Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582-1612) was one of the most accomplished Latin poets of the early modern period. Among her published works is a collection of Aesopic fables rendered into Latin elegiac couplets. Nicholas Morris (Dickinson ’24) edits, translates, and discusses one of them here, “The Sow and the Dog,” comparing it to Greek and Medieval Latin versions of the same fable.
Sus et Canis (The Sow and the Dog)
From Elizabeth Jane Weston, Parthenica (Prague: Paulus Sessius, ca. 1606) vol. 2, fol. B6a.
Non levis (at quondam) discordia contigit inter
saetigeramque suem, sollicitamque canem.
Nam sus fecundam se grunnit iniqua; vocari
vult sue fertilior fertiliore canis.
Tandem illa haec referens, “quid criminis evomis?” inquit; 5
“an non ut furiat mens tibi casca, vides?
Nam fetus generas misere tu lumine cassos,
dum cupis ut proles sit numerosa tibi.”
The Sow and the Dog
Once upon a time, a serious disagreement took place between a bristly sow and a troubled dog. For the hostile sow grunts that she is fertile; the dog wants to be called more fertile than the fertile sow. Finally, the sow, replying to these things, says: “What sort of accusation do you spew forth? Or do you not see that your old mind is raving? For, while you wish that your progeny might be numerous, you beget offspring wretchedly deprived of the light.”
Notes and Vocabulary
discordia –ae f., disagreement, discord
quondam, once upon a time, modifies contigit
contingo –ere –tigi (3rd), to happen, befall
saetiger –era –erum, bristly
sus suis f., sow
sollicitus –a –um, troubled, disturbed
fecundus –a –um, fertile
grunnio –ire (4th), to grunt
iniquus –a –um, inimical, hostile
sue = ablative of comparison
illa: The sow is speaking to the dog.
haec referens: “replying to these things.” Dative hīs would be more normal than accusative haec.
refero –ferre (3rd), to say in return, reply, answer
quid = translate with crimen, “what sort of” + gen.
crimen criminis, n., an accusation, reproach
evomo –ere (3rd), to spew out, vomit forth
furio –ire, late Latin for furo –ere, to rage, be mad
cascus –a –um, old
fetus -ūs m., young, offspring
genero –are (1st), to beget, procreate
misere, (adv.) wretchedly
cassus –a –um, deprived of (+ abl.)
proles –is f., offspring, progeny
numerosus –a –um, a great number, numerous
Elizabeth Jane Weston is one of the most fascinating literary figures of the Renaissance period about whom very little is known today. She was born in England around 1581/2, with her father dying shortly after her birth. Her mother later remarried Edward Kelley, a high-ranking nobleman and alchemist who took his new family to live in Prague after becoming a client of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Weston was brought up in Prague as a member of the nobility, having access to a top-notch education thanks to Kelley’s connections, and she was introduced to Latin via her tutor John Hammond. Weston’s career as a poet seems to have begun in 1591, when her stepfather was imprisoned on charges of murder and his property seized by the crown, leaving his family destitute; he died in prison six years later. Weston proceeded to write poems to royal courtiers and other nobles, pleading with them to intervene with Rudolph on her family’s behalf, which seems to have had no effect whatsoever. She later married the jurist Johannes Leo around 1603 and had seven children with him before dying in childbirth in 1612 (Cheney et al. 2000: xii-xiii).
Although her life may have been unfortunately short, Weston managed to accomplish a great deal. With the help of her friend and publicist George Martinius von Baldhoven, a tireless promoter of her poetry, Weston was able to have several of her works published (Cheney et al. xiii-xiv). Her magnum opus, the collection Parthenica, contains a short selection of Aesopic fables which she rewrote in poetic meter.
The closest fable in the Aesopic tradition is “The Sow and the Bitch” (Ὗς καὶ Κύων Perry 223, Halm #409, p. 197)
Ὗς καὶ κύων περὶ εὐτοκίας ἤριζον. ἔφη δ’ ἡ κύων, εὔτοκος εἶναι μάλιστα πάντων τῶν πεζῶν ζώων. Καὶ ἡ ὗς ὑποτυχοῦσα πρὸς ταῦτα φησίν: “ἀλλ’ ὅταν τοῦτο λέγῃς, ἴσθι, ὅτι καὶ τυφλοὺς τοὺς σαυτῆς σκύλακας τίκτεις.”
Ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ, ὅτι οὐκ ἐν τῷ τάχει τὰ πράγματα, ἀλλ’ ἐν τῇ τελειότητι κρίνεται.
The Sow and the Bitch
The Sow and the Bitch were quarreling about fertility. The Bitch said she was the most fertile of all the animals who go on feet. And in response the Sow said, “But when you say this, be aware that the pups you give birth to are blind.”
The story shows that things are judged not by their speed, but by their perfection.
A medieval Latin version of the same fable is provided by De Furia’s Fabulae Aesopicae (1810), as edited by Laura Gibbs (2010): Sus et Canis, Contendentes (Perry 223, Gibbs 343, p. 111, De Furia 186).
Sus et canis de pariendi facilitate contendebant. Porro cum canis se citius animalibus omnibus filios suos in lucem edere affirmaret, sus, ad eam conversa, “Heus tu,” inquit, “dum haec dicis, memento te eos caecos parere.”
Fabula declarat non ex celeritate sed ex perfectione de rebus esse iudicandum.
The Sow and the Dog, Arguing
A sow and a dog were arguing about the ease of giving birth. When the dog was first affirming that she brings forth her offspring into the light sooner than all the animals, the sow, having responded to her, says: “Hey you, remember while you say this that you give birth to blind young.”
The fable declares that these things must not be judged from swiftness but from perfection (skill).
Weston begins with litotes (non levis), telling us what this discordia is not (1). This dispute, therefore, is not as petty as it initially sounds, but has importance for both parties. One way in which the Aesopic and Westonian fables differ is that Weston gives her characters certain traits and attributes that the original fable leaves out. She appears to take a more dramatic approach towards her retelling of this fable, adding in certain adjectives that give us clues pertaining to the emotional state of both animals: a bristly sow (this word has a double meaning, since it can denote both the sow’s physical appearance and her unpleasant demeanor) and a worried dog. The word iniqua in line 3 also looks like it describes the sow; perhaps the reader is meant to sympathize with the dog, who must put up with the sow’s arrogant boasts of her fertility. In whatever case, we learn in the next line that the dog wants to be known as the most fertile, more so than even the sow; this is highlighted by Weston’s use of polyptoton – the repetition of a word in two different forms (fertilior fertiliore, line 4).
Informed of the dog’s desire, we turn to the sow, who is preparing to answer the dog. This is where context is paramount. As listed in the notes, the pig (illa) is speaking to the dog in the fifth line. While this might not be apparent at first, recall that the Greek fable has the dog boast that she can give birth faster than any other animal. Weston’s choice of the verb evomere in line 5 seems appropriate here, describing the length of the sow’s contempt for the dog’s foolish claim. Note that in Weston’s version, the dog’s words are not explicitly provided to us. And the sow does not hold back in her retort, asking the dog if her feeble mind is raging – a rather poetic way of calling someone crazy (line 7).
Of course, we could have foreseen the outcome of this discord had we paid attention to Weston’s placement of words in the fourth line: fertilior (referring to the dog) is placed before fertiliore (referring to the sow), reflecting the dog’s desire to place herself before the sow. But the position of sue lies well before that of canis at the end of the line, foreshadowing of the futility of this dream (line 4).
Could the dog have been the one to start this debate? According to the Greek version of this fable, this seems a likely conclusion, as we see the dog boasting about how citius she is when it comes to bringing her young in lucem – the accusation that Weston’s sow mentions. What makes the sow’s retort so satisfying? The dog may be the first among animals in the swiftness with which she gives birth, but this ability comes at a cost: her pups are born blind (misere…lumine cassos), and thus are unable to see in the light they have been brought into so quickly (7).
As in her other adapted versions of Aesopian fables, Weston does not include a moral at the end of her poem. This is a byproduct of Weston’s style: her poems are written to meter — in this case, elegiac couplet — and so the morals likely would not fit into this metric. However, this problem can be easily solved by referring to the earlier Medieval Latin and Greek versions of the Sow and the Dog, supplied by Gibbs and Halm, respectively. The basic message of this fable urges its readers to select quality over quantity: the dog appears to shirk the well-being of her young in favor of having as many pups as possible, leaving her puppies “wretchedly useless in light”; that is, they are born blind. Piglets, on the other hand, can see right when they are born. Viewed in this context, the sow would seem to win this debate, since her offspring prove to be more functional and autonomous than the dog’s, which are entirely dependent on their mother.
