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.”
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.”
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.” 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.” 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.”
“Wolves are known for their rapacity, and for this reason we call prostitutes wolves, because they devastate the possessions of their lovers.”
I’m not entirely sure if any of these quotes explain what happened, but….maybe?