In Our Time: Aesop

Aesop’s Fables are so deeply embedded into our culture that references to them are common parts of the language – “sour grapes”, “crying wolf” and so on. But we don’t often think about who Aesop was, where these stories originated or what the point of them is – or at least, I certainly didn’t! Discussing Aesop and the fables attributed to him on In Our Time were Pavlos Avlamis (Trinity College, University of Oxford), Simon Goldhill (University of Cambridge), and Lucy Grig (University of Edinburgh).

Aesop almost certainly didn’t really exist. He’s a myth or archetype in a similar fashion to Robin Hood – there’s a general shape to the myth but the other details often vary. What Aesop has in common across all references is that he’s ugly, he’s a slave, he’s clever and he speaks truth to power. Even the earliest mentions of Aesop say he’s been dead for a century – he’s a mythic figure from the past whenever you are. One of the most complete stories about Aesop himself that we have is a story from the 1st Century AD called the Romance of Aesop. In this narrative Aesop is an ugly slave whose master is a philosopher – but he frequently outwits his master. For instance his master goes to the baths, and asks Aesop to bring the oil flask. When Aesop does, his master asks why there’s no oil in it … and Aesop replies that he wasn’t asked to bring any oil! This sort of quickwitted trickery is the reverse of audience expectations for the story – after all, isn’t the master a philosopher who should be both clever and quick thinking? And outward appearances were expected to mirror the internal qualities of a man – so who would expect an ugly man to be clever? It’s also pretty subversive – lots of acts of petty rebellion which make the master’s life a misery.

Given that Aesop is probably a mythic character it’s unlikely that he actually wrote the fables he’s credited as the author of! They are most likely an oral tradition dating back to at least the 5th Century BC in Greece. It’s possible that they originated in Mesopotamia before that and if there was a historical Aesop then he was perhaps a slave from that region who told their fables to Greeks. The fables were written down later, but the repertoire changes over the centuries so there’s still an oral tradition running alongside the written one. During antiquity the fables spread from Greece to the Roman world and throughout the Roman controlled territories. They even got as far as the edge of China – there’s a version known that was written down in a Turkic language from Chinese controlled territory. In the Renaissance Aesop’s Fables were rediscovered and translated into many European languges, where they’ve remained current since. This rediscovery wasn’t limited to Europe – the new translations of the Fables spread to Japan as well.

Fables are a specific genre of stories – they are short, generally told with animal or stock characters with a moral attached. The moral doesn’t necessarily come at the end, it can be at the beginning or even in the middle. Different tellings of the same story can have different morals attached. And interestingly the moral doesn’t necessarily have to match the scenario in the story – the cognitive dissonance this causes can be part of what makes the fable memorable and/or useful. You do find the stories from fables turning up without morals, in joke compilations, but I think the experts were saying they don’t count as fables then. So what’s the point of these fables? They’re not just entertainment (although obviously that’s part of the point) – in modern times they’re children’s stories and that was always part of their use. They teach lessons about how the world works, in bite-sized and amusing chunks. The stories and morals are often about power relationships, approached from a bottom up perspective (and the Romance of Aesop is a sort of meta-fable fitting into this category). So they teach children (and adults) how to navigate a hierarchial society like the Roman one. In antiquity they might also be used by adults as a subtler and politer way of getting a point across to someone more powerful than oneself.

The programme finished up by considering the wider connections of fables – mostly this section was about how there are interesting similarities between Aesop & his fables and Jesus’s parables. The stories themselves are not the same, but they’re the same genre – short tales, with a moral, about power and told with a bottom up perspective. While I was writing up this blog post I also wondered if Br’er Rabbit fits into this genre – I can’t remember enough of any Br’er Rabbit story to be sure it fits the genre, tho.

In Our Time: Prester John

Prester John was the greatest Christian King who never lived. All through the Middle Ages there were persistent legends (sometimes backed up by apparent documentation) about this powerful priest-king in the East who was ready to bring his powerful armies to attack the Muslims in concert with the Western Crusaders. The experts who discussed these legends on In Our Time were Marianne O’Doherty (University of Southampton), Martin Palmer (Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture) and Amanda Power (University of Sheffield).

