The Raven’s False Greeting: Animal Language and Medieval Fable

Talking animals are a ubiquitous element in fables. They do not evoke wonder from human characters within the narrative, nor seem to require any explanation; this contrasts with other sorts of stories (everything from Marie de France’s Guigemar to contemporary fantasy novels) where the appearance of a talking animal signals the beginning of some rare adventure for humans. Notably, there is, however, one fable I can think of that seems to portray an animal whose ability to talk is liminal. That is, he can utter words, yet he is not really treated as a speaker. His status seems closer to that of a “real” animal who can mimic human speech, and that is in fact key to the story.

The fable in question is ascribed to Phaedrus, the author of the first extant literary fable collection. While Phaedrus wrote in the first century, his five books of fables were the basis for much of the “Romulus” tradition in prose and verse, which flourished in the Middle Ages. The aforementioned fable is called “The Traveler and the Raven” (Viator et corvus). The tale is found in “Perotti’s Appendix,” named for the Italian humanist, Niccolò Perotti (1429–80), who transmitted it; I offer a translation of it below, with the text based on Ben Edwin Perry’s edition.[1]

Manuscript illustration, from the 14th century Luttrell Psalter, of two humans and a horse harrowing a field, with two ravens hovering above them, British Library, Additional MS 42130, fol. 171r .

Quidam per agros devium carpens iter
AVE exaudivit, et moratus paululum,
adesse ut vidit nullum, corripuit gradum.
iterum salutat idem ex occulto sonus.
voce hospitali confirmatus restitit,
ut, quisquis esset, par officium reciperet.
cum circumspectans errore haesisset diu
et perdidisset tempus aliquot milium,
ostendit sese corvus et supervolans
AVE usque ingessit. tum se lusum intelligens
“At male tibi sit” inquit, “ales pessime,
qui festinantis sic detinuisti pedes.”

A certain man, taking a byway through the fields on a journey, heard “Hello!” and lingered for a moment, but when he saw that no one was there, he hastened the pace. Again, the same sound greeted him from some hidden place. He stopped, encouraged by the hospitable voice, so that whoever it was might receive an equal courtesy. When he had remained for a long time, looking around uncertainly, and lost enough time for several miles, a raven showed himself, and flying above him, incessantly repeated “Hello!” Then, realizing he had been tricked, the man said, “Damn you, wretched bird, for delaying my feet like that when I was in a hurry.”

Why did the man perceive the raven’s “hello” as a trick? (The word lusum, in line 10, comes from ludo, to play, and can suggest mockery or deception; I translated it as “tricked.”) Why did he not take this as a genuine greeting?

It seems that the man was expecting a human speaker, and was disappointed and annoyed to find out that the salutation came from a bird instead. But species difference doesn’t, in and of itself, seem like an adequate explanation, at least in the usual fable context where all sorts of creatures talk. Nor does the explanation for the man’s reaction lie in some perceived status imbalance between the two; reciprocity is expected in greetings, after all, even between parties of unequal standing, and it isn’t mockery for an inferior to greet a superior, or vice versa.

Complicating this is the fact that real birds can imitate human speech—parrots, most famously, but also corvids, including ravens. This raven repeats the same simple word, over and over, as a trained animal might. But the man simultaneously seems to impute malice or mischief to this animal and deny him as a legitimate interlocutor. The raven is capable of toying with him (and ravens have a longstanding, cross-cultural reputation for cleverness and tricks), but he is not capable of (or worthy of?) a conversation.

Manuscript illustration of a raven, from an early 14th century manuscript of Jacob van Maerlant’s Der Naturen Bloeme, British Library, Additional MS 11390, fol. 33r.

