The Fable of the Sick Lion: A Fifteenth-Century Blockbook
Field, Richard S
. Davison Art Center: Wesleyan University , The Center . Middletown, CT
Z241.K72 F54 1974 (Carlson Fable Collection, BIC bldg)
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This is an 111-page exhibition catalogue. There are black-and-white copies of nine woodcuts from the Berlin and Heidelberg Sick Lion blockbooks along with the original German text of this fable. In fact, the fable reads more like a portion of a beast epic. This blockbook represents the first printed fable of any kind, at least in the West. A six-page English translation follows (28-33). Interesting features of the story include the catalogue of animals reacting to the lion's sickness at the beginning of the tale and to the flaying of the wolf at the end. The dog is the one animal faithful to the lion, as he laments the sickness of his master. The wolf survives the flaying. The story here has lessons to make about obedience to one's lords, slander, sacrifice (so Field maintains here), and false friendship. The following Introduction tells us that the earliest blockbooks were created in Holland and Germany in the late 1440's. The blockbook was not the precursor of the modern book. It was more its competition for some twenty-five or thirty years. Sections of the introduction deal with the physical characteristics of the Sick Lion manuscripts; the text; the style and technique; iconography; and the literary tradition of this fable. In fact, it belonged to the Extravagantes. This fable has been only rarely illustrated. There is a fine summary of the focus in various Renard traditions from 1180 through 1342 (79). This fable is by contrast with them more naïve and unsophisticated. It is a popular tale offering moral teaching for the masses. Field offers a good sketch of the history of this fable before this blockbook, and he traces the places where this story departs from some branches of previous tradition. In the end, Field finds this version of the fable unresolved in terms of meaning or lesson. Perhaps the fable is a negative argument for fidelity to the church, since no other authority (neither wolf nor fox nor lion) is ultimately trustworthy. There are illustrations from other blockbooks scattered throughout the catalogue.