Roman de Renart (ca. 1175–1250) satirical fable. Encyclopedia of World Writers, Beginnings To 20th Century

The Roman de Renart (Romance of Reynard) is a
series of French tales composed over a span of several
years. Altogether the poem covers tens of thousands
of lines and has 27 branches, or episodes. The
earliest recorded branches emerged in 1170, and
additions continued until 1250. About 20 different
poets had a hand in writing the stories, and although
the names of Pierre de Saint-Cloud,
Richard of Lison, and a priest of Croix-en-Brie are
linked with certain early branches, most of the
writers remain anonymous.
The French tale is stylistically the most sophisticated
rendition of the hugely popular tradition of
Reynard the Fox, which appears elsewhere in
Dutch, German, and English literature. The character
of the trickster fox hails back to the fables of
AESOP, but fragments of medieval Latin poems contain
some source material, including Ysengrinus,
written at Ghent in 1148. As with many stories
from folklore, the precise origins of the Reynard
characters are obscure. The names are arguably
Germanic; Reynard probably derives from Raginhard,
which means “strong in counsel.” The German
Reinhart manuscript, dated to 1180, and the
Flemish variations of the stories likely draw on
now-lost French originals that first circulated in
the region of Alsace-Lorraine. The 13th-century
English poem Of the Fox and of the Wolf and the
Italian Rainardo also used the Reynard material.
The trouvères (TROUBADOURS) of northern France
developed these popular folktales into a work that
is at once a fabulous epic BESTIARY and a political
allegory, cultural commentary and verse romance,
fireside story and literary parody.
Critical Analysis
Though a folk hero and an epic figure, Reynard is a
trickster: This is the definitive aspect of his personality.
As a fox, he uses trickery to get food, avenge
himself, and defend himself against his enemies.
Other characters in the story are Noble the Lion,
Chanticleer the Rooster, Bruin the Bear, and Isengrin
the Wolf. Together these figures represent the
main branches of feudal society: royalty, the nobility,
the clergy, and the peasantry, respectively. The
laws and morals that govern them strongly resonate
with the ruling ideology of 12th-century France.
The story of Reynard begins, as do many MEDIEVAL
ROMANCEs, with the king—in this case,
Noble the Lion—organizing a feast and calling all
the animals to attend. The animals comply, and all
of them have one complaint or another against
Reynard. Curtois the Hound complains that Reynard
has stolen food from him; Chanticleer the
Rooster claims that Reynard has killed a hen. Corbant
the Raven says that Reynard murdered his
wife by pretending to be dead; when his wife approached
to lay her ear to the fox’s mouth, Reynard
snapped her up and ate her so quickly that only a
few feathers remained. The king decides that Reynard
must come forward to answer the charges.
No one has managed heretofore to convict Reynard
of a crime. He is a master of deception, and
with a seemingly reasonable explanation he always
manages to befuddle his accusers. For instance,
Reynard claims that Corbant the Raven’s wife died
from eating too many worms. And when danger
threatens, Reynard resorts to tricks; for instance,
when Bruin is sent to bring him to court, Reynard
bribes him with honey and traps the bear in a tree.
In time Reynard is at last brought to court and
put on trial for his crimes. Despite his smooth talking,
he is condemned to the gallows and only narrowly
escapes death. Thereafter Reynard is sent on
a pilgrimage as penance, and more adventures
ensue, during which it becomes clear that he has
not repented at all.When the fox is brought once
more to trial, Isengrin determines to get revenge,
still humiliated from a famous episode wherein
Reynard pretended to teach the wolf how to fish
with his tail and then took him to a frigid lake,
where Isengrin became trapped when his tail froze
in the ice. This battle between Reynard and Isengrin
crowns the collection.
Scholars have long debated the literary qualities
of Renart. Some claim that because he is a fox,
all of Reynard’s activities can be explained by his
motive to survive. Other critics read the animals
more imaginatively as the human types they were
intended to represent in later versions of the stories.