A traditional narrative about animal language is that it doesn’t exist—that the sounds that animals make (and this leaves aside non-aural communication, through movement, scent, etc.) are fundamentally different than human speech. Nonetheless, medieval grammarians and philosophers acknowledged that, say, a dog’s bark is not meaningless, that it might convey something of his emotional state, and that humans could pick up on this.[2] Some thinkers, too, suggested that animals can communicate with their own species in their own “language.” For example, says, Roger Bacon, hens can cluck to let their young know that food is near, or to warn them of a predator.[3]

So much for “real-life” animal language. In medieval literature, though, there may also be special talking animals (or humans gifted with a special ability to understand animals, e.g., the man who can translate between species in Culhwch and Olwen, or Canacee, with her magic ring, in Chaucer’s “Squire’s Tale”). In fables, animals’ capacity to speak is typically unremarkable, and conversations readily occur across species lines.

This fable, however, reflects none of the above scenarios. The raven doesn’t caw or croak—he says an intelligible word, in a human language, Latin. And what he says is “Ave,” a greeting. Ave is not far off from Latin avis, “bird,” although the words are etymologically unrelated; in modern Spanish and Portuguese ave means “bird”. Etymology aside, there is still the possibility of wordplay. Is the bird proclaiming what he is all along, without the man realizing it? Is that the “trick”? Was that what the bird really meant to do, or was it apt, but not necessarily done knowingly—is the raven a kind of natural sign who reiterates himself, both by appearing and by unwittingly speaking his own appearance?

In any case, the man doesn’t treat the raven’s “Ave” as a sincere speech-act from an animal who can, unsurprisingly, talk to him—he doesn’t treat it as a greeting, he treats it as a deception. (The opening moral, possibly added by Perotti, emphasizes this, declaring, “People are very often deceived by words,” Verbis saepenumero homines decipi solere).

What accounts for the man’s reaction to the raven? Fables often have talking animals, yes, but fundamentally, fables are didactic, using memorable narratives to get messages across. The raven’s real-life reputation for mischief, but above all his real-life ability to imitate speech, is what is being drawn on here. The raven in “The Traveler and the Raven” is not the genre-typical talking animal, because for him to be an actual, expected interlocutor goes against the point of the fable, which is about how words can deceive.[4] In conveying this point, “The Traveler and the Raven” both acknowledges certain animals as clever and strips a non-human character of his genre-typical linguistic capability.

Emily Mahan
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Ben Edwin Perry, ed. and trans., Babrius and Phaedrus, Loeb Classical Library 436 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 404–6.

[2] For an analysis of the shifting conceptions of the semiotics of dogs’ barking, from Aristotle to Roger Bacon, see Umberto Eco et al., “On Animal Language in the Medieval Classification of Signs,” in On the Medieval Theory of Signs, ed. Umberto Eco and Constantino Marmo (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1989), pp. 3–41.

[3] Quoted in Eco et al., “On Animal Language,” p. 36, n. 39.

[4] Fables tend to teach the “mistrust of words,” argues Jill Mann, in From Aesop to Reynard: Beast Literature in Medieval Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 96.

Learning to Fear in Two Medieval Fables

Fables often warn by example, with an animal character’s mistakes leading to their death. Grievous errors, the morals further emphasize, can be avoided by a reader who learns from the fable’s message. The two medieval fables discussed below have no deaths within the narrative, only the threat of it. Both feature parent animals—a raven or crow in one, a doe in the other—teaching their children to be cautious of humans, and to pay close attention to their actions. These fables, in which the animal parents and their children have the ability to speak to one another, depict a means of learning to fear that is usually ascribed to humans only: verbal information. (Two other ways of learning fear, which have been studied in a number of species, are through direct conditioning and through observing the behavior of others; the latter is sometimes called “vicarious learning” or “social fear transmission.”)

The two fables in question appear one after the other, in two collections. One version is in a Latin prose collection in the “Romulus” tradition, called the Romulus Anglicus cunctis, edited by Léopold Hervieux from a fifteenth-century manuscript.[1] Another version is found in the Fables attributed to Marie de France.[2] The fable of The Raven and His Chicks, as found in Hervieux’s edition, is below, followed by my translation.

