Little Bits of History

Aesop’s Fables in English

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 26, 2015
William Caxton imprineur

William Caxton imprint *

March 26, 1484: Aesop’s Fables are printed in English for the first time. William Caxton was an English merchant, diplomat, writer, and printer. He is said to have introduced the printing press into England in 1476. He was also the first Englishman bookseller; all his contemporaries were either Flemish, German, or French. His place of birth is uncertain as is the time, but it is assumed to have been around 1415. In the preface of his first printed work, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, he said he was born and educated in the Weald of Kent. He was in London by 1438 and apprenticed to Robert Large, a wealthy dealer in luxury goods and Lord Mayor of London. Large died in 1441 and left Caxton £20, which was less than other apprentices, so it is assumed Caxton was still a junior apprentice at that time.

Caxton settled in Bruges by 1450 and was successful in business there. He became governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London and in that capacity traveled to Burgundy and became a member of the household of Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy. Margaret was the third wife of Charles the Bold and sister to two British Kings. Caxton was able to travel more extensively and was impressed by German printing and aware of the influence of printed material. He set up his first press in Bruges and printed his first book there. The translation of the Troye book was done by Caxton himself. He came back to England and set up a press at Westminster in 1476. His first book printed in England was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

His printing of Aesop’s Fables on this day was the first time the tales had been translated into English and again it was his own translation. Many other editions would follow over the centuries with some in prose and some written in verse. The fables or Aesopica are credited to the slave named Aesop. He is believed to have lived in Greece between 620 and 560 BC. The stories associated with his name are of diverse origins. They continue to be reinterpreted as they are translated. There is some historical reference to the slave/author by the Greek historian Herodotus as well Apollonius of Tyana, a 1st-century AD philosopher, among others.

The fables have been, even since classical times, differentiated from other narratives. The fables must be short and unaffected. They also must be fictitious and have useful insight into life. While they had to be true to nature, there were often talking animals and plants. In very few of the stories do humans interact only with humans. After the short story is told, the moral is given at the end, reinforcing the idea of the tale. The context would often help guide the story’s interpretation. Some of the titles, such as the “Goose that Laid the Golden Egg,” have become proverbs in their own right. Sometimes, a story seems to have been invented to help illustrate and even older proverb. It remains a mystery as to how the tales managed to survive the millennia, but they have managed to be translated into every language now.

Aesopian language was used by all of us. And of course, using this language meant having readers who understood it. – Ryszard Kapuscinski

It is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Hares have no time to read. – Anita Brookner

Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder. – Thomas Aquinas

Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men. – Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Also on this day: Stella! – In 1911, Tennessee Williams was born.
Cruising Legally – In 1934, Britain began testing drivers.
Dr. Death – In 1999, Dr. Kevorkian was found guilty of second degree murder.
Mother Ship – In 1997, the Heaven’s Gate suicides were discovered.
Inspired Writing – In 1830, the Book of Mormon was published.

* Picture by Djembayz