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http://classes.bnf.fr/renart/arret/02.htm (BnF) 
http://classes.bnf.fr/renart/livre/ (the text) FR 

Beast Epics: Antecedents

  • Beast Fables
  • Beast Epics or “mock-epics”

Given their length and a dramatis personæ consisting of animals, the 12th-century Roman de Renart and its immediate predecessor, Nivardus of Ghent’s Ysengrimus (1148-1149), bring to mind Vishnu Sharma‘s Sanskrit Panchatantra and its best-known Arabic analog, Ibn al-Muqaffa‘s Kalīlah wa Dimnah, but the Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart are mock-epics, which was new. The Panchatantra and Kalīlah wa Dimnah contained fables told by a story-teller, the sage Bidpai (Bidpaï, Pilpay). Their purpose was to prepare the prince for his future role as king. The fables of Bidpai constitute inset tales, Innerfabeln, inserted in a frame story, le récit-cadre or an Ausserfabel. In other words, we have an author and a story-teller.

By the final quarter of the 16th century in England, Bidpai’s fables constituted Thomas North’s Morall Philosophy of Doni (1571).[1] In France, the Panchatantra and the Arabic Kalīlah wa Dimnah, or the Fables of Bidpai, culminated in Orientalist Gilbert Gaulmin‘s translation of the fables of Pilpay, Le Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des rois, les Fables de Pilpay FR, published in 1644. In 1678, the year Jean de La Fontaine published his second collection (recueil) of fables, books VII to XI inclusively, he drew some of his material from Æsop, but his fables were also rooted in Gaulmin’s Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des rois, les fables de Pilpay. FR

The Middle Ages: the first of two Traditions

  • Marie de France
  • to delight and to instruct
  • Avianus and the Romulus

As of the publication of Paul the Deacon‘s Ægrum fama fuit and that of the reportedly anonymous Ecbasis cuisdam captivi,[2] didactic fables remained. They were written as Roman poet Horace (8 December 65 BCE – 27 November 8 BCE) suggested: to delight and to instruct.

Poetess Marie de France (fl. 1160 to 1215), wrote a sick-lion tale, “The Lion and the Fox.” Four centuries later, Jean de La Fontaine composed a sick-lion tale entitled “The Lion, the Wolf and the Fox” / “Le Lion, le Loup et le Renard(2.VIII.3). These poems contained a lesson. In the Æsopic, “The Lion, the Wolf, and the Fox,” number 258 in the Perry Index, the wolf attempts to defame the fox and pays the cost. He is flayed.

It should also be noted that students in their trivium used fables drawn from the Ysopet-Avionnet, a collection of Æsop’s Fables. In the 4th century, fabulist Avianus compiled a collection of fables that included not only fables set into written form by Roman author Phaedrus, but also fables removed from an oral tradition by Greek fabulist Babrius. Avianus set Babrius’ Greek Æsopic fables into Latin elegiac poems. The Ysopet-Avionnet, Avionnet from Avianus, endured until the first quarter of the 20th century. (See Ysopet, Wikipedia.) The Ysopet-Avionnet is an Internet Archive publication. Another 4th _century prose collection, entitled the Romulus, was also used widely.[3]

To sum up, the Reynard cycle (there are many Reynards), mock-epics featuring animals, did not ever eclipse fables written to instruct and to delight, many of which were short trickster tales belonging to the Æsopic corpus and included in the Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart. However, a new tradition emerged.

The Second Tradition

  • trickster tales
  • the grotesque
  • fabliaux

We are now leaving didactic fables. Henceforth, trickster tales will dominate in which beasts will be beasts, including anthropomorphic animals. The Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart are not edifying literature. The Middle Ages favoured the grotesque, from gargoyles (water spouts) to misericords (mercy seats in cathedrals and various monasteries). Moreover, we have entered the world of the fabliau. Fabliaux are mostly obscene and, at times, scatological. Paul the Deacon’s Ægrum Fama Fuit, the sick-lion tale, and the Ecbasis captivi therefore inaugurate the medieval mock-epics tradition, epitomized in the Ysengrimus and the Roman de Renart, or the Reynard cycle, which includes Geoffrey Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale.