Corvus consedit in arbore quadam secus viam et cum eo Pulli sui. Sedens igitur Pullos quos habebat monebat attencius ut cauti essent. Deambulabat autem homo eadem via, et dixit Corvus ad pullos : Hic est ille, quem nos cavere maxime oportet, et vos, si videritis eum molinantem ad terram, fugite velociter. Cui unus Pullorum respondit : Eciam si se non inclinaverit, appropinquantem fugere volo. Bonum est, inquit pater, et de cetero per te non sollicitabor; sed alios Pullos meos, ut cauti sint, ammonebo.

A raven settled onto a certain tree beside a road, and with him his chicks. While he was sitting, he then carefully advised the chicks that he had, so that they would be cautious. Then a man came walking along the same road, and the raven said to his chicks: This is the one that we need to be the most careful about, and you, if you see him bending to the ground, flee quickly. To which one of the chicks responded: Even if he doesn’t bend over, I intend to flee when he approaches. Good, said the father, and I won’t otherwise worry for you. But my other chicks, I’ll warn them to be cautious.

Raven from Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f. 37r

The implication of the Romulus version of this fable, as I see it, is that it’s good to be on the safe side. While the father had used the example of a human bending over as something to be particularly watchful for, presumably because he could be picking up something to throw at the birds, one of his sons declares that he will flee at the man’s approach regardless, and it is this assertion which dispels his father’s worry for his future safety; it is yet to be seen whether his other offspring will be as cautious.

Marie’s version of The Raven and His Chicks, while it similarly portrays a parent teaching their young to fear humans, ultimately has a much different message about caution. The parent corvid in Marie’s version (a crow rather than a raven) specifies that his son ought to watch out for a man bending over to pick up a stick or a stone, and flee at the sight (lines 5–8).

“If I don’t see him bend over, and he doesn’t have anything in his hand, then do I need to move?” inquires the chick (Si jeo nel vei, fet il, beisser / n[e]’en ses meins rien manïer, / [me] dei jeo dunc[es] remüer, lines 9–11). At this point, the parent declares that he needn’t teach his son anything further, and that he is off to aid his other children. The implication is that the young crow is discerning when it comes to human actions and what they portend, and that he knows to be cautious, but not excessively so. And indeed, animals who regularly encounter human (or non-human) threats must strike a balance between their own safety and the need to find crucial resources such as food.

The raven fable, in the Romulus Anglicus cunctis, is left without a moral. In both the Romulus and Marie’s collection, the raven/crow fable is immediately preceded by the fable of The Hind Instructing Her Fawn. In this fable, a mother deer similarly warns her offspring to be wary of humans, such as the hunter they see nearby. However, rather than simply absorbing her advice, the son talks back, arguing that the hunter must in fact be afraid of them. After all, why else would he be sneaking around and hiding in the bushes? The mother reiterates that the man, and particularly the weapons he bears, are deadly. The moral, in the Romulus, is that “fools don’t foresee harms or dangers and don’t fear them, until they feel them” (Sic stulti dampna vel pericula non prevident nec pertimescunt, donec ea senciunt).[3] The naïve young fawn seems to represent such fools, whereas his wiser mother can more accurately read human behavior and identify threats.

Of course, in real life, a young bird or deer would learn fear from another animal’s sudden change in body language, or their alarm call, or even their scent, not from a verbal explanation. Humans, though, can learn through storytelling. Research in psychology has suggested that children readily learn to fear through verbal information—particularly when the information comes from an adult, rather than a peer.[4] Fables both show and tell, in a sense, when they combine memorable narratives about another’s ill-fated end (or prudent evasion of disaster) with explicit moralizations. These stories are not meant to be taken literally; after all, The Raven and His Chicks isn’t meant to teach young readers that they should run away at the sight of a man bending to the ground to pick up a rock. Rather, readers are prompted to extrapolate from the animal scenario and apply this to more abstruse, though no less real, dangers. Fables teach, perhaps, not simply what to fear, but how to fear.  Fear can be life-saving, but excessive or unnecessary fear can prove maladaptive. As for what might constitute a maladaptive level of fear, the two versions of the raven/crow fable discussed above seem to draw the line in different places; the Romulus version advocates greater wariness than Marie’s version, which suggests that wisdom lies in knowing both when to flee and when not to.

