The Fables

Woodcut illustration

What are the Fables and how did this incunabulum make its way to the University? Scroll down to discover more about the volume in our collection.


Pronounced in-kyoo-nab-yuh-luh

The Latin term incunabula (plural), incunabulum (singular), refers to books printed before 1501. In Latin, incunabula means ‘swaddling clothes, cradle’. Incunable is the widely adopted anglicized singular form.

Fabule & Vita Esopi

Printed in 1486 by Gerard Leeu in Antwerp, Belgium, this incunabulum contains two distinct elements.

The first, which serves as an introduction to the Fables, is an imaginary account of Aesop’s life. Known as The Aesop Romance or Life of Aesop (Vita Esopi), this fictional biography is an anonymous work of Greek popular literature composed around the second century. While the original version of the text has been lost, numerous writers have reworked the narrative.

The second element is Aesop’s legacy, the Fables. A fable is a short story, usually featuring animals that behave and speak like humans. A moral is woven into the story and is sometimes formulated at the end. Initially, fables were written for adults and had religious, social, and political themes. However, from the Renaissance onwards, fables were used in the education of children.

On the arrival of printing, collections of Aesop’s stories were amongst the earliest books. Through the means of later collections, translations, and adaptations, Aesop’s reputation as a fabulist was transmitted throughout the world.

Click full information below to discover who shaped these collections.

A fable in the spotlight

Depicting tyrannical injustice, interpreters of ‘The Wolf and the Lamb’ have for centuries applied it to reflect injustices of their own time. This short story is an example of the timeless relevance of so many of the fables as readers of today still relate to its message and understand the educational impact on children.

Explore this popular fable with this guided story.

How did this book enter the collection?

In 1943, Aesop’s Fables, found its way into the collection as part of the James Cathcart White Bequest. White graduated from the University with a Master of Arts in 1873. An avid bibliophile and book collector, he spent his life assembling an exquisite collection of manuscripts and incunabula. When he died, 340 volumes from his collection of beautifully illuminated medieval manuscripts and early printed books were bequeathed to the University alongside funds to further develop the rare books collection.