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William Caxton’s Reynard the Fox

In 1450, legendary Briton William Caxton (c. 1422 – c. 1491), a merchant, a diplomat, a writer, a translator and Britain’s first printer, moved to Bruges, Belgium. At that time in history, the Franco-Flemish lands were very rich and, as I have stated several times, they were the cultural hub of Europe. As a merchant, Caxton had joined the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London of which he would become the governor. 

Caxton was interested in literature. He learned Flemish and translated the very popular Roman de Renart from the Flemish into English. Caxton had set up a printing press in 1476, at Westminster, England, where, in 1481, he printed his translation of the Roman de Renart, which he entitled The History of Reynard the FoxCaxton also printed Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and he is the translator, in collaboration with Colard Mansion, of Raoul Lefèvre‘s the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, or Recueil des Histoires de Troy, printed in Bruges and the first book to be printed in the English language.

Although Le Roman de Renart is a masterpiece of French literature, it has Flemish, German and other roots. Renart was born as Reinardus in Nivardus of Ghent’s Ysengrimus, a Latin fabliau and mock epic, and his adventures were told in several languages. Its earliest “branches” were published in c. 1171.

German Translations of the Roman de Renart

Renart was first translated by Alsatian Heinrich der Glïchezäre as “Reinhart Fuchs ” (1180) almost as soon as its first branches were published in France. Glïchezäre’s Reinhart Fuchs is the first Beast epic in the German language and “branches” of Reynard’s adventures would be retold in the German-speaking lands until Wolfgang von Goethe as Reinecke Fuchs DE during the French Revolution. Goethe’s Reynard is rooted in Johann Christoph Gottsched‘s Reineke der Fuchs

Caxton’s The History of Reynard the Fox (click) is an internet publication. It was digitized by Canadian University of Victoria professor David Badke in 2003. It is a treasure as is professor Badke’s Medieval Bestiary, which includes Reynard. David Badke used an edition published by George Routledge and Sons, in 1889. Henry Morley wrote the introduction to Caxton’s 1889 Reynard the Fox. It is a concise but very informative introduction.

I have already mentioned Joan Acocella‘s “Fox News: What the stories of Reynard tell us about ourselves.” Joan Acocella used Caxton’s translation. Le Roman de Renart is also a Wikisource publication, in French. However, Wikisource used a shorter but superior reworking of Le Roman de Renart. It was rewritten by celebrated medievalist Paulin Paris. (See Paulin Paris, Wikipedia.)

Reynard: an Incunabulum

As for Caxton’s Reynard the Fox, it is an incunable, or a book printed between Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and movable type, in c. 1439, and the year 1501. Incunables have also been called “fifteeners.” From time to time, patrons asked printers to leave blank areas so the book could be somewhat illuminated or rubricated, as shown below:

Page from Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, printed in red and black by Peter Schöffer (Mainz, 1471). The page exhibits a rubricated initial letter “U” and decorations, marginalia, and ownership stamps of the “Bibliotheca Gymnasii Altonani” (Hamburg). (Photo and caption credit: Wikipedia)


The above is not the article I wanted to post as Preface to Reynard the Fox: Motifs. That post was too long which required my dividing it into several more or less independent short posts. It may be published in its entirety, but I doubt it. It would be repetitive.


Sources and Resources

Alfred Deller sings Handel


© Micheline Walker
8 April 2017