Emily Mahan
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Léopold Hervieux, Les fabulistes latins depuis le siècle d’Auguste jusqu’à la fin du Moyen Âge, vol. 2 (Paris : Firmin-Didot, 1884), p. 612.

[2] Charles Brucker, ed., Marie de France: Les Fables, édition critique accompagnée d’une introduction, d’une traduction, de notes et d’un glossaire, 2nd ed. (Paris–Louvain: Peeters, 1998), pp. 334-7.

[3] Léopold Hervieux, Les fabulistes latins, vol. 2, p. 612.

[4] A. P. Field et al., “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf: a prospective paradigm to test Rachman’s indirect pathways in children,” Behaviour Research and Therapy 39, 11 (2001): 1259-76.

The Stag and the Dogs: A Medieval Fable

Fables—short moralized narratives, often with animal subjects, associated with the legendary figure of Aesop—have been transmitted and adapted from antiquity down to the present. In the Middle Ages, fables were used to teach Latin to children. One particular fable collection, sometimes called the “elegiac Romulus” for its verse form and supposed dedicatee, seems to have been especially popular in this regard. This collection of approximately 60 fables (many manuscripts have 58 but others may have several more) is extant in almost 200 manuscripts from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. Some of these manuscripts show signs of use in the classroom (i.e., they have features such as glosses, words numbered to aid in parsing, etc. An edition by Aaron E. Wright reproduces one such manuscript).[1] There is a critical text of the elegiac Romulus edited by Paola Busdraghi, with a translation into Italian.[2] I offer below my own English translation of one fable from the elegiac Romulus, along with brief commentary.

The fable of The Stag and the Dogs (De cervo et canibus), 74 in the Perry Index, is also known as The Stag at the Spring (Cervus ad fontem)[3] or The Stag and His Antlers (De cervo et cornibus eius).[4] Other medieval versions of this fable are found in prose and verse Latin fable collections in the Romulus tradition;[5] the Parabolae of Odo of Cheriton;[6] the Novus Aesopus of Alexander Neckam;[7] and the Fables of Marie de France.[8]

In this fable, a stag views his own reflection in the spring he drinks at, proud of his many-tined antlers, but critical of his legs, which seem to him too slender. The stag flees as hunting dogs approach, now appreciating the swiftness of his legs, but his antlers become entangled as he passes through dense vegetation, and he is caught and killed. The moral typically advises that we should value or disdain things according to whether they help us or harm us.

Hunters with dogs pursuing a deer, Getty Museum MS 27, f.67v.

Here is the version of the fable found in the elegiac Romulus, from Busdraghi’s edition:[9]

De cervo et canibus

Fons nitet argento similis, sitis arida cervum
huc rapit, haurit aquas, se speculatur aquis.
Hunc beat, hunc mulcet ramose gloria frontis,
hunc premit, hunc ledit tibia macra pedum.
Ecce canes, tonat ira canum. Timet ille, timenti
fit fuga, culpati cruris adorat opem.
Silve claustra subit, cornu retinente moratur:
crure neci raptum cornua longa necant.
Spernere quod prosit et amare quod obsit ineptum est:
prodest quod fugimus et quod amamus obest.

The following is my translation:

The stag and the dogs

A spring shines like silver, dry thirst draws a stag
to the place; he drinks the waters, watches himself in the waters.
The glory of his branching brow gladdens and delights him,
his thin shins and feet depress him, annoy him.
Here come the dogs, the rage of dogs resounds. He is afraid, and, fearing, 
takes flight, admires the aid of his once-blamed legs.

He comes into a narrow grove, is delayed by horns holding him back:
snatched from death by his legs, but killed by his long antlers.
It is absurd to despise what benefits you and love what hurts you:
what we flee helps us, and what we love hinders us.