However, our beast epics are characterized by the use of sophisticated versification and by their length. For instance, using sophisticated versification to tell the story of a rather senseless calf who leaves the pack and is captured by a wolf is dissonant and ironic. The longer the beast fable, the greater its dissonance and irony. Paulus Diaconus8th -century  Ægrum Fama Fuit contains 24 Latin distichs, which is relatively short, but the Ecbasis captivi runs 1,230 lines written in hexameters with, frequently, Leonine internal rhyme, Nivard de Gand’s Ysengrimus is a tour de force: 6,574 lines in elegiac couplets. As for the Roman de Renart, it is not entirely versified, but the poem contains 2,410 lines in eight syllables (octosyllabic) verses in rhymed couplets.

Clearly, superior versification and the length of these beast fables do not match the subject matter: the vendetta[4] between Reynard the fox and the wolf Ysengrin, born Reinardus and Ysengrimus in the Latin Ysengrimus. This discrepancy serves to mock chansons de gestechivalry and courtly love. Beast epics are the underside of real epics and the courtly literature. They are parodies.

Epics and Courtly literature mocked

Mock-epics, or beast epics are a mundus inversus. They are the reverse of the chansons de geste (songs of deeds) such as the Carolingian (Charlemagne) Chanson de Roland / Song of Roland. Roland is the valiant knight who defeats the Basques at the Battle of Roncevaux, in 778. Roland is also Matteo Maria Boiardo‘s Orlando Innamorato, 1483 and 1495, and Ariosto Ludovico‘s Orlando Furioso (1516). The setting is the invasion of European countries by the Moors, Muslim inhabitants of Northern Africa. But Matteo Maria Boiardo had fought in the Ottoman–Venetian War (1463–1479). On 29 May 1453, the Byzantine Empire (and Anatolia) had fallen to the Ottoman Turks, separating Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity, the Near East.

In Medieval Literature, these romances originate in the Carolingian and Arthurian (King Arthur) cycles. Arthurian romances are part of the matter of Britain. Cycles are a group of literary works on the same subject, the Reynard narratives are a cycle, but under its entry on Mock-epic Britannica lists three “cycles:” the “matter of Rome the great,” the “matter of France,” and the “matter of Britain.”

Medieval romance is classified into three major cycles: the “matter of Rome the great,” the “matter of France,” and the “matter of Britain” (“matter” here is a literal translation of the French matière, referring to subject matter, theme, topic, etc.). The matter of Rome, a misnomer, refers to all tales derived from Latin classics. The matter of France includes the stories of Charlemagne and his Twelve Noble Peers [Paladins]. The matter of Britain refers to stories of King Arthur and his knights, the Tristan stories, and independent tales having an English background, such as Guy of Warwick. (Mock-epic.)[5]

I should think that El Cantar de Mio Cid a chanson [cantar] de geste, is also a cycle and the celebration of heroic deeds (gestes). Epics such as the Chanson de Roland, feature noble knights in shining armour who belong to courtly literature. These valiant knights will submit to demeaning tasks to earn the love of an idealized woman, a précieuse avant la lettre. Medieval chansons de geste intersect chivalric and courtly literature, the Roman de la Rose, which constitutes courtly love’s literary pinnacle. The rape of Hersent cannot be associated with courtly love.


Chivalry (BnF)

fr_1630_060v (3)

Ysengrin, Renart & Hersent (BnF)

http://classes.bnf.fr/renart/it/genese/05.htm (Chivalry)
http://classes.bnf.fr/renart/it/episodes/07.htm (Ysengrin, Renart & Hersent)

Anthropomorphism & Speech

In anthropomorphic literature, humanness isn’t so much a question of appearance as it is a matter of speech, or the ability to speak. Nivardus of Ghent named his characters, highlighting their humanness. We are reminded of T. S. Elliott’s (26 September 1888 – 4 January 1965) Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and, in particular, of the Naming of Cats.

