Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why are a Fox and Wolf feuding?

In class, we tried to examine the degree to which the characters in Reynard the Fox represented any degree of symbolism or morality, as well as analyzing if these characters were more human than animal, or animal than human. I think both of these could boil down into a greater question: why a wolf and fox in the first place? In trying to answer that question, I went back to the Bestiary we examined, as well as the work of Albert the Great, to see what I could find about wolves and foxes, in order to compare them to the principle characters we see in the text.  While nothing I found change my perception of the characters behaviors, it is an interesting way of interpreting how people may have viewed the animals naturally, and how they would have imprinted their beliefs onto the characters.

            I first went to the Wisconsin Bestiary we reviewed at the beginning of the character. Within that text, neither the fox nor the wolf were held to be virtuous. Quite the opposite, in fact. According to the bestiary, both possess characteristics of the Devil in their nature. The displays his devilish nature in the devious manner in which he will sometimes hunt. According to the Bestiary, the fox, when it has trouble finding food, will “rolls himself in red mud so that he looks as if he were stained with blood.” After that, “he throws himself on the ground and holds his breath, so that he positively does not seem to breathe.” Through this method, the fox makes himself to look dead, and thus tricks birds into thinking it is safe to sit next to him. The fox then “gobbles them up.”[1]

            This behavior in the fox is said to be in the same nature as the Devil. The Bestiary details the devils analogous behavior, saying “With all those who are living according to the flesh he feigns himself to be dead until he gets them in his gullet and punishes them.

            The wolf too is devilish in nature, according to the Bestiary. From the Bestiary, “The devil bears similitude of a wolf: he who is always looking over the human race with his evil eye, and darkly prowling round the sheepfolds of the faithful so that he may afflict and ruin their souls.” Further, the Bestiary explained that the very nature of how the wolf moves and looks gives it properties not unlike the devil. The wolf cannot look backward, and is always moving forward, in which “signifies that this same Satan was at first forward among the angels of light and was only made an apostate by the Hindward way.”[2]

            Personally, I am less inclined to say the text as itself is filled with allegory and teaching tools, and I rather feel much of what happened in Renard for entertainment purposes. But these descriptions of the wolf and fox would give a hint as to why these animals were chosen, as opposed to, say, two rival birds or two rival cats. If we believe that these were perceptions that were widely shared (which is hard to say), it would explain why these animals were perhaps chosen. For animals who are in constant conflict, it would make sense that there is a bit of the devil in them. Certainly the holy dove or angelic doe would be poorer choices.

            ­In order to further examine the choice of these two animals, I went to Albertus, to see what in the nature of these animals may have been reasons for their selection.  I was looking for evidence of the fox as a trickster or and the wolf as aggressive and vengeful (the latter of which showing itself moreso in the Pilgrimage story arc). Examining Albertus’s account of the fox would suggest that the fox had a reputation which would lend itself well to playing a trickster in this novel. As Albertus wrote, [The fox] is full of tricks and when a dog is following it, [the fox] leads its tail through the mouth of the dog and leads it to and fro and thus sometimes eludes it.”[3] This, in conjunction with the Bestiary’s account of the deceptive hunting practices of the fox, may give a decent explanation why the fox was chosen. Not only is it a bit devilish, but it was perceived to be a trickster. If our unknown author of Renard the Fox came up with the “trickster” angle before choosing the animal, and if these perceptions of the Fox were common, it would help explain why the fox was chosen.

What of Ysengrimus? Albertus wrote that Wolves are “rapacious beast, and hankering for gore.”[4] This would certainly apply to the wolves behavior in the pilgrimage. There wasn’t quite as much on the wolf that was directly applicable to the rivalry that happened between the fox and the wolf, but this does at least point to the aggression of the animal and, thus, its propensity to engage in the kind of feud that occurred between the two.

            Within the text, we see animals behaving in the way they do in nature, according to Albertus and the bestiary. We also see the animals are reflective of their worst traits, or at least what were perceived to be traits shared with the devil. While we didn’t see Renard feign death, we did see him attempting to trick birds into coming close enough to eat. While I’m still not convinced that the characters are acting as strong allegories for any particular thing, I do think the Bestiary and Albertus both give some clues as to why an author may have picked these characters.

