home authors books contributors books for sale links
The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

Support the Library!
Buy your books here.

Find On Worldcat
Find On This Site


Latin: Parabola

Authorities: Estienne, Addison, Gracian, Tesauro

(What is this?)

The etymology is from the Greek paraballo to place besides. See also the similar etymology for emblem.

     In the symbolic literature, parable has two meanings which illustrate its semantic development: the first is parallel and the second is an allegorical story with a spiritual meaning. As parallel it is in effect the same as simile and thus close to metaphor representing the heart of both the development of language and the development of the symbol (see signs). Onians points out that Homer in contrast to his use of simile makes negligible use of metaphor which presumably indicates that simile is a more primitive construct. In the second meaning, the parable is similar to the fable. They are both stories which make a point; in the case of the fable it was a moral lesson and in the case of the parable, a spiritual one. Quarles wrote in the introduction to his work, the English emblem book, Hieroglyphicks of the Life of Man, the famous phrase, ‘an emblem is but a silent parable’.

     Parables were obviously suitable for the preacher and the pulpit and there were many collections of suitable stories composed for use by preachers. One was the Alphabet of Tales some 850 short but mostly excruciatingly boring stories which one can imagine were the highlights of interminably long medieval sermons. A little more stimulating was the Gesta Romanorum, or Deeds of the Romans, a book possibly originating in England but surviving in many manuscripts from all over Europe with stories from classical times which was used as source material by many late medieval authors as well as by preachers.  The stories follow a familiar pattern: a heading, the anecdote and a brief commentary or moralization. Finally in this genre, we can mention the Book of the Knight of the Tour Landry written by Geoffrey de la Tour Landry in 1371-2 as a handbook of instructional parables for his daughters which became very popular and was widely copied and translated. These stories have a surprising origin. Much of the Gesta Romanorum were derived from the Moralitates Historiarum of Robert Holcot who died in 1349. This was a series of stories describing abstract phenomena by way of a striking metaphor and Holcot was in turn influenced by the Fulgentius Metaforalis of his older contemporary John Ridevall. In spite of the fact that Ridevall and Holcot were Dominican priors and preachers and the stories were intended for religious audiences, Ridevall’s source and inspiration was one of several contemporary adaptions of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love! Another source of parables in the late Renaissance was Caussin’s Polyhistor Symbolicus of 1618 which contained more than one thousand examples. 

     Parables were followed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance by the Exempla which were also stories used by preachers to illustrate and enliven sermons. The word exempla supposedly originated from the proverb ‘Verba docent, exempla trahunt’ or ‘words teach, examples transform’ and there were many published catalogues of exempla particularly from Spain of which one of the most famous was El Libro de los exemplos a.b.c. written by Clemente Sanchez between 1400 and 1420. See Speed for examples of these stories.

See also: Allegories, Emblems