Lydgate was born around 1370, and as he writes in Isopes Fabules, he was born in Lydgate, a village in Suffolk near the Cambridgeshire border; like most monks, he took the name of his birthplace as his surname. By about 1382 he had joined the powerful Benedictine abbey at Bury St. Edmunds.1 He moved through his novitiate rapidly and was ordained as a subdeacon in 1389.

If we are to trust John Shirley, the scribe who wrote MS Ashmole 59 at or near the end of Lydgate’s life, then the poet was at Oxford when he wrote the fables.2 Apparently he was not there as a fully matriculated student, but he was associated with Gloucester College, which belonged to the Benedictines and was closely connected with Bury St. Edmunds. Lydgate’s biographer Derek Pearsall regards the poet’s time at Oxford as formative, giving him “the use of one’s own room and books, the ability to dispose one’s own work and time and to meet and make friends. . . . It is to his sojourn at Oxford that we may attribute some of the breadth of Lydgate’s secular reference.”3 That breadth of reference certainly owed a great deal to the university’s library of over 2,000 volumes.4 His Oxford years also offered him the opportunity to meet and befriend young men who would later occupy positions of considerable power. One of them was probably the future Henry V, who as Prince of Wales in 1406 wrote a letter to Richard Courtney, chancellor of Oxford, asking that Lydgate be allowed to stay at the university because of the excellent work he was doing there.5 So Lydgate’s time at Oxford may have laid the groundwork for his later connection to the Henrician court.

But when was Lydgate at Oxford? Isopes Fabules may offer clues that he was there before 1400, which would accord with the assertion of J. Norton-Smith that he began his time there in 1397, while Richard II was on the throne.6

Lydgate’s major thematic concerns in his fable collection are the Boethian concept of suffisaunce, a virtue whereby each individual eschews materialism and remains content with only the necessities of life, and tyranny, a vice that belongs to individuals in power but infects the larger social body. That Lydgate would praise suffisaunce is hardly surprising: not only is it a virtue that readers of his fables could easily understand and apply to their lives but it was also a quality that should be paramount to members of monastic communities like Lydgate.7 The poet’s reason for focusing on tyranny is far less obvious.8 None of Lydgate’s possible source texts (discussed below) highlights tyranny per se; rather, they discuss abuses that the powerful visit upon the powerless in more generalized, broadly applicable terms. So it is possible that Lydgate chose to emphasize tyranny due to his dislike of Richard II, whom he could allude to but not name. Even modern historians refer to the period between 1397 and Richard’s dethronement, the years that Norton-Smith believes were Lydgate’s earliest at Oxford, as his “tyranny.”9 It is clear from two later poems that Lydgate thought poorly of Richard II, which is not surprising inasmuch as he was writing for — and in praise of — the Henrician court after 1400;10 however, the evidence presented here suggests that the poet may have been critical of Richard while he was still on the throne.11


Isopes Fabules is partly drawn from the Fables of the late twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poet Marie de France, as has been generally accepted since the late nineteenth-century dissertation of Paul Sauerstein, who tabulated a number of close correspondences between Marie’s text and Lydgate’s translation.12 Like most medieval writers who translated or otherwise adapted earlier literature, Marie takes pains to give her readers the genealogy of the fables that she presents: They were translated by the mythical Roman emperor Romulus for his son, and earlier Aesop (who in some strains of Aesopic literature is a slave) had written them for his master. These attributions give the genre of fable a certain degree of authority, but Marie does not stop there: she claims to be translating an English fable collection that had been translated from the Latin by none other than King Alfred, and she adds that she is undertaking the project at the behest of a certain Count William (“le cunte Willame”), although he has not been conclusively identified. So as a writer in the Anglo-Norman courtly milieu, Marie could make use of several strategies, both historical and contemporary, to ensure that her readers credited her work with the authority that she believed it deserved.

