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Le Roman de Renart

The animals at Noble’s court
Noble the lion is king
Renart is the Fox
Ysengrin is the Wolf
Brun (Bruin) is the Bear
the rape of Dame Hersent, Ysengrin’s wife
Fière is the Lion’s wife
Aarne-Thomson classification system (ATU) type 2
Perry Index number 17
Perry Index number 24

The picture featured above shows the Lion king, Noble. In Branch I, of the Roman de Renart, Le Jugement de Renart[1], the various animals, barons, meet at Noble the Lion’s court that doubles up as a court of justice. Ysengrin tells about his wife Hersent who has been raped when she got stuck in a hole.  (The Roman de Renart is not in chronological order.)

The Lion does not think he can charge Renart with rape as the charge might not “stick.” There is a “history” (“branche” II)between Dame Hersent and Renart, which is known. Nevertheless, when she gets caught in a wall and Renart takes advantage of Dame Hersent, it is rape. It is in Renart’s “nature” (character) to avail himself of every opportunity.

Although a charge of “rape” might not “stick,” the other animals gathered at the Lion’s court come forward to tell Noble that Renart has wronged them time and again. For instance, he has eaten many of their relatives. Hearing their complaints, the king, Noble the lion, decides he now has sufficient reasons to have Renart brought to court, the king’s court of law. Renart’s trial and the discussion that precedes his being brought to trial is masterful. Renart’s trial is a building block in the development of European jurisprudence and has been identified as such.[2]


Renart et Dame Hersent, br. II (Photo credit: BnF)

Le Jugement de Renart: Reynard’s Judgement

Bruin the bear is the first ambassador, the second is Tyber the cat, and the third, Grimbart the badger 
Maupertuis: Renart’s fortress
Renart the trickster
Bruin’s “nature”
Bruin loses the “skin off [his] nose”

Bruin the bear is the first “ambassador” to travel, on horseback, to Maupertuis, Renart’s, fortress. As you may suspect, Renart is not about to follow Bruin to court. Our red fox is the trickster extraordinaire, so he tells Bruin to put his snout down into a slit in a log that is secured by wedges. According to Renart, that is where Lanfroi the forester keeps his honey.

As it is known “by universal popular consent,” bears love honey. Our modern Winnie-the-Pooh gets stuck in a house because he has eaten so much honey he cannot get out the way he came in. He is like Æsop’s swollen fox (“The Fox and the Weasel.” Perry Index 24). To get out, Winnie-the-Pooh must first lose weight. Similarly, Bruin cannot resist looking down the opening in the oak tree he is told contains honey. That is in his “nature.”

By now, Renart is at a distance to protect himself from Lanfroi, but Bruin puts his nose inside the opening in the tree at which point the wedges are removed and he gets caught, or “coincé” (coin = wedge and corner). He sees Lanfroi and “vilains,” villagers, rushing to attack him. Therefore, knowing that he will lose his life if he does not flee, Bruin sacrifices the skin “off [his] nose,” gets on his horse, and travels back to court. When he arrives at court, he is bleeding profusely and faints. “Renart t’a mort” (Renart killed you,” says the king (br. I, v. 724).

Le siège de Maupertuis (br. Ia) (The Siege of Maupertuis) (Photo credit: BnF)

Renart assiégé dans sa forteresse (Reynard besieged in his fortress) (Photo credit: BnF)

The Comic Text, or the Steamroller

Bruin seems to be suffering. However, according to Dr. Jill Mann,[3] the translator (into English) of the Ysengrimus, written in 1149 -1150, the birthplace of both Reinardus (Renart) and Ysengrimus (Ysengrin the wolf), the various animals of the Ysengrimus do not suffer.

The Ysengrimus, a 6,574-line fabliau written in Latin elegiac verses, is the Roman de Renart‘s (1274 – 1275) predecessor. Dr. Mann compares the fox and other animals to cartoons where a cat is flattened by a steamroller, but fluffs up again (Jill Mann, p. 11).

“The recrudescent power of the wolf’s skin [bear’s skin] is reminiscent of the world of the cartoon, where the cat who is squashed flat by a steam-roller, is restored to three dimensions in the next frame.” (Mann, p. 11)  

In other words, Reynard the Fox is a forgiving comic text, which allows for devilish pranks that do not harm animals and human beings. They may scream, for appearances, but they return to their normal selves.