They opened the programme with a bit of a discussion about the historical truths in which these legends might’ve been rooted. During the early Middle Ages there was a large Christian population in the Middle East and in India. There’s evidence that Western Christians were in contact with them – for instance King Alfred (of England) sent some people to India. It’s written about as if the journey wasn’t anything particularly special – a long way, and a relatively rare event but perfectly doable. These Christians weren’t from the same branch of Christianity as the Western Church, and the two Churches would’ve regarded each other as heretics. They are sometimes referred to as Nestorian Christians, but that is a bit of a derogatory term and it’s politer to refer to them as the Church of the East or the Syrian Church. The schism between this Church and Western Christianity hinges round a theological point about the nature(s) of Christ. Western Christianity (or monophysitism) holds that Jesus’s human nature was absorbed into his divinity and he had only one nature. However those who followed Nestorious believed that Jesus had two natures that were only loosely connected (this is called dyophysitism) – he was both divine and human and those were separate from each other. So there was a substantial Christian population in the East (probably larger than in the West), which dwindled after the rise of Islam – after which the legends of Prester John began to develop.

The first forms of the legend are known from the 12th Century AD. One of these is an account of a visit to the Pope in 1122 by an emissary from Prester John. It’s not clear to modern scholars what, if anything, this is actually based on – if there was any visit from anyone that got garbled in the reporting or if someone just made it all up. The emissary purportedly says that he has come form Prester John’s kingdom to the east, and that Prester John had been leading a force to aid the Christians at Jerusalem. However the army had been unable to cross a river on the way, and had been forced to turn back. The account of this emissary’s visit gives details of the fabulous force that Prester John had available, and gave hope they would make another attempt to join the Crusaders.

Another early piece of “evidence” for Prester John was a letter that was purportedly sent from Prester John to the Byzantine Emperor in 1165, and subsequently translated into German and forwarded on to the Holy Roman Emperor. This letter goes into detail about what life is supposedly like in the land that Prester John rules. It’s an earthly paradise, full of wondrous beasts. Everyone lives long and virtuous lives, and after death they don’t rot and will return to life at the Day of Judgement. The kings are always called Prester John and combine the roles of secular and religious leaders in one person. The experts on the programme said that it’s extremely likely that this letter was originally written in German – it doesn’t read like translated Greek. There’s also no obvious reason why the Byzantine Emperor would be forwarding his post on to the Germans! The most plausible explanation for the letter is that it’s a piece of propaganda produced by the Holy Roman Emperor’s court. At the time he and the Pope were embroiled in a power struggle, and a document that explained how perfect everything would be if the secular leader of a country was also the spiritual leader was rather useful for the Holy Roman Emperor.

It seems odd to us as modern people to think that these tales of an earthly paradise (of an incredible nature) were so easily believable, but the programme pointed out that during this era there was a large body of literature of tales of wondrous lands beyond the known world. This is the period where maps have areas labelled as where the Doghead people live, and where the people live who have their faces in their torsos. Around the 12th Century and onwards this begins to change, as more people travel and write more accurate travelogues. It’s a slow change though – not all the early travelogues are written by people who’ve actually been where they claimed to be. For instance the author John Mandeville apparently travelled to Prester John’s land and met him – but a lot of other things in Mandeville’s book are made up, and most of the rest appears to’ve been copied from other books. There’s no indication Mandeville actually went anywhere! He’s not the only example of this from the time, either.

The rise of the Mongols changes the legends of Prester John a bit. There are some stories about Prester John being conquered, but other stories suggest that maybe he was never in Central Asia and his land is actually in India. Another blow to the believability of the legends is that travellers visit the Mongols from Europe, and whilst they meet Christians they don’t meet or find any evidence of Prester John. (Nor do they find any wondrous beasts, or Dogheads etc.) They do try and make an alliance with the Mongols against the Muslims, but this doesn’t interest the Mongols.

