Roman de Renart Essay - Critical Essays

Roman de Renart


Roman de Renart

c. 1171-1250. (Also known as Roman de Renard.) French fables.

The Roman de Renart is a 40,000-line collection of comic, sometimes bawdy, verse narratives from twelfth- and thirteenth-century France in which the characters are animals that behave like humans. While usually described as fables, the stories have also been termed epic romantic tales. Composed and collected circa 1171-1250, the Roman de Renart is the work of many different unknown authors and poets, whom many scholars contend were clerics. The central character and hero is Reynard the Fox, a devilish trickster. Many tales featuring Reynard were produced up to the fifteenth-century, including those of William Caxton, who translated and printed his version, The History of Reynard the Fox, in 1481. Reynard and his fellow animals who satirize the acts of man are also known today in the form of Reinaerts Historie, an adaptation that dates from circa 1380.

Plot and Major Characters

The Roman de Renart comprises twenty-eight separate tales, or branches, as they are often called. Usually the stories feature the perpetually hungry fox involved in one antisocial activity or another. Typically he is captured for his misdeeds but escapes punishment through his cleverness. Reynard is essentially undefeatable, as demonstrated in branch XVII, which tells of his death and funeral services; while the ceremony is proceeding, Reynard jumps out of his coffin and thereby escapes even death. Reynard's animal associates include King Noble the Lion, who is king of the beasts; Isengrim the greedy wolf, Reynard's chief rival; Chantecler the rooster; Tiecelin the crow; Tibert the cat; and Brun the bear. The plots of the various tales are simple but enduring, as these two examples illustrate: Reynard flatters Chantecler on his fine voice until the vain rooster concentrates so much on demonstrating his skill that he forgets to be on guard against the fox, who seizes him by the neck. Another time Reynard and Isengrim chance upon a flock of sheep grazing on a hill. Anticipating the taste of lamb, Reynard devises a plan: Isengrim will put on shepherd's clothes—the smell of which will fool the guard dogs—and capture the newborn lambs when they answer to his calls. But Reynard knows that when Isengrim calls, the sheep will panic at the wolf's howls and the dogs will give chase, allowing Reynard in the confusion to snatch his pick of the sheep for dinner. Many of the other fables lampoon the courts as various animals testify against Reynard.

Major Themes

The tone and intention of the Roman de Renart varies considerably through its many branches. For the most part, however, the satire of man and the follies of feudal society are in the forefront. The hypocrisy of the nobility and of churchmen is a favorite target, but no part of society is left untouched. H. J. Blackham describes Reynard as the “comic hero of beguiling guile,” and this charm of the fox while he is busy deceiving has made him a most popular and influential character for centuries, for he shows how, through cunning, one can defeat superior brute strength.

Critical Reception

The Roman de Renart met with instant success, demonstrated by many manuscript variants, translations into other vernaculars, and abundant representations in iconic art. Kenneth Varty has written of hundreds of depictions of the fox in medieval art. Much scholarly activity centers around attempts to determine the order of creation of the various branches. Critics have also debated the ultimate sources of the Roman de Renart: some concentrate on features apparently borrowed from traditional oral narratives, while others assert that the tales evidence a learned mentality at work. Studies have also been made of the collection's indebtedness to fables derived from Greece and Rome, as well as of its long and complicated printing history. Several critics have emphasized social concerns in Renart: Kathryn Gravdal, for example, writes of branches of the Renart that have to do with the application of the rape law. She contends that “the principal relation of the Renart trial scenes to medieval legal philosophy and procedure is one of subversion. The Renart stories undermine the feudal principle of immanent justice, which grounds centuries of legal thought, institutions, and practices.” Her explication of the text shows authorial deliberateness in emphasizing the fallibility, superstition, dishonesty, and impotence of feudal law enforcement. Kenneth Varty writes on a similar subject, examining the fables for what they tell the modern reader about medieval notions on the giving and withholding of consent, and how these ideas interacted with notions of social status and of what constituted a legal marriage. Historians find the Roman de Renart an invaluable guide to the customs of the medieval world.

