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The Lion's Court

Le Roman de Renart.  Noble le Lion, (Bibliothèque nationale de France BnF [br. Va])

Beast Literature


Generally speaking, European beast literature consists of two genres: fables and beast epics, or mock-epics.  Fables are short, but epics are very long. Le Roman de Renart is a beast epic, but it contains the story of a Crow, Tiécelin or Tiercelin, who is led to sing (chanter) by a cunning Sir Fox, and loses his living. Jean Batany calls the various fables “parcellaires” and the entire beast epic, or fabliau, “unitaire.”[i] In short, beast epics are frame-stories (outer stories) that join shorter stories (inner stories).

One of our WordPress colleagues added the expression “to eat crow” to my “crowing.”  As it turns out, Mr Boehner, Sir Fox, may well be “eating crow,” and the expression “to eat crow,” may be rooted in “The Fox and the Crow.” So, it is possible that “The Fox and Crow” shaped the English language to a greater extent than I suspected and that it may have done so because of the wide dissemination of beast literature in both fables, popular collections of fables, and various epic poems we will name Reynard the Fox stories, an umbrella term. So we have another curtain to raise.


Minton decorated tile

Dissemination Through Fables

AT 57 Raven with Cheese
Perry Index: 124

Where fables are concerned, there exist several sources.[ii]  However, we could begin with Marie de France[iii] who was born in Normandy but then lived in England. She is French literature’s first, chronologically, important woman writer. Her collection of fables contains a “Fox and Crow” narrative, entitled “Del corbel e del gupil,” that may predate the Ysopet-Avionnet, but not necessarily.[iv] The Ysopet-Avionnet dates back to the period during which the goupil became a renard, which may explain why her Fox is named gupil. Marie lived in the 12th century and retold 103 ‘Æsopic’ fables, her “Fox and Crow” being the 13th.   

In the Ysopet-Avionnet, our fable is entitled “Du Renart et du Corbel” and is fable number 15.  Foxes used to be called goupils, but as of 1250 approximately, the success of the Roman de Renart led to the “goupil” being renamed “renart.” In other words, the part became the whole, so to speak, as in a synecdoche, a figure of speech, hence its “Fox and Crow” being entitled “Du Renart et du Corbel.

The Ysopet-Avionnet, a widely-used medieval grammar book, contains a “Fox and Crow,” the above-mentioned “Du Renart et du Corbel,” a translation of the Latin “De Vulpe [fox] et Corvo,” fable number 15 in the Ysopet-Avionnet (p. 73).[v]  Avianus (Avionnet) lived in the 4th century CE, and he wrote in Latin. However, “Du Renart et du Corbel” is not one of the 18 fables Flavius Avianus contributed to the Ysopet-Avionnet. It is one of the 64 fables attributed to a Romulus.

(Please click on the small images to enlarge them.)

Renart et Tiécelin

Renart et Tiécelin, (BnF), ms 12587

Le Corbeau et le Renard

Renart et Tiécelin, (BnF), ms 14969 fol. 25*

*Guillaume le Clerc, Bestiaire divin. Manuscript copied in Great Britain, in the last quarter of the 13th century. BnF Ms 14969 fol. 25.

Dissemination through Beast Epics (a Sample)

The Ysengrimus (c. 1150)

Reynard (Reinardus) was born in the Ysengrimus and attributed to Nivardus of Ghent. Nivardus is a latinized version of Nivard. The Ysengrimus is a very long poem: 6,574 lines of elegiac couplets. It was translated into English by Jill Mann and is still available (see Jill Mann). The pioneer, however, was John Voigt who translated the Ysengrimus into German. Ysengrimus was the Wolf and Reinardus, the Fox. In French, Ysengrimus is Ysengrin and in English, he is Isengrim. Renart is Reynard.