And later still as China becomes more well known to Europeans it becomes ever more implausible that Prester John and his kingdom could be anywhere in Asia. By the 14th Century AD the legend of Prester John has shifted to Africa, and Ethiopia is the new focal point. As an aside one of the experts (I forget which one) said that you could think of the 14th Century as “the century when Ethiopia discovered the West”. Ethiopia had been Christian since the early AD period, and in the 14th Century they sent emissaries to the Pope and to some of the European kings. They seemed to fit in with some of the Prester John stories – in particular the “long lost Christian Kingdom” aspects of it. And they also seemed to fit other legends about the Queen of Sheba. But the legends still weren’t true. Which apparently didn’t stop European travellers from visiting Ethiopia and asking the rather bemused locals about Prester John.

They finished up the programme by talking about whether or not people actually believed the stories at the time. I think the overall conclusion was that mostly they probably didn’t, it was just a good story or a useful one for propaganda purposes. However there were examples of people who did believe – for instance during the Crusades some commanders made strategic errors because they believed they were about to be joined by Prester John’s army any time now.

Ian Hislop’s Olden Days;

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from Ian Hislop’s Olden Days but it wasn’t what we actually got! What we got was an interesting (and entertaining) look at how the British think about their history. The first episode of the series looked at two different Kingship myths – Arthur and Alfred. Obviously Alfred has the advantage of being real, but the best known story about him (burning the cakes) is about as truthful as the Arthur mythos. Ian Hislop spent that programme looking at the stories (and history where possible) of both Kings, and tracing their popularity over the centuries. Arthur is more popular during more romantically inclined eras – for instance in late Medieval times when chivalry was an important part of society. Alfred on the other hand is popular in more practically minded eras – particularly the Victorians. He brought laws and valued wisdom and learning, and this fits in well with the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian sense of bringing order and civilisation to The Whole World. Of course this isn’t ever an exclusive “one or the other” situation, and even in the eras I just mentioned both are an important part of the national idea of the perfect monarch.

The second episode concentrated on the paradoxes of the Victorian attitudes to the past. On the one hand this is an era of progress and practicality, bringing new technologies and ways of life to the world. on the other hand, and perhaps because of all the change, this is an era constantly looking back to a better and more perfect past. Not just for nostalgia, although there is plenty of that (like Sir Walter Scott’s Arthur and/or Scottish history themed novels). It’s also rather paradoxically being used to help drive the change. Hislop phrased it like this: The best way to get the British to do something new is to tell them it’s rooted in the old traditions of the country.

And the third and final episode looked at the place The Countryside has in the collective imagination of Britain. He started off by explaining that 1851 was a tipping point in Britain’s history – the census of that year recorded more people living in towns & cities than living in the rural areas, for the first time ever. And ever since the countryside has been idealised and mythologised into a timeless and unchanging rural idyll. So Hislop showed us sentimental Victorian watercolours of rose covered cottages and talked about Cecil Sharp’s great project to track down the True Folk Music of the People. This sort of theme also shows up in places like Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings – it’s The Shire (an idealised version of the village Tolkein spent some of his childhood in) vs. Mordor (which Hislop noted must be Birmingham in that context 😉 ). And even though the Archers started out at a radio show designed to bring new ideas to farmers, it’s turned into another example of mostly urban people idealising the country life.

An interesting look at the British national mythos over history. And unsurprisingly given the presenter rather funny at times.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 9 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

Episode 2 of How to Get Ahead – series about court life during a three different historical periods.

Episode 2 of Precision: The Measure of All Things – series about measurement and the history of measurement.

Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population – part of the This World series this is a lecture presented by statistician Hans Rosling. It’s a very entertaining yet informative look at population growth and poverty throughout the world. It’s the answer to fears about the booming population (we’ve actually reached peak child so growth is already slowing and will top out in the next few decades). And also a look at whether or not we can really pull the third world out of extreme poverty (it’s already happening). He also talked a bit about climate change but was less convincingly reassuring about that!

Episode 1 of Churches: How to Read Them – series looking at symbolism and so on in British churches.