Jill Mann, who translated the Ysengrimus into English, compares the flayed wolf who survives the removal of his coat to the cats of cartoons. These cats are flattened by a steam-roller, but fluff up again, as though they were impervious to injury and pain:

The recrudescent power of the wolf’s skin is reminiscent of the world of the cartoon where the cat who is squashed flat by a steam-roller, say, is restored to three dimensions in the next frame. [6]

The cats of cartoons live every one of their nine lives as do the Lion-King’s mutilated barons. Neither the flayed wolf nor Bruin the bear, who “loses the skin off his nose,” seem to have sustained permanent and possibly fatal injuries.

We are in an other world where an animal’s fur seems a mere coat and where animals speak, a faculty perhaps denied humans. Lanfrey (Lanfroi), the forester, does not speak. His arrival forces Bruin to sacrifice his nose so his life is spared.

In Ramsay Wood’s translation and adaptation of Kalila and Dimna (Bidpai’s fables), a shaman tells a worried prince who will not believe his gazelle spoke to him and has fallen ill over this matter, that the gazelle did talk to him:

“[Y]our gazelle spoke to you! Don’t you realize that all animals can speak? But they never do so in the company of pitiful humans!”[7]

Moreover, Wikipedia describes the Ysengrimus as a Latin fabliau. Although Hersent (Hersant FR), Ysengrin’s wife, has made love with Renart consensually (Branche II, c. 1110, p. 265), Renart takes advantage of her when she is caught in a hole, her rear end protruding. Yet, Jean Dufournet writes that the Roman de Renart was a “divertissement de clercs” (clerics)[8] and Thomas Best (p. 34) comments that “Pierre de Saint-Cloud wrote [branches II -Va] for recitation to lay nobility, addressed at the very beginning of his poem as seigneurs [lords].” Renart’s short verses, eight syllables, could be read easily by an audience consisting of the nobility of its times.

Reynard’s Eloquence

In Reynard the Fox, both animalness and humanness can be a thin veneer. In fact, were Reynard flayed, would his eloquence lose any of its verve? Underneath Reynard’s red coat, lives one of literature’s most eloquent characters. Renard’s barat, or deceitful language, convinces Tiécelin the crow to open his mouth and sing, causing Tiécelin to drop his precious cheese. But most importantly, Renart’s eloquence is such that he can talk himself out of death sentence at least twice: at the end of his “jugement” (branche I) and after Maupertuis, his fortress, is besieged.

Jurisprudence: “you shouldn’t take more than you find”

In this regard, let us note that in Nivardus of Ghent’s Ysengrimus, as the wolf is about to be flayed by the bear, Reynard “suddenly rushes forward with the plea that he [the bear] should ‘take no more than he finds:’ “I make one small request – let there be room for it – grant it – and I’ll show myself deserving: that you shouldn’t take more than you find! He himself never took more than he found. It’s right to take away what one has, but wrong to take away more than that!’ (III 931-4).” (Mann, p. 10.) I see the scales of Lady Justice.

There is no flaying episode in the Roman de Renart, but as he is about to be hanged, Renart uses his engin, his resourcefulness, and finds a ruse exceptionnelle. It occurs to him to argue that before being hanged, he must go on a pilgrimage and atone not to die a sinner. It is as though eternal damnation was too cruel and unusual a punishment for one who has merely eaten a few animals, tricked the greedy wolf, a Monk, and raped Hersent?[9]

The Pilgrimage

It works. Renart, who arrived tardily at the sick Lion-King’s bedside, because he was on a pilgrimage is sent on a pilgrimage, but Renart being Renart, he doesn’t leave for Syria. He simply returns to his fortress, Maupertuis. Molière’s Dom Juan will be called a “pilgrim.” As for Renart’s topsy-turvy defence, it is consistent with Tartuffe‘s casuistry. Moreover, Tartuffe takes no more than he has been given by Orgon.