Principal Works

The History of Reynard the Fox (adapted by William Caxton; edited by N. F. Blake) 1970

Renard the Fox (translated by Patricia A. Terry) 1992

The Romance of Reynard the Fox (translated by D. D. R. Owen) 1994


N. F. Blake (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “English Versions of Reynard the Fox in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. 62, 1965, pp. 63-77.

[In the following essay, Blake surveys several editions of Reynard the Fox, noting a trend toward standardizing the English language.]

All writers on the history of the English language agree that the introduction of the printing press was an important landmark in the development of the language. McKnight, for example, writes: “The printing press introduced by Caxton was one of the most important factors in fixing the English language in permanent form.”1 But although Caxton's language has been investigated,2 few scholars have made any study of the language of the other printers of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries to determine how this trend to conformity developed or how quickly the establishment of English in permanent form was achieved. Yet several books were constantly reprinted in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and by investigating the changes in orthography made in the printed versions of one of these minor best-sellers, it should be possible to make a contribution to the study of “the process and progress of the move towards conformity.”3 A study of this sort might help to show how the individual master-printers approached the language in which they were printing, the sort of changes they made and whether they attempted to standardize it.

One of the popular books of this period was William Caxton's Reynard the Fox, which he himself translated and then printed in 1481 (WC). This book was evidently so successful that Caxton reprinted it in 1489 (PL). This version is extant only in one copy now in the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge; it lacks a couple of leaves at the end. Another reprint was issued about 1500 by Richard Pynson (RP). This version also survives only in one copy, which forms part of the Douce bequest to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It likewise lacks several leaves at the end. A further edition, this one by Wynkyn de Worde, appeared about 1515 (WW). Only two leaves of this edition are known to exist and they are now in the University Library, Cambridge. The last edition I shall deal with was printed by Thomas Gaultier in 1550 (TG). This edition survives in several complete copies, one of which is in the Bodleian Library and another in the British Museum.4 I shall confine my attention to the editions so far listed, for all subsequent editions, and there were many of them,5 contain such extensive alterations that it is hardly possible to compare the language of these later versions with that of the earlier ones satisfactorily. Nevertheless between the first and the fifth edition there is a span of eighty years which should be sufficient to show whether there was any trend to conformity. Unfortunately only a small part of WW is extant so I have not always been able to use it in tracing the development of certain written forms because WW does not contain sufficient examples.

Before any discussion of the language can be attempted, it is necessary to elucidate the relationship of the various reprints. It is normally assumed that a reprint would be reprinted from the latest printed version.6 This is not the case with Reynard the Fox, for although all the texts are closely related to one another, there is not a straightforward chronological progression in their printing history. PL is naturally a reprint of WC, for WC was the only English version available when PL was printed. RP is not, however, a reprint of PL, but it also is a reprint of WC. WW is likewise not a reprint of RP, but a reprint of PL. TG, on the other hand, is a reprint of WW. Thus RP might be said to stand outside the main line of descent of Reynard the Fox. This fact may be readily proved because the changes which are made in PL do not appear in RP, though they are found in the two later reprints. Consider, for example, the following passages:

WC he that shoef your crowne
PL he that shoere your crowne
RP he that shoef your crowne
TG he that shore your crowne
WC but now he sorowed that
PL but now he trowed that
RP but nowe he sorowd that
TG he trowed his iourney

Examples like these could be multiplied. Unfortunately the corresponding passages from WW are not extant for comparison, for the leaves of WW which survive correspond to a part of RP which is missing. Yet it is possible to show from the surviving leaves of WW that it reproduces a mistake made in PL and that therefore it must be a reprint of PL:

