Literature for the education of young people has a long tradition in Western culture. The tales, the parables, and the verses are so ingrained in the general literature that we often forget that they were conceived with a precise pedagogical purpose.
The peaceful stroll through the silence of the cloisters has always been understood as a time for some amusement combined with religious or moral teachings. In the Oporto Cathedral, to praise the Mother of God, the tiles, painted by Valentim de Almeida, illustrate the verses of the Canticle of Canticles. In the convent of São Francisco da Bahia, the Flemish painter Otto van Veen’s emblems teach us some moral lessons learned from the Greek philosopher Seneca. In both cases, they are not intended to inspire only the religious, but all visitors.
In 1792, when the government allowed the Royal Schools of São Vicente de Fora to be established in the Monastery of Lisbon, over three dozen panels with the fables of La Fontaine were ordered to complete the already great tile decoration. The French poet dedicated then to “Monseigneur” Louis, le Grand Dauphin, the six-year-old son of Louis XIV of France. In the dedication, with joy, he explained the objectives of giving a voice to animals:
I sing the heroes of old Aesop’s line./ Whose tale, though false when strictly we define, containeth truths it were not ill to teach./ With me all natures use the gift of speech; / Yeah, in my work, the very fishes preach./ And to our human selves their sermons suit./ ‘Tis thus to come at man I use the brute.
The importance of education was also the central theme of one of the fables collected in the eighth book, first published in 1678. It tells the story of two dogs born from the same litter, but with very different sorts. The first, named Caesar, was handed over to a great hunter, and became, as the name implies, the chief progenitor of his race. The second, entrusted to a cook, became a despicable gluttonous thief.
Despite some unjustified prejudice against cooks, the fable of the twin dogs exalts the importance of students striving to develop their best talents. In addition, it is entirely suited to the purposes of the high school establishment run by the regular canons of St. Augustine.
MARTINS, António Coimbra. As fábulas de La Fontaine de São Vicente de Fora – Les fables de La Fontaine du monastére de Saint-Vincent à Lisbonne. Lisbon: Editions Chandeigne / Gótica, 2001. ISBN 978-2-906462-84-7.