-    -    Jeramee

P.S. For those, like me, who were further curious about Renard’s ….physical encounter with Hersent, I was able to find the following:
“The male fox has a bony penis and it copulates lying on its side, embracing the female who is also lying on her side.[5]
“Wolves are known for their rapacity, and for this reason we call prostitutes wolves, because they devastate the possessions of their lovers.[6]
 “Wolves only copulate on twelve days in the whole year.”[7][8]
I’m not entirely sure if any of these quotes explain what happened, but….maybe?


[1] Bestiary 54
[2] Bestiary 59
[3] Albertus 1541
[4] Bestiary 56
[5] Albertus 1542
[6] Bestiary 56
[7] Bestiary 61
[8] Albertus 1518


  1. As you recognize, it’s tough to make a case for allegory in the tales of Renard the Fox. Thus, while we can certainly think of Renard and Ysengrim as two competing devils, I find it difficult to imagine that the author of the tales chose the fox and the wolf flipping through a bestiary, or even for familiarity with the conceptions therein recorded. In fact, I think there is a more parsimonious explanation to which we can resort that is prior to the allegorical conceptions: the mundane world. The animals in the Roman de Renart are by and large animals that would have been familiar to its audience, and it is this lens that gives us a clearer picture than recourse to allegory. The wolf and the fox are two of the larger, higher order animals that occupied the French landscape, and so it makes sense that they would occupy central roles in the tales. The two animals that stand out to me as exceptions to this rule, Noble the lion and the camel-lawyer from Lombardy, can easily be accounted for by the very exceptionality of their characters. The king being a lion is an easy pick, and a known though foreign animal—the camel—for the visiting counsel is also, it strikes me, not an opaque choice. What’s more, both the wolf and the fox preyed on domesticated animals and were considered varmints. This is, I believe, the relevant fact for tracing the devilish characterization of the wolf and the fox in both the Roman de Renart and the bestiary entries. I think it not at all irrelevant to the lion’s flattering bestiary descriptions, as opposed to those of the fox and the wolf, that its home was on a different continent than the author’s.


  2. I wonder what can be said about the fact that the author(s) of Renard chose to invent a fairly elaborate scene of trickery between Renard and the titmouse, rather than include a method that seems to have been observed enough to be included in a bestiary. Moreover, at least in the story in Branch II, there are multiple scenes of trickery - Tibert the cat is involved as well. While it is illuminating to see how foxes and wolves are described in bestiaries and if those descriptions played into the possible morality of the piece, it's worth remembering that these animals also act like humans! I would counter your conclusion that the poems are more for entertainment than for allegory or morality. Since animals like Ysengrin and Renard do not behave consistently like animals, and because the author(s) even go so far as to avoid some of the more common actions regular foxes and wolves take, there has to be some reason for their anthropomorphism. Even the descriptions of Renard mating with Hersent in the poem don't match what is "natural." These animals are much more "human" than "animal." As was said in class, their human-like actions are entertaining because they refer to things humans, and a specific noble class of humans, actually do. This leads me to believe that the cycle does have some sort of allegorical meaning, although what that meaning is exactly, I lack the knowledge to posit. RAE

  3. I wonder if we might be stretching the term a bit in our search for “allegory” within the Roman de Renard. The prelude links the story to the heroic chansons de geste and chivalric romances, stories which did not provoke the commentary tradition and allegorized reading methods of more overtly religious or moral texts. These tales abounded in moral ambiguity – figures like Lancelot and Tristan were simultaneously virtuous paladins and abject sinners, overcoming their foes as much through subterfuge as through force. It is perhaps telling that the most extensive medieval development of the Arthurian cycle, Malory's Morte d'Arthur, deepens rather than sorts through these ethical thickets. In this context, Renard's unending campaigns of sex, violence, and deception represent a parody that succeeds more through adherence to its source material than through departure from it. Renard acts like a knight. To do so, however, he need do little more than act like a fox – prey on those smaller and weaker than himself, run from those larger and less nimble. (The antagonism of wolf and fox, I think, is largely ecological.) The line between man and beast is further smudged by a series of anthropomorphic touches, which I imagine are gags, “fourth-wall-breakers” that a performing reader could play up to delight the audience. And once we remember that this audience consists of noblemen (at least initially), the very class being compared to feuding, depraved beasts, then the satire becomes clearer. The Roman de Renard is an inside joke, a way for the upper classes to poke fun at their own foibles by foisting them onto a fox, free of redemption or damnation.

