History of Literature

French literature



Illustrations by

Wilhelm von Kaulbach


Reynard The Fox

literary character

hero of several medieval European cycles of versified animal tales that satirize contemporary human society. Though Reynard is sly, amoral, cowardly, and self-seeking, he is still a sympathetic hero, whose cunning is a necessity for survival. He symbolizes the triumph of craft over brute strength, usually personified by Isengrim, the greedy and dull-witted wolf. Some of the cyclic stories collected around him, such as the wolf or bear fishing with his tail through a hole in the ice, are found all over the world; others, like the sick lion cured by the wolf’s skin, derive by oral transmission from Greco-Roman sources. The cycle arose in the area between Flanders and Germany in the 10th and 11th centuries, when clerks began to forge Latin beast epics out of popular tales. The name “Ysengrimus” was first used as the title of a poem in Latin elegiac couplets by Nivard of Ghent in 1152, and some of the stories were soon recounted in French octosyllabic couplets. The Middle High German poem “Fuchs Reinhard” (c. 1180) by Heinrich (der Glîchesaere?), a masterpiece of 2,000 lines, freely adapted from a lost French original, is another early version of the cycle.

The main literary tradition of Reynard the Fox, however, descends from the extant French “branches” of the Roman de Renart (about 30 in number, totaling nearly 40,000 lines of verse). These French branches are probably elaborations of the same kernel poem that was used by Heinrich in the earlier German version. The facetious portrayal of rustic life, the camel as a papal legate speaking broken French, the animals riding on horses and recounting elaborate dreams, suggest the atmosphere of 13th-century France and foreshadow the more sophisticated “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” of Geoffrey Chaucer. Because of the popularity of these tales the nickname renard has replaced the old word goupil (“fox”) throughout France. The Flemish adaptations of these French tales by Aenout and Willem (c. 1250) were the sources of the Dutch and Low German prose manuscripts and chapbooks, which in turn were used by the English printer William Caxton and subsequent imitators down to J.W. von Goethe’s Reineke Fuchs (1794).




Type of work: Beast-epic
Author: Unknown
Type of plot: Satiric stories
Time of plot: Middle Ages
Locale: Europe
First transcribed: Eighth century (?)


Second in popularity only to the fables of Aesop is the old German tale Reynard the Fox. In it we see that cunning always conquers force, that one who lives by his wits will never suffer. We grudgingly admire the villainous hero even while hoping he will get his just punishment. In some explications, Reynard represents the Church, Isengrim the baronial component, and Noble the monarchy.


Principal Characters

Reynard, the fox. So crafty and persuasive a liar is he, that he is at last made high bailiff of the country, though he has flagrantly cheated and injured all of the animals, including the king. Thus is craftiness set above mere strength.
Noble, the lion, King of Beasts. He listens to the animals' grievances against Reynard, and even sentences the fox to death. But Reynard lies so cleverly about hidden treasure and treachery on the part of the others that the king frees him. Noble is similarly gulled a second time and on this occasion even makes Reynard high bailiff.
Isengrim, the wolf, whose children have been made blind by Reynard. Convinced of Isengrim's treason, the king gives the wolf's shoes to Reynard. After this, when the wolf and the fox are engaged in combat, Reynard persuades Isengrim to let him go with promises of rewards.
Tibert, the cat. He defends Reynard before the others until he has been tricked by the fox into jumping into a trap.
Bruin, the bear. Reynard's promises of honey lure him into a trap, and he is badly beaten before he escapes. Later Reynard convinces the king that Bruin is plotting to replace him as ruler. Noble gives Bruin's skin to Reynard.
Grimbard, the brock. He defends Reynard before the court, and even warns the fox of a plot against him.
Panther, who complains of Reynard to the king.
Chanticleer, the cock. His complaint is that Reynard deceived him into relaxing his vigilance by pretending to have given up eating flesh. Then Reynard eats Chanticleer's children.
Kyward, the hare. He accompanies Reynard on a "pilgrimage" and is eaten by him.
Bellin, the ram, who goes with Reynard and Kyward. Deceived into thinking he is carrying a letter, he brings Kyward's head to the king. The furious king then gives the stupid ram and all his lineage to the wolf and the bear, to atone for his misjudgment of them.