The Roman de Renart (1170-1250)

The French Roman de Renart was written between 1170 and 1250. Pierre de Saint-Cloud was its first author, but it has other authors: Richard de Lison, the Prêtre de la Croix en Brie, and others. Beginning with the Ysengrimus, beast epics were written not only as mock-epics, but also as satires of a greedy Church.

Le Roman de Renart contains 27 narratives and 2,700 octosyllabic verses (eight syllables). These are joined into clusters called “branches.” The central theme is the fierce competition between the Fox, who uses ruse or “engin” (ingenuity), and the Wolf, who uses brutal force and is forever hungry. It eats ham mainly, but has been caught eating lamb. Other animals featured in the Roman de Renart are Bruin the Bear, Tibert the Cat, Tiercelin or Tiécelin the Crow, Hersent the She-Fox (Isengrim’s wife), Chantecler the Cock, etc. For a reading, in French, of the Roman de Renart’s “Fox and Crow” episode, one may visit the Bibliothèque nationale de France. It may be that the site is in English as well as French, but I have yet to discover a translation.[v]

England, the Netherlands and Germany

The Roman de Renart then migrated to other lands, the Netherlands in particular. But it also moved to Germany. It was hugely successful in both the Netherlands and German-language states. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is the author of Reineke Fuchs (1793). But the Brothers Grimm also wrote Reynard stories.

Reynard in Georgia, the United States

In North-America, Reynard inhabits Joel Chandler Harris‘ (9 December 1848 – 3 July 1908) Tales of Uncle Remus. However, in The Tales of Uncle Remus, our trickster, the Fox, is replaced by the Rabbit. The traditional North-American trickster is the Coyote.



Title credit: About Reynard the Fox.  (Nederland Film, 1943) Courtesy Nederland Filmmuseum (frame enlargement Ole. Schepp).[vi]

Robert van Genechten (25 October 1895 – 13 December 1945) produced an anti-Semitic version of Reynard the Fox, entitled Van den vos Reynaerde. He was a collaborator. At the end of World War II, Genechten was condemned to death, but committed suicide in his cell to avoid the humiliation of a public and ritualistic execution.


There are so many Reynard stories and, consequently, so many “Fox and Crow” fables that it could argued successfully that expressions featuring linguistic elements such as “to eat crow,” “crowing,” “faire chanter” and, by extension, “chantage” (blackmail) originate in “The Fox and the Crow” and Le Corbeau et le Renart. “The Fox and the Crow,” however, is a transcultural text. Related narratives can be found in Ibn al-Muqaffa‘s Kalilah waDimna and, earlier, in the Sanskrit Panchatantra.

Meanwhile in Washington: The Deceiver Deceived

Farcesbles vs Fa

However, allow me to return briefly to a Washington reading of “The Fox and Crow.”  In fables, the birthplace of proverbs, among other forms, the crow ends up eating humble pie, or “eating crow.” In farces, however, the deceiver is deceived, le trompeur trompé. In fables, one can be fooled; Sir Crow opens his mouth and loses the cheese. But Mr Boehner, as Sir Fox, did not succeed in making Sir Crow, President Obama, “crow.” It could be said, therefore, that the shutdown of the American government was not only senseless and far too costly, but that it was… a farce!


[i] Jean Batany, Scène et Coulisses [wings] du « Roman de Renart » (Paris : Sedes, 1989), pp. 48-49.
[ii] For a more complete list, see Æsopicahttp://www.mythfolklore.net/aesopica/
[iii] Harriet Spiegel, editor and translator, The Fables of Marie de France (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000 [1994]).
[iv] They may have been written at approximately the same time.
[v] The Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) has a lovely site on the Roman de Renart.  “Roman” does not mean novel, it points to the language, “le roman,” in which the text was written.  Click on: 
[vi] Reynard the Fox and the Jew Animal http://www.awn.com/mag/issue1.7/articles/barten1.7.html
Kalilah wa Dimna The Fox and the Crow

Kalilah wa Dimna
The Fox and the Crow




© Micheline Walker
27 October 2013