Reynard the Fox is a beast fable, generally a satirical genre in which human follies are portrayed as belonging to animals. The underlying framework of this popular medieval literary form is a series of stories linked by common characters. In Reynard the Fox, the character of Reynard provides the connective thread. Most versions of Reynard the Fox are long, and the episodes are only vaguely related. In addition, the point of such beast fables is satire of the contemporary social and political scenes. Reynard the Fox satirizes the royal court, the judicial system, and many other aspects of medieval life.
The origins of the beast fable are still subject to scholarly debate. Some scholars maintain that this form derives from the oral folk tradition of storytelling, later formalized in writing by medieval monastic scribes. Others find precedents for the beast fable among the works of classical Latin authors. Both schools of thought have defensible positions, and both take their stands on the same set of facts, as many versions of stories such as those found in Reynard the Fox, one of the most important examples of this genre, are extant.
Some basic information emerges from the dispute. First, Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567) contains stories similar to those in the Reynard the Fox series. Second, Aesopea (fourth century b.c.e.; Aesop’s Fables, 1484) includes specific episodes that appear in Reynard the Fox. Limited access to such classical precedents in medieval times, however, renders arguments about 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 been initiated in the Low Countries, northern France, and northeastern Germany, although precedence cannot be definitely assigned. The earliest versions were in verse, although later versions 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...
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