The Story

When Noble, the great Lion-king, held court during the Feast of the Pentecost, all the animals told the king of their grievances against Reynard the fox. The list of sins and crimes was almost as long as the list of animals present. First to complain was Isengrim the wolf, whose children had been made blind by the crafty fox. Panther told how Reynard had promised the hare that he would teach him his prayers, but when the hare had stood in front of Reynard as he was instructed, Reynard had grabbed him by the throat and tried to kill him. To Chanticleer the cock, Reynard had gone disguised as a monk, saying that he would never eat flesh again, but when Chanticleer relaxed his vigilance over his flock and believed the villain, Reynard had grabbed his children and eaten them.
So the complaints went on, with only Tibert the cat and Grimard the brock speaking in Reynard's defense. These two reminded the king of the crimes committed by the complainers, but the king was stern; Reynard must be brought to court to answer for his sins. Bruin the bear was sent to bring in the culprit. Bruin was strong and brave, and he promised the king that he would not be fooled by Reynard's knavery of flattering tongue.
When Bruin arrived at Reynard's castle and delivered the king's message, Reynard welcomed the bear and promised to accompany him back to court. In fact, Reynard said that he wished they were already at court, for he had abstained from meat and eaten so much of a new food, called honeycombs, that his stomach was swollen and uncomfortable. Bruin fell into the trap and begged to be taken to the store of honey. Reynard pretended to be reluctant to delay their trip to court, but at last he agreed to show Bruin the honey. The wily fox led Bruin into a trap in some tree trunks, where the poor bear was set upon by humans and beaten unmercifully. He escaped with his life and sadly made his way back to court, mocked by the taunts of his betrayer.
Enraged at the insult to his personal messenger, the king sent Tibert the cat to tell Reynard to surrender himself at once, under penalty of death. Tibert, however, fared no better. He was tricked into jumping into a net trap by the promise of a feast on mice and rats. He too escaped and returned to the court, no longer a defender of the traitorous Reynard. The next time the king sent Grimbard the brock to bring in the fox. He was also warmly received by Reynard's promise to accompany him to court. This time the evil fox actually kept his promise, confessing all of his sins to the brock as they journeyed.
At court, Reynard was confronted by all of his accusers . One by one they told of his horrible crimes against them. Reynard defended himself against them all, saying that he was a loyal and true subject of the king and the object of many lies and deceits. The king was unmoved and sentenced Reynard to death. On the gallows, the fox confessed his sins, saying that he was the more guilty because he did not steal from want, since money and jewels he had in great plenty. Hearing Reynard speak of his treasure, the greedy king wanted it for himself, and he asked Reynard where the jewels were hidden. The fox said that he would gladly tell him the hiding place, for the treasure had been stolen in order to save the king's life. Crafty Reynard told a slippery story about a treasure that the other animals were going to use to depose the king and make Bruin the ruler in his place. In order to save the life of his sovereign, Reynard had stolen the treasure from the traitors and now had it in his possession. The foolish king, believing the smooth liar, ordered Reynard released from the gallows and made a favorite at court. Bruin the bear and Isengrim the wolf were arrested for high treason.
Reynard said that he himself could not show the king the treasure because he had to make a pilgrimage to Rome to ask the pope to remove a curse from him. For his journey he was given the skin of the bear and the shoes of the wolf, leaving those two fellows in terrible pain. The king then put his mail around Reynard's neck and a staff in his hand and sent him on his way. Kyward the hare and Bellin the ram accompanied Reynard on the pilgrimage. They stopped at the fox's castle to bid his wife good-bye, and there Reynard tricked the hare, killed him, and ate all but the head. That he sent back to the king by the ram, that stupid animal thinking he was carrying a letter for the monarch. The king was so furious that he gave the ram and all of his lineage to the wolf and the bear to atone for the king's misjudgment of them.
Complaints against the fox again poured into the king's ear. At last he determined to lay siege to Reynard's castle until the culprit was captured. This time there would be no mercy. Grimbard the brock, however, hurried to the castle and warned Reynard of the plot. The crafty fellow went immediately to the court to plead his case before the king.
On the way he again confessed to the brock that he was guilty of many sins, but he made them seem mild in comparison with those of the animals now accusing him. To the king also he confessed that he had sinned, but he denied the worst of the crimes laid to his doing. His plea was that he would not have surrendered voluntarily had he been so guilty. His words were so moving that most of his accusers kept silent, fearing that the king would again believe Reynard and punish those who would condemn him. Only the wolf and the bear held fast to their accusations. With the help of his aunt, the ape, Reynard once more excused himself in the king's eyes and made the monarch believe that it was the injured who were the guilty. Again Reynard talked of lost jewels of great value, jewels which he would search for and present to the king.
Only Isengrim the wolf would not accept Reynard's lies. He challenged the fox to a fight. Reynard would have been hard put to fight with the wolf except that Isengrim's feet were still sore from Reynard's taking of his shoes sometime before. Furthermore, the ape shaved off Reynard's fur and covered him with oil so that the wolf could not get hold of him. Even so, Isengrim would have defeated him had he not listened to Reynard's oily promises of all the rewards Isengrim would receive were he to let Reynard go. At last the king stopped the fight and ordered all the animals to a great feast. There he forgave Reynard for all of his sins after taking the scamp's promise that he would commit no more crimes against his fellow animals. The king made Reynard high bailiff of the country, thus setting him above all the others. From that time on the mighty of the forest would bow to the cunning of the weak.


