That fox pulling the papal tiara off Celestine V’s head in my last post reminded me of Reynard the Fox, a very popular medieval fable which developed in the later twelfth and thirteen centuries in France and Germany, from where it spread throughout western Europe: the many “branches” of Reynard verse are generally grouped together as the Roman de Renart cycle. Reynard is an anthropomorphic fox who is always up to no good, a cunning trickster whose escapades are both entertaining and illuminating. He is the animal representative of the medieval outlaw, far less benevolent than Robin Hood, and utilized by medieval scribes (who were of course, monks) as a form of satirical and whimsical criticism. But Reynard is also a fox, and like all sly foxes, quite capable of feigning vulnerability (and piety) in order to elude capture and capture his next meal. One of the most common images in medieval manuscripts is of Reynard preaching, to an audience of birds whom he intends to eat.
British Library MS Royal 10 E IV, late 13th/early 14th century, and MS Stowe 17, “The Maastricht Hours”, early 14th century.
In every Reynard tale, the fox is summoned before a court of his animal peers, headed by a lion, of course, and called to task for his bad behavior. He always manages to outfox his judges by his cunning. He feigns remorse, confesses his sins, and sets off on a holy pilgrimage of atonement, only to get into more trouble. A death sentence leads to more displays of cunning, exploits and opportunities, and consequently he becomes the sympathetic “hero”, the one for whom we root.
Reynard as a “pious” pilgrim and on the cart of a fishmonger who has presumed him dead–meanwhile, the fox is working his way through the stock of fish: Bodleian MS Douce 360, “The Romance of Reynard and Isengrin”, 1339.
I definitely think Reynard’s popularity increased in the late medieval era along with anticlericalism and lay piety, and he makes it into print relatively early. In England, William Caxton published his own translation in 1481, and the “history” was reprinted regularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There followed all sorts of literary adaptations, as Reynard, like any outlaw, is readily adaptable. The most famous modern adaptation is Reneike Fuchs, an epic poem produced by Johann Wolfgang von Geothe in 1794, supposedly influenced by the events of the French Revolution. The editions of this text issued from the mid-nineteenth century, illustrated by Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Joseph Wolfe, must have been extremely popular as they were constantly in print. There were also a succession of children’s versions of the fable issued in the nineteenth century, and really beautiful artistic editions published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1892 (a reprint of Caxton) and the Insel Verlag Press in 1913.
Reynard posing as a monk in order to access the chicken coop of a monastery, and as a pilgrim being blessed by a ram-priest, Wolfe and von Klaubach illustrations from 1853 & 1846; first page of the Kelmscott Press Caxton edition, 1892; Cover of first edition of Reinke Voss, 1913.
Reynard lives on in a variety of forms and formats in the twentieth century, and today can be found on everything from pillows to china to chess sets. He seems to have shed a lot of the satirical and moralistic messages of his medieval origins, but he was never that moral a character to begin with so I guess it doesn’t matter!
Two Reynards that I covet: a Royal Doulton coffee service from 1935, and pencil illustration of Reynard the Fox Detective.
March 2nd, 2013 at 2:45 pm
An animated film was produced in Belgium, I think, a few years ago. Pretty good. Worth looking up.
Le Roman de Renart
March 2nd, 2013 at 2:46 pm
Sorry. A little more research shows it was from Luxemborg.
March 2nd, 2013 at 2:54 pm
Thanks for the reminder; I’ve been meaning to look that up for some time, and forgot completely about it. I didn’t touch on the film adaptations of the story, but I believe there are several.
March 2nd, 2013 at 3:07 pm
I had to memorize a poem in high school called “Le Corbeau et le renard” by La Fontaine about a cunning fox who tricked a crow into giving him cheese. Although a fable, many say this poem was drawn from the legendary Reynard the Fox.
March 2nd, 2013 at 3:16 pm
Oh sure–there’s a great image of just that scenario in the British Library’s manuscript collection.
March 2nd, 2013 at 3:22 pm
What a wealth of knowledge and a delight to read. I had a dream a few years ago about a trickster fox and I never got around to check if a fox is an historical archetypal recognised symbol for the trickster aspect of self but your research has answered my question! Thank you.
March 2nd, 2013 at 3:40 pm
Thank you, Fiona–I do think there are other sources of the fox’s trickster image, but Reynard really exemplifies it. And then there are the sources of Reynard–like Aesop–that I didn’t really explore because this post would become a book! Foxes are a surprisingly big topic.
March 2nd, 2013 at 7:55 pm
I will read Beatrix Potter’s “Jemina Puddlediuck” with new insight! fun!
March 2nd, 2013 at 8:08 pm
The comic book series “Fables” has also had Reynard turn up, very much in character.
March 3rd, 2013 at 11:53 am
Great post! I always like to look at how things develop over time, such as the character of some animals, we always think of a fox now as being cunning, it’s nice to know that our medieval ancestors did as well.
March 3rd, 2013 at 8:56 pm
Naughty foxy. I love that word covet! I think i might covet that pencil sketch too..but not as much as you.. c
March 4th, 2013 at 12:04 pm
Reminds me of the book “The Fabulous Mr Fox”
February 12th, 2016 at 3:40 am
Reblogged this on Gawain's Mum and commented:
Following my ‘predators’ post: those readers who aren’t familiar with the medieval anti-hero Reynard the Fox should read this.
August 22nd, 2016 at 11:31 am
[…] especially as a means of satirizing the powerful (i.e., church and nobles) in medieval life. One reviewer aptly sums up Reynard […]