WC I wyl al otherwyse on yow yet / abyde I shal brynge
PL I wyl al otherwyse oon you yet byte I shal brynge
WW I wyll yet al otherwyse byte you I shal brynge
TG I wyll yet all otherwyse by you I shall brynge

From the above examples it can be accepted that there is a straight-forward sequence of printing for four of the versions, viz. WC—PL—WW—TG, and that RP stands outside this sequence and is a reprint of WC.7

Throughout the eighty years covered by the survey there is no noticeable change in the haphazard use of i and y. PL differs considerably from WC in its use of these graphemes, but the changes made are purely random. Thus when the compositor was setting from WC a4r, which includes all chapter 1 and some of chapter 2, he changed i to y eight times and y to i four times. In addition e is once changed to y and i once to e.8 If anything y is used somewhat more frequently than i in PL, especially in such words as wyth etc., but both letters are used indiscriminately. There is certainly no attempt at standardization. The same state of affairs is to be found in all the later versions. Individual words are not necessarily spelt in the same way as in the copy-text, but no version shows a particular preference for one letter or the other. In the endings of the preterite of weak verbs and the plurals of nouns, however, e did become the standard spelling by the end of the period. In WC, PL and RP -yd/-id/-ed and -ys/-is/-es interchange freely, though spellings with e are not common. In WW e spellings are introduced a little more frequently; and in TG they become regular. The -yd/-id and -ys/-is forms do not survive in TG. Similarly in TG in the preterite of weak verbs the ending -ed is extended to words which in the earlier versions formed their preterites by adding -d or -de: sauourd and prayde appear as sauoured and prayed.9 The spellings with -ed are not found with any regularity before TG. Although conformity was established in this case, WC's standardized spellings were not always respected in later editions. In WC -y is always used at the end of a word. There is only one exception to this in the whole text: herbi. In PL, however, this final y is often changed to i, so that words can be spelt ending in i or y. The latest three versions also use either spelling. The development of spelling in this period was not always towards conformity.

It is well known that a final e was added or omitted indiscriminately in early printed books. The five versions of Reynard the Fox are no exception. From WC through TG there is no discernible reason for the omission or addition of the e in most instances, and, as in the case of i and y, no version agrees with its copy-text as to when final e is found or not. On the other hand, WC rarely includes a medial e before the adverbial ending -ly. PL often adds e in this position, especially after dentals and stops, so that WC's sharply, frendly and goostly appear as sharpeli, frendely and goostely. RP likewise frequently adds an e, and WW and TG reflect the orthography of PL.

In WC a and o when followed by a nasal interchange freely. This confusion is retained in PL where even the preposition on and the article an are spelt indifferently with a or o. PL often changes the spellings found in WC: songe (sange), domage (damage), and stande (stonde),10 but not systematically. In RP there is a marked preference for the o spellings: vnderstonde, londe, stondyng, except in the preposition and the article where a is common. There are insufficient examples in WW upon which to base any conclusions, but in TG an a is generally found where the copy-text has an o: stande, lande, any, husbande. Regularity is not achieved in TG, though the a spellings are dominant. The preposition, however, is spelt on. In all texts whether they use a or o, a u is frequently inserted between the a/o and the nasal when it is followed by another consonant. This change is found particularly in words of Romance origin: penaunce, commaunde, condiciouns. In PL and RP reverse spellings when the aun/oun is simplified to an/on do occur, thus PL has danger for WC's daunger. But these examples are few in comparison with those which show the change an/on to aun/oun. In TG there are examples only of a u being added; there are no words which drop a u which was found in the copy-text. The spelling aun/oun is not regular yet in TG in words of Romance origin, but this development is one of the few regular trends towards conformity which is found consistently in all the texts.

