Roman de Renart Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.