This book contains a life of Aesop and his numerous fables, translated and printed by William Caxton in 1484 and illustrated with woodcuts. Caxton had introduced the printing press to Britain just eight years earlier. Caxton translated the fables into English from a near contemporary French translation by Julien Macho, printed by J Rousset in 1482. Caxton’s illustrations also follow Rousset’s.

The fable of ‘the belly and the members’

Shown here is the fable of ‘the belly and the members’, in a section with the subheading: ‘The xvi fable maketh mencion of the hondes / of the feet / & of the mans bely’. It illustrates the question: ‘How shalle one do ony good to another / the which can doo no good to his owne self’. (NB Caxton uses the virgule ‘/’ to punctuate his text, which contains no other punctuation marks.)

In the fable, the hands and feet get angry that they work hard to procure food that the belly eats without seeming to do any good 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.

Caxton expounds the moral: ‘wherfore a seruaunt ought to serue wel his mayster / to th ends that his mayster hold and kepe hym honestly / and to receyue and haue good reward of hym / when his mayster shalle see his feythfulnesse’.

Caxton’s Aesop was reprinted around ten times before 1596, and so his version of the belly fable, which appears in Coriolanus, would have been one of the best-known versions to Shakespeare’s audience.

Aesop’s Fables and Ben Jonson’s Volpone

Like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson would have been familiar with the stories in Aesop’s Fables and the generic convention of the animal fable. In order to add a moral element to his comedy Volpone (1607), Jonson linked the main characters to animals in Aesop’s Fables.
Translated from Italian, the characters’ names mean:

Volpone: fox

Corbaccio: crow

Corvino: raven

Voltore: vulture

Mosca: fly

The fable of ‘the raven and the fox’

A crafty fox spies a raven with a piece of cheese perched high in a tree, and uses his wits to steal the food.

He calls up to the raven ‘O gentle raven thou art the fairest bird of all other birds’. buts adds that ‘if thou had the voice clear and small thou should be the most happy of all the birds’. Believing the fox’s flattery, and wanting to show off further, the raven opens his mouth to sing and drops the cheese.

The fox wins his prize through a combination of cunning and the raven’s vanity. The moral of the tale is that ‘men ought not to be glad and take rejoicing in the words of caitiff [vile or mean] folk / and also to leave flattery and vain glory’.

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 that the stork, with his long beak, is unable to eat. The stork 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, and has his revenge: ‘he that beguiles others / is often beguiled himself’.

The fable of ‘the fox and of the raisins’

A hungry fox finds some grapes growing high up on a vine, but try as he might he is unable to reach them. In a huff he gives up, declaring that ‘these raisins be sour, and if I had some I wold not eat them’. 

This fable is where the phrase ‘sour grapes’ originates.