In WC words like do and see can be spelt with a final single or double vowel. PL does not differ much from WC, though some changes which are made in PL tend towards simplification of the final double vowel: doo and see appear as do and se; but go becomes goo. In RP, however, there is a very strong tendency to double all final single vowels: thus WC's be, se, go, to, do, so, nothyng appear as bee, see, goo, too, doo, soo and noo thyng respectively. The limited evidence from WW suggests that in that text whereas final oo was simplified, final ee was retained; this is the trend found also in TG. In neither WW nor TG are these spellings carried through consistently.

There is no uniformity in the use of ou or ow and au or aw in WC. In PL one can glimpse the beginnings of a tendency to use au and ou internally, as in hauthorn (hawthorn) and coude, and aw and ow finally, as in yow and now. Nevertheless there are many exceptions. RP still uses the spellings indiscriminately. WW develops the trend found in PL: it uses ou and au internally, except in the word downe, which is almost invariably spelt doun(e) in PL, and ow and aw finally, except in you where the ou spelling is regular. TG follows WW, though regularity is not achieved. But whereas in PL there are times when an internal ou or au in WC is changed to ow or aw respectively, there are no occurrences of this reverse spelling in TG so that one may perhaps suggest that a preference had evolved. The spellings ei, ey, ai, ay vary freely among themselves in all texts, except that in TG a slight preference for ay may be noted. The variation between er and ar in such words as merchant and Reynard is decided finally in favour of ar. In WC and PL either spelling is used; in RP ar is found more commonly in common nouns: marchauntes, but er is used regularly in the names of the animals: Grimberd, Reynerd; and in WW and TG ar is the regular form in all words which had previously exhibited variation. One of the most remarkable features of this study of the five versions of Reynard the Fox is how the grapheme ea appears suddenly and becomes accepted as the standard spelling in some words in such a short time. It is rarely found in the three earliest versions which use e or ee instead: grete, heed etc. In WW ea makes its first regular appearance in the word great, though it is also found sporadically in other words in WW. Otherwise WW prefers to represent this long vowel sound by an internal and a final e: it changes PL's breed, leep and feet to brede, lepe and fete. In TG the spelling ea has become almost regular in such words as teache, head, heade (“heed”), great and beast.

As for the spelling of consonants and consonant groups a tendency to conformity can be noticed in the spelling of such words as enough and through. In WC enough, for example, is spelt as inowh and inough. The beginnings of the spread of spellings in -ough is found in PL, where, although many -wh spellings are retained and isolated examples are changed to -uh: ineuh (inewh), there are frequent occasions when the -wh is altered to -ugh: thaugh, inough etc. It is noteworthy that there are no examples of the reverse spelling -ugh to -wh in PL. RP, however, shows no particular advance over WC. But in the short passage from WW extant there are several examples where PL's -wh has been changed to -ugh, and in TG -ugh has become regular. A similar trend to standardization is apparent in the use of the graphemes -tch and -dg-. These spellings are already found in WC, but they are not as common as ch and g(g): cache, juge etc. Already in PL many of the ch and g(g) forms give way to -tch and -dg- respectively: fetche (feche), pledge (plegge) etc., though reverse spellings also occur so that one cannot assume that -tch and -dg- were yet the dominant forms. RP tampers little with WC's spellings of these consonant groups, but in WW and TG -tch and -dg- become the most frequent forms, although they have not yet become the only ones.

It is not possible to trace such a consistent trend to standardization in the other consonant spellings. For example, both k and ck are used in WC. But many of the examples which have k in WC appear with ck in PL: spack (spak), dranck (drank) and stomack (stomak), whereas in RP many of WC's ck spellings are simplified to k: spak (spack) and cok (cock). In WW there is no sign of consistency: sometimes a ck is changed to k and sometimes a k to a ck: spake (spack) and ducke (doke). This variety is also characteristic of TG so that at the end of the period there is as much freedom in the use of ck and k as there had been at the beginning. Standardization did, however, begin to make itself felt in the question of whether a consonant should be doubled or not, either internally or finally. PL differs considerably from WC in its use of single and double consonants, but it does not reveal a decisive preference one way or the other. Sometimes a double consonant is simplified: vylonye (vyllonye) and april (appryl); and sometimes a single consonant is doubled: ballock (balock) and fell (fel). When a word ends in a double consonant followed by an e in WC, there is a tendency to reduce this group to the single consonant in PL: at (atte), al (alle) and had (hadde); though there are exceptions: ranne (ran). RP, on the other hand, exhibits the opposite tendency. Although internally consonants are not regularly doubled, a single final consonant is, particularly if the word is a monosyllable ending in f,...