  4. I think that the reasoning for the fox and the wolf does not have much to do with the devil. While bestiaries would certainly be the composer's knowledge, it seems a little absurd to go looking through an encyclopedia to find symbolism for animals any educated Frenchman would have been familiar with. Rather, it seems more probable that the reasoning for a fox and a wolf to feud is that they are too similar. Both look like dogs (the other major member of the feud in Renard's Trial), both hunt on animals domesticated by humans, and both are viewed as pests. In this case, they serve as too rivals seeking to outdo the other in the same goal of being a hunter. Looking at Albertus, then, I think he is much more helpful than the bestiary is. Since was writing a manual of all the animals, based on experience, he contains information likely to be common among the entire elite. So, the fox's trickster tendencies would be undoubtedly known, and an easy thing to play up in the text.

    I very much like SLasman's argument that Renard exists as a parody of the romance. It strikes me as similar to other parodies of the genre, such as the short poem "The Tournament of Tottenham". Both poems are comedic in nature, in both the nature of noble ritual (the tournament in "Tottenham" and the trial by ordeal in "Renard") are mocked, and in both the main character is less than ideal. True, the "Tournament at Tottenham" has peasants fighting instead of animals, but both poems seem to be a way for a class to mock itself and other classes by pushing the issues into a foreign enough context to be discussed frankly. In that consideration, we do not have to fight to place Renard in the scope of allegory, something which we were struggling with in class, but can leave in the scope of social commentary, which undoubtedly exists in the piece.

  5. There are a few things that I find really interesting here.

    First of all, I want to point out that, while Renard may not be shown exhibiting the particular characteristics of the fox listed in the bestiaries, such as (1) lying still and pretending to be dead and (2) running his tail through the dog's mouth to avoid being eaten (or whatever that is describing), it seems that other animal characters have taken on these qualities. Somewhat as RAE noted, pretty much all of the animal characters here are, to some degree, tricksters- at least the ones that Renard himself tries to trick. The exception might be Ysengrim. But in particular, with those two distinct habits of foxes, we see, first of all, the dog pretending to be a holy relic pulling almost exactly that trick. He plays dead, and then waits for Renard to come near enough to attack. Similarly, one could interpret the encounter with the titmouse as similar to the tail in the mouth strategy. The titmouse flies close to Renard's mouth, brushing against it, and then flies away quickly. That one is a bit more of a stretch, but it has something of a similar look about it, and I'm more convinced that it might be an actual thing based on the dog playing dead.
    I also found all of the interactions with Tibert the cat particularly interesting. Obviously we won't get to talking about cats until next week, but it struck me as a bit odd that Tibert was specifically described as being a noble, loyal character. If we are talking about animals that are usually associated with the devil and that having significance here, as in your argument for the fox and the wolf, then to me it is striking that Tibert does not seem to have any diabolical associations at all. Perhaps his assault on the priest's private parts would qualify, but in that case, it was against a corrupt priest, was it not? Tibert the cat, typically a sign of heresy, witchcraft, and liminal spaces- reformer of religion? I also thought it worth noting here that almost this exact episode shows up in at least one later beast fable starring cats that was written in the 1550s.

    I also wanted to talk a bit further about the choice of foxes and wolves. Especially in light of our discussion about animal trials and the difference between domestic animals and wild ones in how they were treated, what do we make of the juxtaposition between domestic and wild animals in this text? Wolves and foxes are wild predators, often seen preying on medieval livestock, at least in the medieval world-view. Noble and his court- also largely wild. Tibert the cat, Chanticleer, the dogs: domestic. Do we think there's any significance to the cast of characters there? Or that they are interacting with each other apparently without any sort of divide or problem (though Chanticleer and the dogs are associated with the humans- and perhaps we could see the fact that Tibert is not as being linked to the only semi-domestic quality of cats).