Critical Evaluation

Reynard the Fox is classified as a "beast epic." The underlying framework of this popular medieval literary form is a series of stories linked by the same characters— invariably, anthropomorphized animals (hence, "beast epic"). In Reynard the Fox, the character of Reynard provides the connective thread. The epic designation derives from the length of the series as well as from the use of typical epic devices such as the loose, rather episodic relationship among the stories. Accordingly, most versions of Reynard the Fox are lengthy, and the episodes are only vaguely related. In addition, the target of such beast epics is satire of the contemporary social and political scene. Indeed, Reynard the Fox satirizes human folly, the judicial system, and much else.
The origin of the form, however, is still subject to scholarly debate. Since Reynard the Fox is one of the most important examples of this genre, the debate, in this case, is quite significant. Some scholars maintain that the beast epic derived from the oral folk tradition of storytelling, later being formalized in writing by medieval scribes. Other scholars find precedents among classical Latin authors to explain the origin of the beast epic. Both schools of thought have defensible positions, and both take their stand on the same set of facts, since many versions of the Reynard the Fox stories are extant.
Some basic information emerges from the dispute. First, Ovid's Metamorphoses (c. A.D. 8) contains stories similar to those in the Reynard the Fox series. Second, Aesop's Fables includes specific Reynard episodes. Limited medieval access to such "classical" precedents, however, renders the influence of these models moot. The earliest manifestations of Reynard the Fox are stories about the animosity between Reynard and his enemy, Isengrim the wolf. These stories may be derived from popular French, English, Dutch, Low German, and Latin folktales. They seem to have initiated in the Low Countries, northern France, and northeastern Germany, although precedence cannot be definitely assigned. The earliest versions were predictably in verse, although the later redactions appeared in prose.
A rather short poetic rendering of Reynard the Fox stories was done in medieval Latin by an eighth century cleric, Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon), from Charlemagne's court. Another medieval Latin version appeared about two hundred years later in Ecbasis captivi, attributed to a German monk in Toul. The basic "Isengrim" story—Ysengrimus—is attributed to Master Nivardus of Ghent, who wrote in Latin at about A.D. 1150, developing his stories from Aesopian fables.
The evolution of vernacular versions is still open to question; some scholars claim priority for France, and others insist upon Germanic primacy. The issue has not been resolved, but there is no question that twelfth and thirteenth century Flanders, West Germany, and northern France were fertile grounds for this literary form, especially for Reynard stories.
At approximately the same time that Ysengrimus was produced, there appeared in France a compilation called the Roman de Renart, from the hands of several authors (many, according to medieval custom, anonymous). This vernacular compilation dealt mostly but not exclusively with stories of the protagonist Reynard facing his antagonist Isengrim the wolf. The stories are usually arranged in chronological "branches" (to reflect the time when they were written), rather than in topical order; unfortunately, this arrangement tends to undermine the ideological impact