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Kenneth Varty (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “The Fabulists' Fox,” in Reynard the Fox: A Study of the Fox in Medieval English Art, Leicester University Press, 1967, pp. 95-101.

[In the following excerpt, Varty describes the spread of fox fables and summarizes some of the tales most often depicted in art.]

In the preceding chapter we have seen how the Bestiary fox was drawn into the Roman de Renard and how Reynard came to be identified with him. Pierre de Saint Cloud, his continuators and imitators similarly drew on the fabulists' fox for inspiration and, as Reynard's reputation grew, he moved into many of their fables, both in France and England.

Most fables told in the Middle...

(The entire section is 4234 words.)

Donald B. Sands (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Reynard the Fox and the Manipulation of the Popular Proverb,” in The Learned and the Lewed: Studies in Chaucer and Medieval Literature, edited by Larry D. Benson, Harvard University Press, 1974, pp. 265-78.

[In the following essay, Sands analyzes the proverbs found in great abundance in Reinaerts Historie and explains their purpose in terms of truth and irony.]

The anonymous Middle Dutch poem Reinaerts Historie (usually referred to as R II) was written sometime around 1375.1 Its first half (3,480 lines) amounts to a close retelling of a poem written perhaps one hundred years before called Van den vos...

(The entire section is 4740 words.)

N. F. Blake (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Reynard the Fox in England,” in Aspects of the Medieval Animal Epic, edited by E. Rombauts and A. Welkenhuysen, Leuven University Press, 1975, pp. 53-65.

[In the following essay, Blake examines several Middle English fox tales and concludes that there is not enough evidence to show a direct connection between them and the Roman de Renart.]

The Roman de Renart is such an important text in medieval French literature and exerted such an influence on several other medieval vernacular literatures that it has usually been assumed it was also known in medieval England and influenced Middle English writers. Two attempts have been made to document...

(The entire section is 5578 words.)

Nancy Freeman Regalado (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Tristan and Renart: Two Tricksters,” in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 30-38.

[In the following essay, Regalado compares the Renart stories with the tale of Tristan and Iseut, contending that both stemmed from similar narratives of ambiguous tricksters.]

Seignor, oï avez maint conte
que maint conteor vos raconte,
coment Paris ravi Elainne,
les max qu'el en ot et la paine:
de Tristant, dont La Chievre fist …

(Roman de Renart, Br. III, vv. 1-51)

With these words, Pierre de Saint-Cloud, author of the earliest French branch of the Roman de Renart, set his story of the war...

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Paul Wackers (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “The Use of Fables in Reinaerts Historie,” in Third International Beast Epic, Fable, and Fabliau Colloquium, edited by Jan Goossens and Timothy Sodmann, Böhlau Verlag, 1981, pp. 461-83.

[In the following essay, Wacker defends the use of the fables found in Reinaerts historie, explaining how and why they effectively illustrate the author's message.]

Reinaerts historie is one of the most influential Middle Dutch stories. In the Netherlands it was printed and reprinted until the second half of the nineteenth century. And indirectly it has been the source of William Caxton's The History of Reynard the Fox (1481) and of the Lübeck...

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H. J. Blackham (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Renart to Volpone”in The Fable as Literature, The Athlone Press, 1985, pp. 33-84.

[In the following excerpt, Blackham provides an overview of the Roman de Renart, including its origins, themes, and influences.]