Does this adage of quality over quantity have any application to Weston’s life? Why would she weave this message into this poem, and what did she hope to gain by doing so? The answer might lie in her personal life. Weston was prolific early on in her production of poems, many of which were undoubtedly addressed to Rudolph’s nobles and courtiers on behalf of her stepfather’s case. Later in life, however, her activity slowed as she married and had children. Obviously, Weston’s duties as a wife and mother would not have left her as much time as she had before to focus on her poetry, but perhaps this adage was also responsible for this period of literary fatigue. Many classical writers believed that to be successful at their craft, they must prioritize the perfection of their pieces, not the speed at which they could publish them. In short, it is better for an author’s pieces to be few yet profound as opposed to numerous yet shallow. Weston’s admiration for these esteemed authors and her own ambition to become a famed poet herself likely led her to take this advice. She was also regularly in correspondence with fellow aspiring poets, and so this advice would have been helpful to her audience as well. Thus, Weston would certainly have written her later poetry with such a focus in mind.
Notes on sources and translations
I have adapted the original Latin text of Weston’s fable from CAMENA.com. As for the other fables, I have taken the original Latin prose from Laura Gibbs’ Mille Fabula et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin, who in turn has collected these fables from other fabulists’ compilations: both Sus et Canis stories are taken from F. De Furia’s Fabulae Aesopicae, Testudo et Lepus is taken from P. Irenaeus’ Mithologica Sacro-Profana, and Leaena et Sus is attributed to Odo of Cheriton in a compilation of Latin fables edited by Leopold Hervieux. The original Greek of Ὗς καὶ Κύων can be found in Karl Halm’s Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae, available through the Internet Archive. Links to these resources may be found in the bibliography.
The reader will find that I have placed the appropriate index numbers next to the original prose of each fable, the first of which (Perry #) is from the Perry Index, created by the classicist Ben Edwin Perry to catalogue the fables in his manuscript concerning the ancient fabulists Babrius and Phaedrus (Simondi, “Perry Index”). Gibbs organizes her fables in a different way, arranging them according to the main characters – animals are first, then birds, fish and so on (Gibbs i). Since Gibbs’ index differs from Perry’s, I have thus provided both Gibbs’ index numbers and the page numbers at which these fables can be found in Mille Fabulae et Una; the same is true for Halm. I have also given the fable numbers from Gibbs’ sources (De Furia, Irenaeus, Odo).
All translations herein are my own, except for that of Ὗς καὶ Κύων, which was done by Professor Chris Francese.
Cheney, D., B. Hosington, and D. Money. Elizabeth Jane Weston: Collected Writings. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.
“Elizabeth Jane Weston.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Mar. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Jane_Weston.
Gibbs, Laura. Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin. Lulu Publishers: North Carolina. 2010.
Fabulae Aesopicae, ed. F. De Furia. 1810.
Irenaeus, P. Mithologica Sacro-Profana, seu Florilegium Fabularum. 1666.
Odonis de Ceritona Fabulae, in Les Fabulistes Latins, ed. Leopold Hervieux, Vol. 4. 1896.
Halm, K. Aisopeion Mython Synagoge – Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae. Page 197. 1854.
Simondi, Tom. “Perry Index.” Fables of Aesop, 9 Feb. 2021, fablesofaesop.com/perry-index.
Weston, Elizabeth Jane. Parthenica. Vol. 2. Prague: n.d. [1608?]
Original Weston text on CAMENA: http://mateo.uni-mannheim.de/camena/weston1/westonparthenica.html#w1wes090
Gibbs’ Mille Fabulae et Una: https://lms.dickinson.edu/pluginfile.php/1551869/mod_resource/content/2/MilleFabulae101.pdf
Halm’s collection of Greek fables: https://archive.org/details/aispeinmythnsyna00unse/page/n7/mode/2up
Wikipedia article on Weston: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Jane_Weston
This edition was completed as the final project for Latin 234: Ovid, taught by Christopher Francese in Spring 2021. Prof. Francese modernized the Latin orthography.