Saturday, November 13, 2010

Renard and Ysengrin

Renard the Fox: Foxy Devil and Didactic Fabliaux

One issue still gnawing on my mind after last Friday’s discussion is the very nature of the Renard tales, to put it simply: What is the point? In her introduction to Renard the Fox, Patricia Terry makes quite clear that the work is not didactic in any religious sense: Roman de Renart has no overt moral purpose. No doubt it is intended to be instructive, but the more it exposes the complex weaknesses that constitute the very fabric of the society that it depicts, the more it makes them an occasion for enjoyment” (Terry, 3). Is Renard merely a mischievous hooligan who wreaks havoc for pleasure and tempts his “kinsmen” as Satan might? Probably. However, as such, does he not reveal the failings and absurdities of his contemporaries, who may be equally culpable in their misfortunes owing to their sheer stupidity? According to Terry, the take-away from the Roman de Renart lies in its criticism of twelfth century French monarchy; however, I would like to examine more closely the less substantial religious satire. In short, my question is, is there any moral underpinning present in Renard? In order to glean a better understanding of the purpose that lurks behind this massive poem, I did some research on the history of Renard’s typographical animal characters, which is fairly insightful.

Probably the most distinct literary ancestor to Pierre de Saint-Cloud’s Roman de Renart is the Latin epic poem Ysengrimus, most likely written by Nivard of Ghent, between 1148-1149 (Ziolkowski, 210). Terry makes brief mention of the Ysengrimus in her introduction, however dismisses similarities between the two tales as merely plot based (Terry, 6). What I find so interesting about Ysengrimus is that the character of Ysengrim the wolf is also a monk, and a hypocritical and foolishly greedy one at that. Reinard the fox features prominently in the seven books that comprise Ysengrimus as his deceptive foe, but the story is after all, named after its chief character Ysengrim the wolf monk, and the work functions as a parody of the corrupt monastic system (Ziolkowski, 214-215).

The wolf-monk was not born out of Ysengrimus, but was actually figured in several medieval fables, including “The Wolf”, “The Wolf by Ovid”, and “The Wolf Goes to Hell”. Inspiration for the wolf-monk hybrid can be traced to the Bible, specifically Matthew 7:15, which cautions “the flock” to beware of false prophets; i.e., wolves in sheep’s clothing. Thus, an ineffective or gluttonous ecclesiastic who joins the clergy for the comfort it might provide was often likened to a wolf, being a ravenous and greedy creature (Ziolkowski, 204-205). Ysengrim is a selfish slave to his stomach, externally practicing piety by observing Benedict’s Rule, wearing a black cowl, and taking the tonsure. Considering himself so well versed with the Rule, Ysengrim feels free to add a few things, like “I give nothing, I spurn moderation, and I have sworn off faith” (Ziolkowski, 217). “The Wolf in the Monastery” is one particular episode in the Ysengrimus that has significant reverberations in Roman de Renart, while illustrating the selfish excess of Ysengrim. In it, Reynard shaves his head, obtains a pile of cakes, and tells Ysengrim that they are daily fare at the monastery he recently joined. Intrigued by the free cakes, Ysengrim joins the monastery of Blandinium, where he guards sheep. Meanwhile Reynard breaks into Ysengrim’s house, urinates on his children, ensnare Ysengrim’s wife in the narrow door of his den after a wild chase, and then proceeds to rape her. Meanwhile back at the monastery, Ysengrim breaks the vow of silence, gets drunk off the wine in the cellar, and is subsequently thrown out (Mann, xiii).

