The Bee and the Spider

[This page by Madeleine Brook]

This is an example of a fable, a form of moralistic tale that usually uses animals to represent human qualities or characters and was extremely popular in the 15th and 16th centuries – and beyond. Sachs will no doubt have been familiar with Heinrich Steinhöwel’s (1412-1482/83) extremely popular Esopus (1477) and took several of these fables as the inspiration for his own.

There are many versions throughout European literary culture of the debate between the bee and spider about whose skills are of the greatest value. Here, Sachs contrasts the laziness of the spider, who merely seeks to feed himself at the expensive of others, with the industrious bee, who works all day to feed herself and make products useful to others. That the two animals are intended to represent human types is made clear in the final third of the poem, where the message is also given an implicit soteriological twist – although not explicit, the closing comments of the poem refer indirectly to the Lutheran understanding of the nature of ‘good works’ for Christian salvation.