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British Library, Sloane MS 278, Folio 53r

“A fox [above] pretends to be dead to deceive two birds into coming close enough to catch.” (fol. 53r) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary) (Aarne-Thompson Classification Index, 56A)[1]

“The lion’s cubs [below] are born dead; after three days the father comes and roars over them, and brings them to life.” (fol. 96v) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)

Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 308, Folio 96v

Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 308, Folio 96v

In his Preface to Æsop’s Fables, its translator, George Fyler Townsend,[2] states that “[t]he introduction [in fables] of the animals or fictitious characters should be marked with an unexceptionable care and attention to their natural attributes, and to the qualities attributed to them by universal popular consent. The Fox should be always cunning, the Hare timid, the Lion bold, the Wolf cruel, the Bull strong, the Horse proud, and the Ass patient.” (Bold characters are mine.)

Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 366, Folio 71v

Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 366, Folio 71v

“A fox [above] runs off with a cock, while a woman carrying a distaff gestures angrily.” (fol. 71v) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)

Medieval Animal Lore

The Fox as the Devil, etc.

Townsend’s statement reflects an anthropomorphic vision of animals (humans in disguise), as in George Orwell‘s 1945 Animal Farm). In fables and in beast epics, such as Le Roman de Renart, animals are anthropomorphic. But Townsend’s comment also reflects a will to stereotype animals and transform them into allegorical creatures. In Medieval Bestiaries, they are symbols.

Medieval writers were fond of allegories, hence the questionable, but poetical, qualities bestowed on medieval beasts. The Lion is God and the Lamb, Jesus Christ. Only a virgin can catch the legendary or mythical Unicorn. (See Unicorn, Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia). The Beaver[3] eats its own testicles to avoid being caught by hunters. The fox is not only devious, but the devil himself:

“The fox represents the devil, who pretends to be dead to those who retain their worldly ways, and only reveals himself when he has them in his jaws. To those with perfect faith, the devil is truly dead.” (See David Badke or The Medieval Bestiary [bestiary.ca].)

British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 9r

British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 9r

“Hunted [above] for its testicles, it castrates itself to escape from the hunter.” (fol. 9r) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)

Exceptions to the lore, but…

There are exceptions to the lore. The real Dog is a very loyal animal. It can sniff out nearly anything or anyone. However, a real Dog does not let go of the prey it holds for the prey it might catch. In other words, the fanciful and the fantastic suffuse Medieval Bestiaries, such as the Aberdeen Bestiary or the Ashmole Bestiary (or Bestiaries). The same is true of several extraordinary medieval beasts, not to mention qualities attributed to birds, stones, and other aspects of nature. The merveilleux FR characterizes more than a thousand years of Natural Histories. It is often called le merveilleux chrétien, a Christian magical realism (the fantastic).

Writers of Medieval Bestiaries used Natural Histories such as Claudius Alienus‘ (170 CE – 235 CE) On the Nature of Animals (17 books) as their reference. Yet, these works were rooted in earlier texts, such as HerodotusHistories and Pliny the Elder‘s (c. 23 CE –  24 or 25 August 79 CE) Historia Naturalis.[4] However, as we have seen, the preferred source of writers of Medieval Bestiaries was the anonymous Physiologus, which cannot be considered “scientific.” (See Manuscript shelf.)

The Naming of Reinardus/Renart

This depiction of animals seems all the more anthropomorphic when the animal is given a name. In the Ysengrimus, the Fox is called Reinardus, a Latin form of Renart, the Fox’s name in the Roman de Renart, and La Fontaine’s Renard, the current spelling. The Fox is all too human. Professor Jan M. Ziolkowski[5] writes that animals featured in the Roman de Renart are

so highly individualized that they have names, like human beings.

This comment reminds me of T. S. Eliot‘s “The Naming of Cats,” Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). “The Naming of Cats” was a source for Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s   immensely successful musical entitled Cats (1981). (See Cats, Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia.)

Reinardus and Renart

The naming of the Roman de Renart‘s animal cast begins with the Ysengrimus (1148-1149), the birthplace of Reinardus (Latin) who becomes Renart beginning in 1274-1275, when the first “branches” of the Roman de Renartwritten in “Roman,” the vernacular, were published. Animals in the Medieval Bestiary are seldom presented with animal attributes, with the probable exception of illuminations (enluminures FR).


In other words, beasts inhabiting the Medieval Bestiary are stereotypes, or archetypes. Deviousness is the Fox’s main attribute, but it is a literary attribute, by “universal popular consent.” In fact, Medieval Beast literature is an example of intertextuality EN, a term coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966. Intertextuality is a theory according to which texts are rooted in an earlier text or earlier texts. One could also use the word palimpsest.

