Fable. A brief allegorical narrative, in verse or in prose, acted out most often by animals and occasionally by vegetables who speak and act like humans while retaining their natural traits. Didactic in purpose, the stories illustrate the exemplary values that are revealed in a moral usually expressed at the beginning or end of the fable. Frequently the subjects are inspired from the fabulists of ancient Greek and Latin times.
Although verse fables have been a flourishing literary genre in France for many centuries, few women writers have achieved recognition in this male- dominated branch of literature. Marie de France*, in the late twelfth century, has the distinction of being the first fabulist of either sex to write in the French language. She specifically challenges the traditional male view that only men had the wisdom and talent to write morally instructive stories. Moreover, in an age when education* was usually reserved for the intelligence of men, she addresses the lesson in "The Cock and the Gem" to both men and women, thus dissenting from prevailing notions of difference. A native of France, she lived and wrote at the French-speaking court of the Plantagenet kings of England. She composed her Fables for a certain Count William sometime before 1189.
One has to wait five centuries for another woman to break through the gender barrier to write fables. Marie-Catherine Desjardins de Villedieu* ( 1640?-1683), a well-known and prolific author of the seventeenth century, wrote eight lengthy fables entitled Fables, ou Histoires allégoriques as part of the court's gift to King Louis XIV ( 1670). Mme de Villedieu's originality lies in transposing to the world of animals gallant situations of seventeenth-century aristocratic society in which she inscribes a code of feminine sexuality and conduct constructed for women. At a time when women were treated as objects of exchange in the marriage* contract, Villedieu emphasizes a woman's right to free choice in love.
In the late eighteenth century, Marie-Amable Petitau, marquise de La Fér