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Anne-Marie McHarg, Rare Books and Special Collections Information Assistant, has been looking at the books held in our rare books collection as she works her way through cataloguing them. First up, a closer look at Aesop and his fables, and a connection to one of our buildings which you may not know about!

Plate showing Aesop from Fables of Aesop and other eminent mythologists / with morals and reflections by Sir Roger L'Estrange, Kt

Plate showing Aesop from Fables of Aesop and other eminent mythologists / with morals and reflections by Sir Roger L'Estrange, Kt

Aesop: Life and times of a Greek Fabulist, 643 – 564 BCE

This is my first time writing about the rare books in our collection at Queen Mary.  It gives me the opportunity to share with you some of the interesting and unusual books we have. Please let me turn a page or two in a rare book I found: “Fables of Aesop and other eminent Mythologists with Morals and reflections by Sir Rodger L’Estrange Kt.”

This book includes tales people have grown up with from childhood, they are the stories that were once read to children before bedtime. Stories such as the Hare and the Tortoise, the Wolf in Sheep's Clothing and the Boy and the Nettles are just three of the many fables that come to mind.

Finding this book sparked off a train of thoughts: who was Aesop? What kind of person was he? We know very little about him although he was written about by Herodotus, Plutarch, and Aristotle, and stories and legends about him have been passed down by word of mouth through the generations.

Who was Aesop?

Like everything about Aesop, myths and legends surround him. We are led to believe that Aesop lived between 620-564 BCE in Ancient Greece, but no one knows if he truly existed. He may have been a slave on the island of Samos which is in the eastern Aegean Sea off the cost of Western Turkey. The descriptions of him that have passed down through the ages, would give any child nightmares. Someone actually described him as faulty! Just imagine this figure walking down the thoroughfare going about his business, described by Plutarch in Aesop’s Romance as grotesque in appearance, worst of all, Aesop was “voiceless” unable to speak,  with a loathsome aspect – potbellied, misshapen of head, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short armed, squint eyed, Liver Lipped and portentous monstrosity.

There is a Greek novel dating around 2nd century C.E. which draws on the folk traditions about Aesop’s life in earlier Greek literature. In this novel it tells the story of the rivalry between Aesop who is a slave, and his owner Xanthus, a philosopher. The story tells of the Priestess of Isis who was in need of help. Aesop went to her aid and showed her such kindness that the gift of speech and the art of storytelling was bestowed upon him by the goddess Isis. When Aesop’s first master saw that Isis showed such favour towards Aesop, he began to grow frightened of Aesop, shaking in his boots he feared trouble from Isis. ‘What am I going to do with this Oaf?’ he thought, ‘I know I will sell him and make a profit.’ So he did and Aesop was passed onto hands of the philosopher Xanthus.

Xanthus was self-important, arrogant, conceited, and above all a know it all. On discovering this Aesop took great joy in joking at his expense. One such story goes that Aesop and Xanthus were out taking the air. While walking together they chance upon a gardener, who stops them and start chatting. In the course of conversation the gardener asks Xanthus, ‘Sir, why is it that no matter how careful I am when planting my crops, the weeds always grow up faster and stronger and overwhelm my fruit and vegetables?’ Xanthus ponders on the question and says ‘I am not sure, it must be divine providence that governs all things.’ On hearing the explanation from his master Aesop, jumps up and does a merry dance around them, giving a deep belly laugh and embarrassing Xanthus in front of the gardener. In fury Xanthus challenges Aesop to give a better explanation. Aesop accepts the challenge, giving his answer in a form of a story.

‘Well’, says Aesop, ‘I shall explain the gardener’s situation. A woman marries her first husband and has a family. Later on she marries her second husband, who has children from his first marriage. She becomes stepmother to his children, but she cares more about her own offspring and lavishes love and care upon them, giving them the best food and helping them to thrive. This is because she is the mother to her own children. Mother Earth cares for her weeds and her land, like children, but she is only stepmother to the gardener’s crops who has used Mother Earth’s land. She cares nothing for their survival.’

The gardener finds this explanation deeply satisfying. He praises Aesop, thanks him for having alleviated his concerns, and offers him a basket of vegetables as his reward — which is more than he had offered to Xanthus, the philosopher!

He  may have been a figure of fun to some citizens, and yet, this man, had a way with words that could conjure up spell binding tales and leave people wanting to hear more, and these tales of moral and meaning have been passed down to us.

Aesop at Queen Mary

From our rare book collection we have the following volumes: 

Fables of Aesop and other eminent mythologists / with morals and reflections by Sir Roger L'Estrange, Kt, from 1699. This was  Presented to Queen Mary and Westfield College Library by Dr. T. Allott.

Select fables of Esop and other fabulists : in three parts / by R. Dodsley, from 1798

And there is a connection to Aesop via one of our library buildings…

We are not sure on the dates (possibly 5th to 3rd Century BCE) but a reference from the Old Testament, the Book of Ecclesiastes Chapter 9 verse 10 quotes: “Whatever work you do, Do it with all your might.”  This biblical quotation may have been used for one of Aesop’s fables “The Boy and the Nettles.” 

p192 from Aesop’s Fables: A New Version, Chiefly From Original Sources by Reverend Thomas James

Image caption: p192 from Aesop’s Fables: A New Version, Chiefly From Original Sources by Reverend Thomas James

We now jump forward to the foundation of the medical school of St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the building of the medical school library in the nineteenth century.

If you walk into the hospital via the Henry VIII Gate, under the North Wing archway into the square, turn right towards the old entrance to Out Patients, and on the right you will see tucked in the corner the windows of the library. Now just walk two steps and you will see a large heavy door in black, standing firm in front of you. Look up, and you will see the inscription of:

“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”

Inscription above the door to the medical school library at St Bartholomew’s Hospital

This serves as a reminder to all medical students coming through the medical school and leaving as doctors to use their hands to the best of their abilities in saving lives.

It was several years after Aesop’s death that the fables he is well known by were published in Greek and Latin.  His fables and their morals have survived through the centuries into the present day and have kept children and parents riveted.

I wonder what Aesop would think now, if he could see that his fables have been translated into many languages and read throughout the centuries? So tonight, I implore you dear readers, at bedtime with your little ones consider reading Aesop once more.

Moonlight falls

Aesop in my hand

Comes alive



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