“Bear cubs are born as shapeless lumps of flesh, so their mother has to lick them into their proper shape.” (fol. 21r) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)

“The lion is the king of beasts.” (fol. 6r) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)

Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 22v

Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 22v

“Bear cubs are born as formless lumps of flesh; here [above] the mother is licking the cub into shape.” (fol. 22v) (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)

British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 15r

British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 15r

“A mother bear [above] licks her cub into shape.” (Photo credit: The Medieval Bestiary)

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1951, Folio 18r

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1951, Folio 18r

“‘le lyon [above] qui fait revivre ses lyonciaus’ – The lion revives its dead cubs. In the Bestiaire d’amour the man says that in the same way the woman can revive him from his love-death.” (fol. 18r) (Photo credit: BnF)

The Fox: “Licking into Shape”

natural histories
licking into shape (Pliny the Elder)

Pliny the Elder

In fables and the Reynard the Fox cycle, Renart’s main fictitious characteristic is his devious nature, an attribute bestowed upon him by humans and which he possesses in fables, beast epics, medieval bestiaries, and in Natural Histories, by “universal popular consent.”

Licking into Shape

Pliny the Elder, however, does not mention deviousness with respect to the fox. What Pliny reveals is the birth of incomplete offspring that have to be licked into shape. I have yet to find an image of the Fox licking its offspring into shape, but Bears and Lions also lick their incomplete progeny into shape. (See Fox, in The Medieval Bestiary.) Although this characteristic, i.e. licking into shape, was noted in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, or Natural History (published c. 77– 79 CE), it may have entered animal lore long before Pliny was born.

As noted above, I have not found an image of the Fox licking unfinished foxes into shape, but I have found images of Bears licking their cubs into shape and Lions breathing life into lions born dead.


Le Roman de Renart, Renart et Tiécelin le corbeau (Reynard and Tiécelin the crow), br.II, Bibliothèque nationale de France (you may click this link)

The Fox Playing Dead to Obtain Food

Renart et les anguilles (br. III) (Reynard and the eels)
Æsop’s “The Dog and the Fox Who Played Dead” (ATU 56A)
Laurentius Abstemius 146 

Animal “lore” also presents a second image of the Fox. We have seen that in “The Crow and Fox” (« Le Renard et le Corbeau, » (La Fontaine I.3) the fox flatters the crow into singing and dropping its dinner. But the literary fox also plays dead to catch food, which is yet another manifestation of the fox’s deceptive literary “nature.” The theft of fish is motif number 1 in the Aarne-Thompson-Üther classification system.

Previously, Isidore of Seville (7th century CE) had written about foxes that they were “deceptive animals.” As for Bartholomeus Anglicus (13th century), he had described the fox as “a false beast and deceiving” that “makes believe it is dead in order to catch food.” (ATU 105)

The fox also plays dead in Laura Gibbs’ Bestiaria Latina:

On Abstemius

Abstemius is the author of the Hecatomythium (A Hundred Fables). Abstemius’ real name was Lorenzo Bevilaqua. He was a professor of literature at Urbino in the 15th century. He published the Hecatomythium, (A Hundred Fables) in 1495, followed by 97 fables, the content of his 1499 Hecatomythium Secundum, published in Venice in 1499. Hecatomythium is a Greek word, but Abstemius wrote in Latin. (See Laurentius Abstemius, Wikipedia – the free Encyclopedia.)


Several Natural Histories were written in Greco-Roman Antiquity, going back to HerodotusHistories. Herodotus described the crocodile, the hippopotamus and phoenix. Many Natural Histories were also published in the early Middle Ages.

However, animals dwelling in

  1. fables;
  2. in beast epics, such as the Reynard the Fox cycle;
  3. in Medieval Bestiaries;
  4. and in Natural Histories are not zoological creatures, but the denizens of literature.

They possess qualities attributed to them “by universal popular consent,” which, in the Middle Ages, may have been the consent of Christian “naturalists,” some of whom were monks and scribes.

The fox, a beloved rascal, was the devil himself. Besides, we owe fox “lore” at least two English expressions: to “lick into shape” and “sour grapes.”

I apologize for my tardiness and send all of you my kindest regards. ♥


Sources and Resources


[1] The Aarne-Thomson classification system (motif index) was modified by Hans Jorge Üther, hence the initials ATU.

[2] George Fyler Townsend, Æsop’s Fables, Project Gutenberg [EBook #21]. Third paragraph.

[3] Æsop’s fables have been indexed by Ben Edwin Perry (1892–1968). “The Beaver” is Perry Index 118.

[4]  Pliny the Elder died in the eruption of Vesuvius.

[5] Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750 – 1150 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 3.

 Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 13v

Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 13v

© Micheline Walker
25 September 2014