Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2019 Issue

Aesop’s Fables, An Overshadowed Classic

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Around 1775, printer Pierre Seyer from Rouen, France, put out a peddling book with dozens of engravings, La Vie et les Fables d’Esope—The Life and Fables of Aesop. Originally written in the 7th century BC, Aesop’s tales were still very popular. Yet, in the late 17th century, Jean de la Fontaine had given his own version of these fables, and the outstanding result eventually overshadowed the original. As the fable (almost) goes, the most talented always prevails.

 

The city of Rouen, France, is famous for its peddling books of the “Blue Collection” (Bibliothèque bleue1). Those cheap popular books became very fashionable in the 19th century, but were printed in Rouen as soon as the late 17th century. The idea was to provide affordable readings, meaning small and thin books, printed on bad quality paper with worn out characters. Most of them came without engraving. “Images are rare in the Blue Collection,” Ségolène Le Men writes2. “Only 38% of the books are illustrated—half of them with a unique illustration. The “Normand corpus” that developed (...) from the end of the 17th century to the Second Empire, first in Rouen then in Caen, only offers 13.5% of illustrated works (...) according to the catalogue of 273 books given by Hélot3.” The Fables of Aesop, an 84-page in-8° volume, is an exception—printed by Pierre Seyer, it features a full-page frontispiece, a title page vignette and no less than 113 small woodcuts. “Although a woodcut initially cost ten to twelve times more than a copper engraving,” Le Men states, “it was cheaper on the long term, as the wooden blocks could be re-engraved over the years.” At the time, this type of illustration, Renaissance style, was already old-fashioned—the frontispiece representing Aesop was actually copied from a German book of 1479. Hastily done and ill printed, indeed; using several times the same woodcut to illustrate different fables—sometimes with no link whatsoever with the said fables? True. Uneven lines of text, tamped paragraphs and half-printed letters? Nothing matters, as the strength of this book comes from its very weaknesses. They are moving traces of the human hand. Even the fragility of the thin paper seems to reflect our own. Consequently, flipping through this modest book is a time-travelling experience: one can almost hear the noises and smell the ink and fresh—and thin—paper inside the print shop Le Levant, located rue Ecuyère, in Rouen. Closer to you my Lord!

 

Book collectors grew particularly interested in peddling books during the 19th century, and luxurious bindings from this period are quite common. Our copy was bound in half-vellum around 1850—pages were cut, probably to get rid of worn out ends, and then the hedges re-coloured. Someone took real care of this originally low-cost book. The Permission (to print) was, so the last page reads, given in Paris, on October 17, 1751 by De Marcilly. This is surprising. Indeed, according to the French National Library (FNL) Pierre Seyer “started his apprenticeship as a printer in Paris, on January 29, 1762, and quit the following August.” He married the widow of Jean-François Behourt, a former printer from Rouen, and “following a fictitious apprenticeship with Étienne-Vincent Machuel (between 1762 and 1763), was established printer by the Council on March 18, 1763.” He was clearly not printing books in 1751—he was only 16. The same intriguing date also appears in his famous publication, Figures de la Sainte Bible (Rouen). In 2014, the auction house Alde, in Paris, listed a copy of the latter: “The approbation of this edition is dated 1751. Pierre Seyer having worked between 1763 and 1787 in Rouen, we can date this edition around 1775.”

 

Aesop’s fables ending up in the “Blue Collection”, especially with so abundant illustrations, meant that they were very popular. Pierre Seyer used the reference translation of Jean Baudoin4. Between 1619 and 1631,” Anne-Elisabeth Spica writes5, ”Baudoin read and translated most of the main compilations of fables available.” And his translation of Aesop was still used 250 years later! Today, every French kid knows about Master Crow holding a cheese in his beak and being fooled by the cunning Mr. Fox. As the mean Mr. Wolf eats up the innocent lamb under some false pretence, they also learn that, in our world of beasts, the strongest always prevails. As a matter of fact, Aesop’s tales are deeply rooted into French culture. They are part of our collective definition, and have contributed to shaping the way we look at life. French kids know these stories by heart, yet only a few have heard the name of Aesop. In the late 17th century, the luminous Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1693) reworked his fables. He clothed them with princess dresses, using the perfect words, the perfect verses, and made more than a tribute, a masterpiece that overshadowed its model. At school, kids do not learn Aesop’s fables; they learn La Fontaine’s. The style of the latter is unbeatable, and Aesop still awaits a worthy modern French translator. Baudoin’s style, unlike La Fontaine’s, has become old-fashioned and difficult to read—especially for kids. Yet, once upon a time, he was the star of the popular “Blue collection.”