Clearly Pierre de Saint-Cloud was familiar with Ysengrimus, but to what extent is his character of Ysengrin based off the monk-wolf Ysengrim? Ysengrin is not a monk, but he suffers from the excessive pride that permeated the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the eyes of Nivard of Ghent, and storytellers who made a mockery of monasticism with monk-wolf characters. Renard the Fox may not be chiefly concerned with ridiculing the religious orders, but I hardly think he wasn’t poking fun at religion. The absurdity of so-called holy relics (namely Roenel’s tooth), the “martyrdom” of Copee, and of course the oh so sacred pilgrimage of Reynard all seem to indicate that Renard’s author had a bone to pick with false piety within the Church and lay society as well. Rascal though he is, Renard keeps the proud in line. His own trickery punishes the corrupt; he is like bad karma. I think that is where the moral lies in both Ysengrimus and Renard the Fox. They are didactic in teaching about the ways of the world, where neither laymen nor clergy are perfect beings; the same can be said of the nobility and the peasantry. Jan Ziolkowski aptly summarizes the essence of Ysengrimus in her book Talking Animals, which I think applies to Roman de Renart as well:

None of the characters in the poem deserve the name of hero. Rather, Ysengrimus depicts an anti-heroic world of unmitigated vice, in which the wolf embodies greed and gluttony, the fox slyness and false pride. In contrast to the idealism of such beast literature as Kipling’s Jungle Books, the animals of the Ysengrimus are not models of virtue. They are appropriated to depict the lowest conception of humanity; they are avatars of the worst in the world of human beings (234).

So true. That being said, the story of Renard is actually kind of a downer, so unfair and frustrating, but as a parody of life I suppose it’s quite accurate.



Mann, Jill. Ysengrimus: Text-Google Books. November 13, 2010.,,+Jill+Mann&hl=en&ei=jUTfTNKNIJSinQfixTiDw&sa=X&oi=book_r

Morley, Henry. Medieval Bestiary: History of Reynard the Fox. November 13, 2010.

Renard the Fox. Trans. Patricia Terry. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of

California Press, 1983, 1992.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750-1150. Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.


  1. Interesting! Two thoughts: Can we consider the entire Roman to be a criticism of religious and lay life (rather than, say, one of courtly life)? Although the Ysengrim/Renard rivalry is clearly prominent, Renard dupes and harms many other animals as well. Should we assume all these animals, such as the bear, symbolize the greed or stupidity of churchmen?

    Second, what implications does it have for your theory that Ysengrim is a powerful noble at court in the Roman? Is the author suggesting that the church is too involved in the worldly affairs of the court?

  2. Good point. I don't think I meant to say that every animal character is a stand in for an ecclesiastic, I just thought it was interesting that the original Ysengrin was a proud monk-wolf with gluttonous tendencies, and I wondered to what extent those features were present in the Ysengrin of Roman de Renart. I do like the idea that Ysengrin's status as nobility might be a jab at ecclesiastics overly involved with the monarchy.

  3. It is entirely possible that Terry is wrong and that the Romand de Renart does have a didactic moral purpose. Likewise, it is also possible that Pierre de Saint-Cloud intended (or expected) his readers to have in mind the monk-Isengrim as they were reading about the noble lord-Isengrin, but I am less certain that this means we can read Pierre's Isengrin as a critique of the clergy--otherwise, why would he change from Isengrim to Isengrin? I think this is the real question: if there was already a story of the morally-corrupt wolf-monk available, why go to such lengths to make him a lord serving a king at court? Why, if Pierre wanted to critique the clergy, not simply leave Isengrin as a monk? Perhaps it was because Pierre wanted to make a moral statement about the nobility, not the clergy. It is important not to confuse "having a moral purpose" with "having the purpose of criticizing the clergy or the Church." Which, I realize having written this comment, you don't really do--but I think it is important as a caution, nevertheless. That said, you make an excellent point showing us how Nivard's Isengrim differs from Pierre's Isengrin. I think Ziolkowski (who, by the by, is a man) is closer to the mark than Terry: the stories are trying to teach a moral lesson in their very portrayal of immorality. And yet, Pierre is also clearly out to make us laugh--is this the reason that he changed Isengrim to Isengrin? I hope you pursue this question further in your research paper!