A studious fox in a monk’s cowl, in the margins of a Book of Hours, Utrecht, c. 1460 (Photo credit: Reynard, Wikipedia)


Renart does not always win. In the Æsopic “Le Chat et le Renart”/ “The Cat and the Fox”  [IX. 14] the fox cannot climb a tree. That is the cat’s only trick. But he can transform the grapes he craves, but cannot reach, into sour grapes (“Le Renard et les Raisins”/The Fox and the Grapes [lll. 11). That’s engin. There is, however, a gradual transformation of Reynard. In the “vendetta” opposing a greedy wolf and a smart fox, one starts wondering which of the two is the greater scoundrel: Ysengrin or Reynard?

Renart has become evil itself which is how he is depicted in Jacquemart Gielée’s Renart le Nouvel (1289) and the anonymous Renard le Contrefait (1319 – 1322), French avatars. In later iconography, the animals look almost human. The zoomorphic aspect of the beast featured in the image below is disturbing. These figures are neither animals nor human beings.


Anthropomorphism (BnF)

http://classes.bnf.fr/renart/it/genese/07.htm (Anthropomorphism)

I will close here having been kept away from my computer by a multitude of events and fatigue. I still have the story to clarify but the Roman de Renart is both parcellaire and unitaire.[10] It is fragmented, piecemeal, yet coherent. The Bibliothèque nationale de France (the BnF) has divided Renart into nine episodes, which is the presentation I have chosen. The BnF uses Jean Dufournet’s authoritative translation (into modern French of the medieval Roman de Renart. (See Dufournet and Méline.)

Love to everyone


Sources and Resources


[1] See Panchatantra, Wikipedia for further details.

[2] In his Introduction to Reynard the Fox, Henry Morley tells that the author of the Ecbasis captivi belonged to the monastery of St. Evre, at Toul. Strict reforms among the brethren, in the year 936, cause his Ecbasis -his going out. He was brought back, and as sign of is regeneration wrote the poem, in which he figured himself “per tropologiam” as a calf, who, having gone out from safety, became captive to the wolf. (Introduction, A History of Reynard the Fox [London: George Routledge and Sons, 1889]), p. 1. The full title of the Ecbasis cuisdam captivi per tropologiam is “The escape of a certain captive, interpreted figuratively.

[3] Harriet Spiegel, translator and editor, Marie de France: Fables (Toronto: the University of Toronto Press, 2000 [1987], Introduction.

[4] Thomas W. Best, Reynard the Fox (Boston: J. K. Hall & Company, 1983), p. 34.

[5] https://www.britannica.com/art/mock-epic

[6] Jill Mann, “The Satiric Fiction of the Ysengrimus,” 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 Books, 2000), p. 11.

[7] Ramsay Wood (reteller) and Doris Lessing (introduction), Tales of Kalila and Dimna, Classic Fables from India (Rochester Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1980), p. 252.

[8] Jean Dufournet et Andrée Méline, traduction et introduction, Le Roman de Renart (Paris: GF-Flammarion, 1985), p. 7.

[9] Jean Subrenat, “Rape and Adultery: Reflected Facets of Feudal Justice in the Roman de Renart,” in Kenneth Varty, ed. Reynard the Fox: Social Engagement in the Beast Epic from the Middle Ages to the Present (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000), pp. 17-35.

[10] Jean Batany, Scène et coulisses du «Roman de Renart» (Paris: Sedes, 1989), Chapitre II.

http://classes.bnf.fr/renart/arret/02_1.htm (BnF)

Werkraum – Slâfest du, friedel ziere?
Ein Tagelied aus dem 12. Jahrhundert von Dietmar von Aist.


© Micheline Walker
21 April 2017