    Finally, I am glad that you mentioned the encounter between Hersent and Renard at the end of your post. It's an uncomfortable topic, and it's understandable that we didn't discuss it at great length in class, but I think it's worth considering the role of a rape scene in medieval humor. I've now seen this a few times in animal fables- and obviously we're not looking at non-animal texts in this class, but I'm wondering: is it the fact that they're animals that make it "funny," or is this just considered an area for humor in general? Is this a place where we can see animals and humans being differentiated, or a place where we see them drawn closer together? We already mentioned in class that the scenes of extreme violence against, for example, the bear make some sort of sense in the context of a society that tortured animals for fun. But what about this?

  6. Good thought to check the descriptions of the fox and wolf in the Bestiary and Albertus, but one significant caveat: Albertus was writing at least fifty years after the earliest version of the Reynard story, so it is just as likely that Reynard influenced Albertus's thinking about foxes and wolves as it is that Albertus reflects general thinking about foxes and wolves on which the authors of the Reynard cycle were drawing. It would have been helpful for your argument to check the dates of the various Branches of the Reynard stories that we talked about in class, as well as to check the dates of the Bestiary (not technically the "Wisconsin Bestiary"--Wisconsin just hosts the digital version; better to cite it as the Bestiary translated by T.H. White, as per the syllabus, or, even better, as the Cambridge bestiary, from the manuscript that White used, Cambridge, University Library, Ms. Li.4.26). Perhaps the Bestiary author was likewise influenced by Reynard--the manuscript dates to the late twelfth century, and the earliest version of the Reynard that we have dates a bit earlier, to around 1170. Chicken and egg? RLFB

  7. I like the idea of seeing the animal characters in the Roman de Renart as parody or satire; I wonder how many of them would fit into that mold?

    Reynard: as mentioned, he's a trickster figure, and as someone placed in the traditional hero's role, that's unusual. I suppose this is a subversion of the usual heroes in knightly romances, as well as being (as Sam said) self-deprecating humor on the nobles' part.

    Ysengrim: why a wolf? Adam pointed out that wolves and foxes are similar, which is important, but I don't think it's just because they seek the same goal and therefore must compete. I think part of the reasoning may be that Renard should have a rival who is similar to himself both in predatory role and in not-very-sympathetic status. Reynard has to win sometimes, so why not against someone equally bad? If the story had Ysengrim win occasionally, the whole thing would basically be a prototype of Spy vs. Spy.

    King Noble: not hard to discern. The lion is a great symbol of kingship, so who better to parody the monarch than the lion? I'm sure various kings were lax enough that this would be found very amusing for an audience of those who knew.

    Chanticleer: I suppose he's mainly a parody of self-important types, since it's very easy to think of a rooster as self-important.

  8. The question of wolves’ and foxes’ nature, and whether or not they are evil seems to also come up in the stories about St. Francis. There, as we discussed, wolves are perhaps not inherently evil by nature, since they can be brought into harmony with man through God’s will. Nonetheless, they are portrayed as fierce, cruel, and murderous animals, generally unbound by the rules and structure of society. The fox is similarly characterized as “greedy” and existing in opposition to society (stealing an old lady’s hens), but is nonetheless brought into order by Francis.
    All this is to say that the bestiaries and Francis seem to be in opposition. Is the wolf, as created by God, a good creature that has since been corrupted by Satan? Or was the wolf created by God to represent the devil and his ways? Are these two understandings necessarily opposed? I’m not quite sure.
    If the wolf is meant to represent the devil, perhaps it can still be redeemed and returned to its edenic state. Satan is, after all, the original corrupted creature, having once been the greatest of the angels. In this sense, the wolf’s reintegration into God’s natural order as a good creature can be seen as a microcosm of the defeat of evil itself by the power of God.