Lydgate occupied a far less privileged position when he wrote his fables if we are correct in the assumption that he was relatively young and at Oxford at the time. But whether at Bury St. Edmunds, Oxford, or elsewhere, he would have had no use for Marie’s courtly, even imperious appeals to authority in her prologue, so he deploys an approach that is far better suited to the monastic or scholarly community: he situates the vernacular fables in their scholastic setting, revising and amplifying them according to curricular conventions that would have been familiar to many if not all of his readers. In doing so he obfuscates his actual source text but opens up a substantial – indeed, an almost limitless – field of texts from which he can draw to flesh out and comment upon the fables that he retells.

Various collections of fables had been curricular texts for centuries by the time Lydgate was born,13 and in the fourteenth century the canonical collection was sixty fables written in elegiac Latin couplets. The collection has been attributed to a number of different writers and called by names having to do with its history of publication, but the name most often associated with it is Gualterus Anglicus (Walter of England), a chaplain in the court of Henry II who evidently wrote the collection specifically as a curricular text. It enjoyed a long history in the classroom, from its creation in the twelfth century through the advent of printing in the fifteenth century. It survives in more than 170 medieval manuscripts and was printed in five countries at least fifty times before 1500, both on its own and in a compilation of the eight most important grammar school texts, the Auctores octo (Eight Authors).14 Beginning with the so-called twelfth-century Renaissance, numerous pagan texts acquired scholastic commentary which was meant to enhance their ethical import by connecting them with other ethical authorities, both scriptural or classical. Often these citations of auctoritates (authoritative quotations) took the form of proverbs, a form well-suited to the genre of fable which itself relied on proverbial morals to communicate its ethical message.15

Like most of his educated contemporaries Lydgate would probably have studied the fables of Gualterus Anglicus as a schoolboy, and this probability is heightened by the strong resemblance between his method of revising Marie’s fables and some of the common forms of scholastic commentary used in classroom instruction. Marie’s fables are generally quite short, the longest reaching 122 lines (and only one of the other 102 fables is over 100 lines long);16 the majority of the fables are under 50 lines. Furthermore, in comparison to Lydgate’s decasyllabic lines, her octosyllabic ones make the fables even shorter. Lydgate’s fables are much longer, averaging about 130 lines each (and that number takes into account the uncharacteristically brief “The Hound and the Cheese,” which, at only 28 lines, reaches just a third of the length of the next shortest fable). The practice of lengthening fables by enriching details, dialogue, and other elements, which was suggested by classical grammarians and taught in medieval grammar schools, was called amplificatio.17 In some scholastic commentaries on Latin curricular fables, prose plot summaries of the syntactically difficult Latin verse are given, and these offer the commentators the opportunity to “amplify” the fables through imaginative engagement with and embellishment of the original texts; Lydgate, who generally did not shy away from prolixity, happily embraces this practice in Isopes Fabules. Lydgate’s fables also contrast Marie’s due to his love of allusions to the mythological figures, classical philosophers, writers of scripture, and even medieval theologians. Marie seems content with a relatively simple rhetorical style that is conventional for fable (and perhaps it is worth noting that the scholastic commentary tradition applied to fables had hardly begun to develop when Marie was writing). Lydgate, on the other hand, embellishes most of his fables with allusions and proverbial auctoritates that would not have been out of place in the medieval classroom.

But while medieval education offered models for Lydgate’s project, so did his poetic model, Chaucer. Given Lydgate’s knowledge — and adulation — of his literary predecessor, it seems highly likely that he would have known Chaucer’s great beast fable, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. It is so laden with auctoritates, voiced by not only the Nun’s Priest as narrator but also animals in the fable, that it becomes a veritable compendium of proverbial knowledge, a morass of moral messages that compete for the reader’s attention. What Lydgate either failed to realize or was unable to emulate was that Chaucer’s wise animals give his tale its unique satirical humor; when Chauntecleer trots out multiple exempla to counter his wife’s exhortation to ignore his dream of a fox, Chaucer is satirizing not only the self-important rooster who recounts them but also scholastic disputation itself. In contrast, when Lydgate’s mouse plays host to the evil frog, he mentions Midas, Solomon, Diogenes, and Priam as exemplars of certain philosophies or types of behavior that merit serious (which in this case is to say humorless) attention.