 

Anyway, Aesop’s fables remain a great reading that plunges you back into childhood with short, lively and instructive stories involving speaking animals that trick and murder each other. The small woodcuts also kindle your imagination, just like when you were a kid. More than 2,000 years later, the recipe still works. As La Fontaine would say: This world is old, it is said; and I believe so / However, we must amuse it like a child.

 

 

T. Ehrengardt

1These books were sold unbound, and wrapped in blue wrappers, ordinarily used to wrap sugar loaves—hence the name of the collection.

2L’Image et la Bibliothèque bleue normande (Persée, 2008).

3R. Hélot, La Bibliothèque bleue en Normandie (Rouen, 1928).

4See our article Suetonius and the 12 Caesars: https://www.rarebookhub.com/articles/2442/print?page_id=4490

5Jean Baudoin et la fable (2008).

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Leon TOLSTOÏ. <i>Anna Karenina.</i> Moscou, 1878. First and full edition of the Russian novel, in the author’s language.<br>Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Mark TWAIN. <i>Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's comrade).</i> New York, 1885. First American edition.<br>Est. 5 000 / 6 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Walt WHITMAN. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York, 1856. Second edition gathering 32 poems. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Karen BLIXEN. <i>Out of Africa.</i> Londres, 1937. First edition in the UK, before Danish translation and American release.<br>Est. 1 500 / 2 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Ernest HEMINGWAY. <i>A Farewell to Arms.</i> New York, 1929. First edition with $2.50 on the dust and A on the copyright page.<br>Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris, Shakespeare and Company, 1922. First edition published by Sylvia Beach. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Dubliners.</i> Londres, 1914. First edition. Nice copy in publisher’s cardboard. Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Franz KAFKA. 8 novels in German first edition, published in München, Leipzig and Berlin 1916-1931. Est. from 300 / 400 to 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> David Herbert LAWRENCE. <i>Lady Chatterley's Lover.</i> Florence, 1928. Privately printed first edition. Est. 4 000 / 5 000 €
    John STEINBECK. <i>The Grapes of Wrath.</i> New York, 1939. First edition. Nice copy with $2.75 on the cover. Est. 1 000 / 1 200 €
  • <center><b>University Archives<br>Autographs, Books & Relics Including Kerouac Estate<br>& Hemingway<br>February 26, 2020</b>
    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> Ernest Hemingway's Typewriter Used to Write "A Moveable Feast", Impeccable Provenance From His Biographer A. E. Hotchner. $50,000 to $100,000.
    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> Samuel Colt, "The Gun that Won the West": 3 Signed Patent Items for "Revolving Cylinder Guns". $40,000 to $50,000.
    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> Jack Kerouac's Own Typewriter From His Estate Used to Write His Very Last Book. $18,000 to $20,000.
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    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> Rare Force Engraving of the Declaration of Independence Printed in 1848. $15,000 to $18,000.
    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> Superb Tchaikovsky ALS to Napravnik, 4pp on "Mazeppa". $12,000 to $15,000.
    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> Wounded Knee Massacre Same Day Eyewitness Account by Participant, "the 7th needn't be ashamed of today's record". $10,000 to $12,000.
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    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> F. Scott Fitzgerald Signed Gordon Bryant Portrait -- Finest Known. $8,000 to $9,000.
    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> Neil Armstrong ALS on NASA Letterhead Regarding His X-15 Flights. $7,000 to $8,000.
    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> M. Gandhi Letter: "the life span of human beings is preordained..." -- Fantastic Spiritual Content. $7,000 to $8,000.