Although a masterpiece of medieval French literature with an influence throughout Europe for more than four centuries, Le Roman de Renart is not a single work by one author. As J.J. Jusserand described it at the end of the last century, ‘It was built up, part after part, during several centuries … like a cathedral, each author adding a wing, a tower, a belfry, a steeple …’I risked...

(The entire section is 4790 words.)

Roger Bellon (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Trickery as an Element of the Character of Renart,” in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1986, pp. 34-52.

[In the following essay, Bellon examines Renart's ability to innovate, his tactics, and the nature of his defense arguments.]

If trickery is defined as a “means of obtaining from others that which cannot be obtained by force, work or right”, it clearly emerges from the full text of the Roman de Renart1 that trickery is vitally important to Renart, both as animal and man, for several reasons:

—to obtain food. Without trickery, a predator of Renart's size and strength would almost certainly die...

(The entire section is 8981 words.)

Kenneth Varty (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “The Giving and Withholding of Consent in Late Twelfth-Century French Literature,” in Reading Medieval Studies, Vol. 12, 1986, pp. 27-49.

[In the following essay, Varty analyzes aspects of the Roman de Renart to illustrate and explain medieval views on rape and adultery.]

My investigations into the depiction and punishment of rape in late twelfth-century literature in northern France stem from a particular interest in some of the earlier branches of the Roman de Renart. One of these early tales recounts how Renart first committed adultery with the wolf's wife, Hersent, and then how, soon afterwards, he raped her, and was seen to rape her by...

(The entire section is 8745 words.)

Kathryn Gravdal (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Replaying Rape: Feudal Law on Trial in Le Roman de Renart,” in Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 72-103.

[In the following excerpt, Gravdal argues that by allowing legal procedures to dominate the rape trial episodes of the Roman de Renart, its authors challenged societal respect for feudal court practices.]

The archeology of feudal rape law discloses itself in a group of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Old French texts entitled Le Roman de Renart, a cycle of narratives in which the characters are humanized animals.1 The genre draws its sources...

(The entire section is 13432 words.)

Thomas W. Best (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Early Branches of the Roman de Renart,” in Reynard the Fox, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 33-69.

[In the following excerpt, Best describes and summarizes the various French tales collected under the name of the Roman de Renart.]

About the year 1176 a trouvère named Pierre de Saint-Cloud wrote what seems to be the first medieval beast epic in a popular language.1 It consists of some 2,410 eight-syllable verses in rhymed couplets, and its plot is devoted principally to another feud between the fox, named Renart, and Ysengrin the wolf, both of whom are barons in Noble the lion's kingdom. It was so well received that imitations...

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Josseline Bidard (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Reynard the Fox as Anti-Hero,” in Heroes and Heroines in Medieval English Literature, edited by Leo Carruthers, D. S. Brewer, 1994, pp. 119-23.

[In the following essay, Bidard details examples of how Reynard's character runs counter to that of the typical medieval hero.]

I would like first to comment on the title of this paper. Reynard the Fox is of course a convenient name to refer to the different foxes appearing in medieval literature between the XIIIth and XVth centuries. It is the name used for instance by Caxton in his 1481 translation and printing. It is also the name most commonly used by modern critics, a name that underlines the link between the...

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Further Reading


Blake, N. F. “A Possible Seventh Copy of Caxton's Reynard the Fox(1481)?” Notes and Queries 10, No. 8 (August 1963): 287-88.

Presents evidence that a conjectured seventh Caxton copy is actually a Pynson edition.

_____. “The Epilogue in William Caxton's Second Edition of Reynard the Fox.” Notes and Queries 11, No. 2 (February 1964): 50-51.

Presents evidence that the epilogue found in the Pepysian Library, Cambridge, copy of Caxton's edition is not the work of Caxton and may date from the seventeenth century.

Gravdal, Kathryn. “Law and Literature in the French...

(The entire section is 340 words.)