Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Readership, the Fables of the Elegiac Romulus, and the Morall Fabillis of Robert Henryson

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Readership, the Fables of the Elegiac Romulus, and the Morall Fabillis of Robert Henryson

Article excerpt

FABLES HAVE LONG BEEN USED as a vehicle for moral education and moral living. (1) The fables of the elegiac Romulus, a popular Latin collection of the late twelfth century, convey these lessons through the rhetorical figure of the epimythium. Placed at the end of each fable, these epimythia are usually two to four lines long and the advice that they offer is typically quite simplistic, cautioning the reader against evil, or encouraging good behavior. The epimythia have traditionally been read as an interpretation of what happened in the fable, accompanied by a kind of "take-away" lesson for the reader. Although the epimythia conclude the fable with moral lessons, such lessons can be found in the body or narrative of the fable as well. Not only does this indicate a more extensive pattern of moral reflection in the structure of the fable, but it also suggests an alternative reading practice, one which does not rely solely on the epimythia for moral interpretation. (2) These internal morals can be related to the epimythium, but can also contain entirely separate moral lessons, unrelated to the overall "message" of the fables. Sometimes spoken by an animal character, and sometimes delivered as an aside by the narrator, it is clear that these internal morals were significant to the fables medieval readers because they are annotated with paragraph markers, otherwise known as pilcrows, in the margins of a number of manuscript copies of the elegiac Romulus. Where they are present, these markers are relatively consistent across manuscripts, and correspond to the lines containing these moral lessons, found in the bodies of the fables. (3) These features--within the text and marginalia in the manuscripts--suggest the need to shift from a reading practice that focuses on the epimythium as the moral interpretation for the fable to one that instead looks at these internal morals. This model is especially significant as it addresses an overlooked part of the fable that seems to have been rather meaningful to the medieval reader.

The importance of the internal moral and marginal notation can be clearly seen in the fables of Robert Henryson's Moral Fabillis of Esope (1480s). The goal of Henrysons entire fable collection seems to be to take the morals of the elegiac Romulus and complicate them, disrupting his readers expectations for moral learning. But, more specifically, when reinterpreting fables sourced in the elegiac Romulus that included internal morals, Henryson directly contradicts the lessons taught in the marked lines of the earlier collection with his own moral lessons. These contradictions are used throughout the collection to continuously call into question the traditional moral lessons of the fables, and I would argue that through this, Henryson is calling attention to potential weaknesses of the fable form as a whole. Henryson takes moral lessons that would have been familiar to his readers from the elegiac Romulus and negates them within his fables to show that practicing the simple moral living taught by earlier examples of the fable genre does not always reap immediate reward. (4)

The pilcrow markers in the manuscripts of the elegiac Romulus have left us a guide to what the medieval reader would have been expecting to find in Henrysons versions of these fables. The popularity of the elegiac Romulus means that Henrysons reader could have been familiar with the Latin collection, and Henryson makes the connection between this collection and his own explicit by a reference to the "Mother toung of Latyng" from which he will be translating in the prologue. (5) This claim of translation makes the contradictions between the morals of the two collections especially apparent. (6) Because Henryson continuously frustrates these expectations, presenting morals that oppose those in the elegiac Romulus, he ultimately forces his reader to mistrust, or at the very least speculate about, the morals that they would have been so familiar with. …

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