The Roman de Renart is translated

Authorship of Ysengrimus has been challenged, but the Ysengrimus exists and it was rewritten in various European languages, the languages of the Netherlands and German, in particular. At any rate, it is of crucial importance that famed translator and printer William Caxton (c. 1415 – c. March 1492) wrote an English version of Reynard the Fox. (See William CaxtonWikipedia, the free encyclopedia.) (This translation is available online: The History of Reynard the Fox.)

From “goupil” to “renarT” and “Renard”

Reynard the Fox had to be popular in England as otherwise the expression “it’s no skin off my nose” could not be traced back, albeit hypothetically, to the Reynard cycle. In France, the Roman de Renart was so popular that goupil, the French word for fox, was replaced by Renart, but La Fontaine uses the modern spelling: renard. Now, if the fox lost his name goupil to become Renart, the Roman de Renart may also have influenced the English language.

Given the popularity and wide dissemination of Reynard the Fox, crediting a linguistic element to Reynard the Fox makes sense. In fact, crediting a linguistic element to a popular fable often makes sense. These stories were in circulation. Persons who could not read were told about Reynard, just as they were told Jacobus de Voragine‘s Golden Legend.

The Roman de Renart as a satire

According to Wikipedia,

Ysengrimus is usually held to be an allegory for the corrupt monks of the Roman Catholic Church. His [Ysengrimus’] greed is what typically causes him to be led astray. He is made to make statements such as “commit whatever sins you please; you will be absolved if you can pay.”[4] 

One could buy indulgences and do penance in purgatory:

purgatory, the condition, process, or place of purification or temporary punishment in which, according to medieval Christian and Roman Catholic belief, the souls of those who die in a state of grace are made ready for heaven.[5]

Obviously, the Roman de Renart was not written for children, but there are children’s adaptations of its many tales. In such versions, Renart does not rape Dame Hersent and when the wolf loses his tail to escape “vilains” who will kill him, he feels no pain. The Roman de Renart includes the tail-fisher motif (ATU  2; Perry Index 17 and (“The Fox with the Swollen Belly) (Perry Index number 24). (See RELATED ARTICLES)



ATU 2: The Tail-Fisher (Aarne-Thompson-Üther classification system)
Perry Index 17 (“The Fox without a Tail”)
Perry Index 24 (“The Fox with the Swollen Belly”)

In A. A. Milne‘s[6] Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore loses a tail, which may remind one of the Tail-Fisher (ATU 2), but the tail is not severed or caught in the ice. The tail is lost but will be found. As for Bruin the bear’s nose, it will grow back.

Such is not the case with the Æsopic fox or La Fontaine “Renard ayant la queue coupée.” Besides, Bruin’s nose is caught just as Ysengrin’s tail is caught in the ice which forces him to lose it in order to survive.

There are differences between ATU 2 and our Æsopic fables as well as similarities. But what is fascinating is that Bruin’s sad encounter with Renart and Lanfroi the forester may have helped shape the English language: “It’s no skin off my nose.”

Let this be our conclusion.

Wishing all of you a good week.




Sources and Resources


[1] Jean Dufournet & Andrée Méline (traduction) et Jean Dufournet (introduction), Le Roman de Renart (Paris: GF Flammarion, 1985), pp 72-79.

[2] Jean Subrenat, “Rape and Adultery: Reflected Facets of Feudal Justice in the Roman de Renart,” in Kenneth Varty, ed. Reynard the Fox: Social Engagement and Cultural Metamorphoses in the Beast Epic from the Middle Ages to the Present (New York & Oxford: Berghahn, 2000), pp. 16-35.

[3] Jill Mann “The Satiric Vision of the Ysengrimus,” in Kenneth Varty, ed. op. cit, pp. 1-15.

[4] Ysengrimus, Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia.

[5] “purgatory”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 04 oct.. 2014

[6] “A. A. Milne”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 05 oct.. 2014 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/383024/AA-Milne>.


© Micheline Walker
5 October 2014