Roger Bellon says of Reynard that his “character
is fully rounded, with a psychological
richness which is the product of his trickery.”
Though a fox, he possesses the human capacities of
reason and intelligence. He also has the capacity
for human affection and piety, as in this touching
passage in William Caxton’s version when Reynard
takes leave of his wife:
Reynard said to his wife, “Dame Ermelin, I betake
you my children that you see well to them
and specially to Reynkin,my youngest son. He
belikes me so well, I hope he shall follow my
steps. And there is Rossel, a passing fair thief. I
love him as well as any may love his children.
If God give me grace that I may escape, I shall
when I come again thank you with fair words.”
Thus took Reynard leave of his wife.
Originally the Reynard tales were intended for
purposes of entertainment, not instruction. In the
earlier tales, the doings of Reynard and his counterparts
had a largely comic relevance and helped
create a new genre of literature: the beast fable,
which blended the conventional fable with the epic.
Translator Joseph Jacobs observes,“One of the chief
points of interest in the study of the Reynard is this
mixture of literature and folklore which thus gave
rise to a new form of literature.” This genre proved
to have important and innovative uses in attacking
and exposing the follies of certain social, political,
and religious aspects of medieval society.
As the stories of Reynard’s trickery grew, the
beast fables turned into cutting satire. Renart
contains many layers of tension, not the least
being that because Renart’s character is a trickster,
he is not the typical romance hero. As an animal,
he is motivated by survival instincts, but as
a being who can speak and reason, he also has the
ability to deceive. He is treated as a comic character,
yet his stories are often used to make a
moral point. It is not always easy to sympathize
with Reynard’s victims; sometimes they deserve
what they get. Later, Reynard became an emblem
of hypocrisy among monkish orders. Certain
stories show him donning a monk’s garb to outwit
his foes or attending confession, being absolved
of his sins, and promptly going forth to
engage in more immoral behavior. After 1250, no
new branches of the Renart cycle appeared, but
poets such as Philippe de Novare and RUTEBEUF
adopted the character of Reynard for moralizing
Another key characteristic of the Reynard stories,
which may account for their popularity, is the
fact that they are one of the few medieval genres
developed for the enjoyment of the nonaristocratic
classes. Like the fabliaux or the poetry of François
Villon, the beast fables addressed life in the lower
classes and examined the struggles of those who
were, by the rules of feudalism, the hardest working
and least powerful. In a world ruled by wealth
and military might, cunning was often the only recourse
against a tyrant, which may explain the
enormous amount of sympathy and interest that
audiences felt for the crafty fox. For some readers,
Reynard symbolizes the resistance of the little man
against more powerful foes and echoes other stories
like David and Goliath or Jack and the
Like many other French romances, Renart circulated
beyond France into England, Germany,
and the Low Countries (modern Belgium, Luxembourg,
and the Netherlands), where several analogues
or similar stories appear. An episode
borrowed from the Reynard tradition appears in
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales of
Geoffrey Chaucer, where the protagonist of the
story is Chanticleer the rooster and Russell is the
name of the wily fox.William Caxton’s History of
Reynard the Fox, based on a Dutch version, appeared
in 1481. Goethe reworked the material into
Reinecke Fuchs in 1794, and the English poet John
Masefield’s hunting poem Reynard the Fox appeared
in 1921, attesting to the continuing folkloric
memory and comic appeal of this immortal
and charismatic trickster.
English Versions of Roman de Renart
Caxton,William, trans. The History of Reynard the
Fox. Edited by N. F. Blake. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell
and Brewer, 1970.
The Romance of Reynard the Fox. Translated by D. D.
R. Owen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Renard the Fox. Translated by Patricìa Terry. Boston:
Northeastern University Press, 1983.
Works about Roman de Renart
Lodge, Anthony and Kenneth Varty. Earliest Branches
of the Roman de Renart. New Alyth, Scotland:
Lochee Publications, 1989.
Varty, Kenneth, ed. Reynard the Fox. New York:
Berghahn Books, 2000.