Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

THE PICTURE OF NATURE: Seventeenth-Century English Aesop's Fables

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

THE PICTURE OF NATURE: Seventeenth-Century English Aesop's Fables

Article excerpt

"Who painted the leon, tel me who?"

- Chaucer (line 698)


Critical attention to Aesop's fables in early modern England has usually focused on the political uses of the tales. Most of the stories in the Aesopic collection are about inequitable power relationships, usually prey and predator or slave and master, and they have always served as a means to explore power relations and put forth partisan positions and arguments. Annabel Patterson, Jayne Elizabeth Lewis, and Mark Loveridge have shown that the printed fables (and the life of Aesop, the hunchbacked African slave, that accompanied most editions of the tales) performed these functions during the early modern period, from the end of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. The political edge of the fables is particularly pronounced in the late seventeenth-century Aesops, which were published within a period of political conflict for an audience with an appetite for political analysis, allegory, and opinion. Both of the men responsible for the late seventeenth-century Aesops, John Ogilby and Francis Barlow, were involved with contemporary politics, even if their commitments were as much shaped by professional and commercial opportunities as they were by principle or ideology: Ogilby was a royalist polemicist, and Barlow published a set of prints supporting the Whig cause during the Popish Plot and its aftermath. While it is probably true, as is often said, that the fables have not received critical attention equal to their level of popularity and ideological importance in early modern culture, the quality and thoroughness of existing studies offer an excellent grounding in the cultural importance and impact of the verbal texts of Aesop's fables in early modern England.

I emphasize verbal texts because these critics pay little attention to Aesopic illustration. As I will discuss below, only some Aesops were illustrated -but the tradition of English and continental Aesopic illustration is nonetheless important, and both Ogilby's and Barlow's Aesops, certainly the most significant English Aesops of the early modern period, are generously illustrated. The unspoken presumption in the criticism seems to be that the pictures have little to say that is not already said in words: that they are, that is, illustrations in the sense that they are pictorial elucidations or embellishments to texts whose primary dimension is verbal. I will argue in this essay that the illustrations deserve analysis as a distinct form of representation, and that they offered meanings that were independent of the words they accompany for their audiences. The realm of knowledge to which these meanings belong is distinct from that which the verbal meanings belong: while the verbal texts express political values and opinions, as is traditional to the fable genre, the illustrations are not about politics in a partisan, ideological, or theoretical sense. Instead, the illustrations are primarily concerned with defining and depicting animals, especially animals in nature. These are topics that we understand, with the aid of hindsight, to be political, but in the seventeenth century they were not part of the particular political debates (about institutions, individuals, and issues such as religious tolerance), with which the verbal texts of the fables engaged.

If it seems odd to say that the illustrations to seventeenth-century English Aesops are not about politics even though the texts are, it is even more odd to say that the verbal fables-the majority of which feature animal characters-are not about animals, even if the illustrations are. But Erica Fudge, whose work on the representation of animals in early modern culture is widely respected, argues just that: "The real animal," writes Fudge, "is clearly absent from Aesopic works" (73). Fudge's reasoning is sound: the animal characters in the verbal fables are types of human, which is why they can talk, often walk upright, and have relations with each other that are more social than natural. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.