Medieval literature often gives an impression of hunting as a pastime of the aristocracy. And indeed, it was—or at least the practice of pursuing and killing red deer (Cervus elaphus) using a pack of hunting dogs, as this fable depicts, was the “noblest” (at least according to aristocratic hunters!) and most highly ritualized form of hunting in the Middle Ages. Hunting was, however, “central to the lives of all classes,”[10] and involved, as it still does today, killing a wide range of species using a variety of methods, such as stalking, snaring, and netting—quite effective, but nevertheless disdained by some elite medieval authors as unsporting. Another way of hunting deer was the “bow and stable” method, in which deer (red or fallow) were driven towards a line of archers.[11] This is the type of deer hunting depicted in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (previously discussed on the MSRB). Unlike the hunt par force de chiens—the hunt of a single animal with a pack of dogs—this method could result in numerous kills.

Bow and stable hunting, Getty Museum MS 27, f.109.

There is a ring of truth to the stag’s fate in The Stag and the Dogs: in a sense, the stag’s glorious antlers doom him. While a substantial rack of antlers is both a means of competing against other males for mates and an effective defense from many non-human predators, it was precisely the antlers which marked a stag, or hart, as legitimate quarry. The Master of Game, an early-fifteenth-century English translation of Gaston Phoebus’s hunting treatise, the Livre de la chasse, provides precise terminology for male deer in each year of their life. A stag in his sixth year, having at least ten tines on his antlers, was a “hart of ten”; at this point the animal could be pursued. But scouts for a hunting party would attempt to find not just any hart who could be pursued; ideally the party would seek “the finest hart available in the area.”[12] In modern times, as well, some hunters of deer may go for the most impressive “trophy” specimens—males in their prime with sizeable racks—rather than targeting more vulnerable animals, as predators such as wolves are inclined to do. This may have deleterious effects on deer populations.[13]

The fable of The Stag and the Dogs does not function as an indictment of hunting. This narrative fits within a larger context of interspecies violence throughout the fable genre, in which characters die as a consequence for their vices or errors. Nonetheless, rather than focusing attention on humans’ pleasure in hunting deer, as many other medieval works on the topic do, the fable invites readers to briefly consider the predicament of the frightened victim, while at the same time making a lesson out of his misjudgment.

Emily Mahan
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] Aaron E. Wright, ed., The Fables of ‘Walter of England’ Edited from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Codex Guelferbytanus 185 Helmstadienis (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1997).

[2] Paola Busdraghi, ed., L’Esopus attribuito a Gualtiero Anglico, Favolisti latini medievali e umanistici, 10 (Genova: Università di Genova, 2005).

[3] Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco‐Latin Fable, trans. Leslie A. Ray, vol. 3: Inventory and Documentation of the Graeco-Latin Fable (Leiden: Brill, 2003), p. 625.

[4] Giovanni Garbugino, ed., Alessandro Neckam: Novus Aesopus, Favolisti latini medievali, 2 (Genova: Università di Genova, 1987), p. 124.

[5] Léopold Hervieux, ed., Les fabulistes latins depuis le siècle d’Auguste jusqu’à la fin du moyen âge, vol. 2: Phèdre et ses anciens imitateurs directs et indirects (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1884).

[6] Léopold Hervieux, ed., Les fabulistes latins depuis le siècle d’Auguste jusqu’à la fin du moyen âge, vol. 4: Eudes de Cheriton et ses dérivés (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1896).

[7] Garbugino, ed., Novus Aesopus, p. 124.

[8] Charles Brucker, ed., Les Fables: édition critique accompagnée d’une introduction, d’une traduction, des notes et d’un glossaire, 2nd ed. (Paris: Peeters, 1998), pp. 130-1.

[9] Busdraghi, ed., L’Esopus, p. 148.

[10] Tony Pollard, “Foreword,” in Medieval Hunting, by Richard Almond (Stroud: The History Press, 2011).

[11] John Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), pp. 47-67.

[12] Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk, pp. 32-4.[13] Jos M. Milner, Erlend B. Nilsen, and Harry P. Andreassen, “Demographic Side Effects of Selective Hunting in Ungulates and Carnivores,” Conservation Biology 21, no. 1 (2007), pp. 36-47.