of the stories. The didactic element was much stronger in the almost simultaneous (c. 1180) vernacular redaction of Heinrich der Glichesare, surviving in an anonymous manuscript written с 1240. Nevertheless, the most important Reynard series seems to be a Middle Dutch version (c. 1270) by Willem of Hulsterlo, minimizing Reynard's humanitarian acts (curing the sick lion and the like) while emphasizing his venality. Willem's version thus exposed Reynard rather than praised him, and it set the tone for many subsequent vernacular versions of the stories.
Reynard the Fox appeared in Latin, French, German, Flemish, Dutch and English versions—testimony to its popularity. It is evident, however, that questions about origins and the chronological order of various versions cannot be unequivocally answered with the information at hand. As is the case with much medieval history and literature, final answers must wait upon the discovery of further evidence, most likely from a presently unknown cache of medieval manuscripts—if such a cache exists.
In the meantime, it is still possible to evaluate the extant material on its own terms, because Reynard the Fox evolved as the archetype of the beast epic. The central focus of the series is a single significant episode— Reynard's healing of the sick lion, in most versions— and other stories are spin-offs from this episode, all involving moralistic messages. The cast of animals varies from story to story and from version to version: Fox, lion, and wolf are constants; badger, bear, stag, rooster, cat, hare, camel, bear, ant, and others appear occasionally. The didactic factor is another constant, and for the temper of the times, it is a remarkably pragmatic one.
Indeed, the Reynard series is a lesson in ethics and morality. None of the animals is a paragon of virtue. All are vulnerable or corruptible or both; not even King Lion is exempt. They live in a world which recognizes no moral codes and where survival depends upon wit and exploitation of others. Isengrim the wolf is doomed because he carries to extremes his penchant for besting everything and everybody. He is obsessed by the compulsion to surpass, a compulsion that blinds him to the necessary humanistic rituals required for survival. By contrast, Reynard is pliable, adaptable, and fundamentally amoral . He survives because he is flexible. Yet, in the process, he becomes venal, power-hungry, and oblivious to humanistic values. Significantly, Geoffrey Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale" (in The Canterbury Tales, 1387-1400) relates a Reynard story—the fox's attempt and failure to abduct the rooster Chanticleer—to demonstrate the weakness and the power of flattery. Reynard's tactics thus become an object lesson in compromised integrity. Reynard is the ultimate opportunist, knowing no scruple but his own advancement at the expense of others. To be sure, Reynard is neither explicitly praised nor explicitly condemned in the context of medieval ethics or morality. Rather, he is held forth as an example—albeit, an implicit example of "what not to do." In this sense, the best didactic functions of the beast epic are upheld. For it is the didactic element in such works that constitutes their intended impact. Although scholarly disputes continue about the origins and the development of the beast epic, in the last analysis the more crucial point is the moral import of such stories. In this respect, Reynard the Fox succeeds extremely well.


Illustrations by

Wilhelm von Kaulbach



















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