The Bird in Borrowed Feathers
The Bird in Borrowed Feathers is a fable of Classical Greek origin usually ascribed to Aesop. It has existed in numerous different versions between that time and the Middle Ages, going by various titles and generally involving members of the corvid family. The lesson to be learned from it has also varied, depending on the context in which it was told. The common European idiom 'to dress oneself in borrowed plumes' derives from the fable.
The main variations
While the details of the fable have always been varied, two main versions have been transmitted to European cultures in modern times. The first of these is mostly found in Greek sources and numbered 101 in the Perry Index. It concerns a daw or crow that dresses itself in the feathers of other birds before competing against them, only to have them recognised and stripped away by their owners; in some versions all its own feathers are also torn away. The lesson to be learned is that borrowed finery brings humiliation.
The second version stems from the Latin collection of Phaedrus and is numbered 472 in the Perry Index. In this a jackdaw (or jay in Caxton's telling) that has found some peacock feathers and stuck them among its own, looks down on its kind and joins the peacocks. When they realise the intruder is not one of themselves, they attack it, stripping away the borrowed finery and leaving its so dishevelled that it is afterwards rejected by its fellows. The moral of the story is not to reach above one's station.
Some mediaeval versions have different details. In Odo of Cheriton's telling the crow is ashamed of its ugliness and is advised by the eagle to borrow feathers from the other birds, but when it starts to insult them the eagle suggests that the birds reclaim their feathers. Froissart's Chronicles have a certain Friar John advising church leaders that their possessions depend on temporal rulers and illustrating the lesson with a story of a bird that is born featherless until all the other birds decide to furnish it with some of their own. When it starts to act too proudly, they threaten to take their feathers back.
While all of these address themselves to various kinds of pride, the story has also been used to satirise literary plagiarists. In one of his Epistles, the Roman poet Horace alludes to the Greek version of the fable when referring to the poet Celsus, who is advised not to borrow from others ‘lest, if it chance that the flock of birds should some time or other come to demand their feathers, he, like the daw stripped of his stolen colors, be exposed to ridicule.’ It was in this sense too that the young William Shakespeare was attacked by the elder playwright Robert Greene as ‘an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers’.
When Jean de la Fontaine adapted the story in his Fables Choisies (IV.9), it was the Latin version of a bird disguised as a peacock that he chose, but he followed Horace in applying it to 'The human jay: the shameless plagiarist'. The very free version of John Matthews, his English translator, develops the suggestion much further:
- If you closely examine the men of the quill
- And search for goods stolen with sharp piercing eyes,
- Taking these from the pages their volumes which fill,
- Huge quartos would shrink to a very small size.
However, when La Fontaine's fable was rewritten to fit a popular air in the 18th century Nouvelles Poésies Spirituelles et Morales sur les plus beaux airs, its focus was changed to dressing above one’s station.
It is the Latin version too that lies behind the popular idiom 'to adorn oneself (or strut) in borrowed plumes', used against empty pretensions. This is made more obvious by the reference to peacock feathers in the Italian equivalent, Vestirsi con le penne del pavone.
Ivan Krylov wrote his own variation of the fable called "The Crow". The fable gave rise to two expressions in Russian (after two different phrases in it): "Left the crows, but didn't join the peacocks" (От ворон отстала, а к павам не пристала) and "Neither peacock nor crow" (Ни пава, ни ворона). While keeping close to the fable at the start, he ends by extending the application to the human example of a merchant's daughter marrying a noble and fitting neither with their family nor her own.
In the 17th century, when paintings were popular home decorations but had to be justified by carrying a moral message, the Dutch artist Melchior d'Hondecoeter executed at least two of the Greek version of the fable in which many species of bird attack the daw.
Most illustrations of La Fontaine's fables, with their three or four peacocks bending to reclaim their plumes from the jay, show lack of originality. This is true even of Kano Tomo-nobou's Japanese woodcut version published from Tokyo in 1894. The most lively treatments of the theme are in political cartoons celebrating the defeat of Napoleon, in which feathered kings and emperors snatch away his finery. There was a slightly earlier Japanese woodprint by Kawanabe Kyosai in his Isoho Monogotari series (1870–80) which shows peacocks attacking a prostrate crow. In general the artist was dependent on John Tenniel's illustrations of the fables for his interpretations, but in this case the print is similar to the picture in the Croxall edition of 1814.
There is an amusing nod in the fable's direction in Amelia Bauerle's etching "Fine feathers make fine birds" in The Yellow Book. Although the proverb is an alternative for 'Clothes make the man', the benignant wallpaper peacock bending over the little girl as she shows off her plumed hat suggests that it might pluck away the feathers if it had a mind to. The print suggests the relationship between the proverb, which focuses on reputation gained by presentation rather than merit, and the idiom 'dressed in borrowed plumes', which draws attention to another fraudulent aspect of reputation.
- Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, tr.Gert-Jan van Dijk, The History of the Graeco-Latin Fable III, Leiden NL 2003 pp.133-7
- John C. Jacobs. The fables of Odo of Cheriton, Syracuse University Press 1985, pp.74-5
- An extract from the Lord Berners translation in a Harvard anthology
- Epistles I.3, lines 18-20
- A Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592), quoted and commented on in the Penguin Shakespeare
- "The jay in peacock’s plumes", in Norman Shapiro's Fifty translations of La Fontaine, University of Illinois 1997, p.45
- Fables from La Fontaine, London 1820,  p.193
- John Metz, The fables of La Fontaine: a critical edition of the eighteenth-century vocal settings, Pendragon Press 1986, p71
- Lexicon of Common Figurative Units, University of Trier, part 1, p.19
- Lydia Razran Stone, The frogs who begged for a tsar (a dual language text), Russian Information Service 2010 p.123
- In the Mauritshuis (1671) and in the August Heckscher Collection
- Some examples in French collections
- Choix de Fables de La Fontaine I.14
- Brown University Library, Napoleon satires
- View online
- View online
- April 1897
- 6 illustrations from books between the 17th-20th centuries at the Victoria & Albert Museum
- Illustrations from books between the 15th-17th centuries
- Illustrations from books between the 15th-20th centuries