This book contains a life of Aesop and his numerous fables, translated and printed by William Caxton in 1484.
Who was Aesop?
Aesop was a slave in ancient Greece, who lived from about 620–560 BCE. Some sources give his country of birth as Greece, some say he was from Ethiopia (his name Aesop bears a similarity to the Greek word for Ethiopia – 'Aethiop'). We do know that he was a slave on the Greek Island of Samos, but was later freed by his master.
Aesop is most famous as a storyteller who compiled fables. He was not necessarily the author of the fables – many were handed down through oral tradition.
What are the fables about?
All of Aesop's fables contain a lesson or a moral of some sort. Although they are popular with children, and make good moral teaching aids, they weren’t originally intended for children at all! They are believed to be social criticism of the politics of the time.
Most of the fables are about animals, although not all of them. One of the most famous non-animal fable is about ‘the belly and the members’ (the hands and feet). In the fable, the hands and feet get angry that they work hard to get the food that the belly eats without getting anything in return. They decide to stop providing food for the belly and let him starve. They soon find that they in turn are weakened, but it is too late: the woodcut shows an emaciated man so weakened with hunger that he is lying on the ground.
An example of one of the animal tales is the fable of ‘the fox and of the stork’. The fable opens with the lines: ‘Thou ought not to do to others that which thou would not that men should do to thee’. It tells the story of a mischievous fox who invites a stork to dinner only to serve food in large shallow dishes. The stork, with his long beak, is unable to eat. He leaves disgruntled and hungry, but returns the favour and asks the fox to dinner. The stork serves his food in long-necked containers, making it impossible for the fox to eat. He has his revenge: ‘he that beguiles others / is often beguiled himself’.
Aesop’s Fables in print
Aesop's Fables were among the first illustrated books to be printed. The earliest known example was published in Bamberg, Germany, in 1461.
They were first published in in English by William Caxton in 1484. Caxton had introduced the printing press to Britain just eight years earlier. He translated the fables into English from French translation by Julien Macho, printed by J Rousset in 1482. Caxton’s woodcut illustrations also follow Rousset’s.