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    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> "Damn the torpedoes!" Riveting 24pp ALS of Admiral Farragut's Steward Describing the "Battle of Mobile Bay”. $6,000 to $7,000.
    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> Abraham Lincoln Signed Order to Suspend Execution. $5,000 to $6,000.
    <b>University Archives, Feb. 26:</b> Napoleon DS Featuring Imperial Eagle and Enormous Great Seal Appointing Norman Politician Baron of the Empire. $4,000 to $5,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Francis Scott Key, <i>Star Spangled Banner,</i> first printing, c. 1814-16. $8,000 to $12,000.
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    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $40,000 to $60,000.
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    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Patrick Gass, first edition of earliest first-hand account of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Pittsburgh, 1807. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Diploma from the Princeton Class of 1783, commencement attended by Washington & Continental Congress. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Sprague Light Cavalry!</i> color-printed broadside, NY, 1863. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>The Lincoln & Johnson Union Campaign Songster,</i> Philadelphia, 1864. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Lucy Parsons, labor organizer, albumen cabinet card, New York, 1886. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Daniel L.F. Swift, journal as third mate on a Pacific Whaling voyage, 1848-1850. $3,000 to $4,0000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Two photos of Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon, silver prints, 1901. $1,500 to $2,500.
  • <b>Morton Subastas, Feb 25:</b> Nebel, Carl. The War Between the United States and Mexico. New York, 1851. $270,000 - $300,000 MXN / USD $15,000 - $16,666
    <b>Morton Subastas, Feb 25:</b> Nebel, Carl. The War Between the United States and Mexico. New York, 1851. $270,000 - $300,000 MXN / USD $15,000 - $16,666
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    <b>Morton Subastas, Feb 25:</b> Tratado de Paz… entre la República Mexicana y los Estados Unidos. (“Treaty of Peace… Between the Mexican Republic and the United States”) 1848. $80,000 - $90,000 MXN / USD $4,444 - $5,000
    <b>Morton Subastas, Feb 25:</b> Fabregat, Josep Joaquín. Vista de la Plaza de México… (“View of the Square of Mexico”) México, 1797. $60,000 - $100,000 MXN / USD $3,333 - $5,555
    <b>Morton Subastas, Feb 25:</b> Hidalgo y Costilla, Miguel. Invitación al Coronel Narciso de la Canal… (“Invitation to Coronel Narciso de la Canal…”) 1810. $170,000 - $200,000 MXN / USD $9,444 - $11,111
    <b>Morton Subastas, Feb 25:</b> Gálvez, Joseph de. Real Cédula de Erección de la Compañía de Filipinas. (“Royal Notice of the Creation of the Company of the Philippines”) 1785. $40,000 - $60,000 MXN / USD $2,222 - $3,333
    <b>Morton Subastas, Feb 25:</b> Colección de Constituciones de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos (“Collection of Constitutions of the United Mexican States”) México, 1828. $50,000 - $60,000 MXN / USD $2,777 - $3,333
    <b>Morton Subastas, Feb 25:</b> Ruelas, Julio. Poemario Manuscrito Ilustrado, Dedicado a Lorencita Braniff (“Collection of Illustrated Poem Manuscripts, Dedicated to Lorencita Braniff”). 1903. $60,000 - $70,000 MXN / USD $3,333 - $3,888
    <b>Morton Subastas, Feb 25:</b> Espinosa de los Monteros, Juan J. Aviso de la Junta Soberana al Público (“Notice of the Sovereign Meeting to the Public”) 1821. $60,000 - $80,000 MXN / USD $3,333 - $4,444
    <b>Morton Subastas, Feb 25:</b> Constitución Federal de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos... (“Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States”) México, 1824. $140,000 - $150,000 MXN / USD $7,777 - $8,333
    <b>Morton Subastas, Feb 25:</b> Alcaraz, Ramón. Apuntes para la Historia de la Guerra entre México y los EU (“Notes on the History of the War between Mexico and the United States”). 1848. $40,000 - $50,000 MXN / USD $2,222 - $2,777

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