In keeping with the rhetorical high style that he chose for his fable collection, Lydgate also wrote it in Chaucer’s most elevated stanzaic form, rhyme royal. The rhyme scheme, ababbcc, is basically two interlocking quatrains, one with alternating rhyme and the other comprising two rhymed couplets, with the “b” rhyme in the fourth line playing a part in both. In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer reserved this stanzaic form for his tales of greatest pathos,18 and he also used it for Troilus and Criseyde. While some might argue that it is a pretentious choice for a collection of beast fables, Lydgate clearly considered his fabular project one of high seriousness, addressing as it does the major themes of cruel tyranny versus virtuous suffisaunce.


Isopes Fabules appears in three medieval manuscripts, though only one of them contains all seven fables. British Library MS Harley 2251 is the sole surviving copy to include all of the fables, but unfortunately its anonymous scribe either copied from a poor exemplar or did not understand the basic decasyllabic line used in the collection: he tends to add words to make lines longer, a problem particularly noticeable in “The Frog and the Mouse.” And even this manuscript is not entirely complete, as it is missing a leaf that deprives it of lines 267–322.

A copy of six of the fables is in Trinity College Cambridge MS R.3.19. The prologue and first four fables in this manuscript appear on fols. 12–16, copied between 1460 and 1490 by a scribe responsible for copying most of the texts in this largely secular compilation of poetry. The last two fables, How the Wollffe Diseyvyd the Crane and The Hound that Bare the Chese on fols. 236–37 were copied by the sixteenth-century antiquarian John Stow.19 Stow evidently knew the Harley manuscript because he added five missing lines (262–66) to its copy of the Tale of the Wolfe and the Lambe; Lydgate’s twentieth-century editor H. N. MacCracken suggests that the lines were copied from the Trinity manuscript.20 It seems likely that Stow came across the Harley manuscript after having made his copy, because The Marriage of the Sun is missing from his manuscript, but he would probably have included it if he had been aware of its existence. At any rate, the separation of the two parts of the collection in the Trinity manuscript serves to highlight the fact that those two final fables, both among Lydgate’s shortest and simplest, differ from the other five in being devoid of classical allusions and proverbial auctoritates (except for the mention of Aesop himself in both of them). This unexpected pair raises interesting though probably unanswerable questions about Lydgate’s modus operandi in writing the fables. If we assume that he was making his way more or less consecutively through Marie’s fables (and the first four fables in the Trinity manuscript follow her order), why would he have begun his collection with rather ambitious scholastic-style amplification resulting in an impressive range of intertextual references, only to shift to a plainer, less intellectually challenging style for the later ones, all while maintaining the highly wrought rhyme royal stanzaic form? Such inconsistency might well make readers think that “the Fabules were a task that Lydgate returned to at odd times, and their unity in the two . . . manuscripts is scribal.”21

The Hound that Bare the Chese is the sole fable in Bodleian MS Ashmole 59. It was copied by London scribe John Shirley when he was ninety years old in 1455 or the following year.22 This manuscript, like the other two codices of Lydgate’s works that Shirley copied earlier in his life, has been called a commonplace book that includes a variety of materials appealing to fifteenth-century tastes.23 It seems very likely that Shirley had no intention of copying more than one fable into the book, and perhaps he chose Lydgate’s shortest, simplest fable because as an unadorned representative of its genre it did not require the scholastic contextualization that some of the more allusion-filled fables might.


In keeping with TEAMS Middle English Texts style, medieval spelling had been modified: spelling variants that might confuse modern readers such as the lack of differentiation between i/j and u/v/w have been modernized; the runic thorn þ has been replaced by th, and yogh 3 (sometimes transcribed as y in the manuscripts) as its modern equivalent, usually g. When a final -e requires pronunciation, it appears as é, e.g., destiné. When the second-person pronoun is spelled the in the manuscripts, it has been lengthened to thee to avoid confusion. Ampersands have been converted to the word and, and other suspension marks and abbreviations have been expanded and fully spelled out. Capitalization, word division, and punctuation follow modern conventions.