Reynard the Fox

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Illumination from a manuscript of the Roman de Renart, end of the 13th century

Reynard the Fox is a literary cycle of medieval allegorical Dutch, English, French and German fables. The first extant versions of the cycle date from the second half of the 12th century. The genre was popular throughout the Late Middle Ages, as well as in chapbook form throughout the Early Modern period.

The stories are largely concerned with the main character Reynard, an anthropomorphic red fox, trickster figure. His adventures usually involve his deceiving other anthropomorphic animals for his own advantage or trying to avoid their retaliatory efforts. His main enemy and victim across the cycle is his uncle, the wolf, Isengrim (or Ysengrim).

While the character of Reynard appears in later works, the core stories were written during the Middle Ages by multiple authors and are often seen as parodies of medieval literature such as courtly love stories and chansons de geste, as well as a satire of political and religious institutions.[1] The trickster fox, Reynard, lives in a society of other talking animals (lion, bear, wolf, donkey, et cetera), making the stories a beast epic.[2]

The original copies were written in Old French, and have since been translated into many different languages. However, the tales of Reynard come from all across Europe and each retelling has details that are specific to its area.[3] The tales, no matter where they take place, are designed to represent the society around them and include the structures of society around them such as a noble court. While the authors take many liberties with the story telling, not all of the satire is meant to be rude or malicious in intent.[3]


Defaced Reynard preaches to a rooster. Rare Book & Manuscript Library University of Pennsylvania Ms. Codex 724 fol.247v

The main characters are anthropomorphic animals. The given names of the animals are of Old High German origin; most of them were in common use as personal names in medieval Lorraine. The characters of Reynard the Fox were based on the medieval hierarchy, and are treated as human throughout the tales. Though, since multiple authors wrote the text, characters' personalities often change. Throughout the stories, these characters often switch between human and animal form and often without notice.[4] The characters who switch between human and animal form are often those of elite status, while the characters who don't change tend to be peasants. Often, the readers will find themselves able to empathize with Reynard. They find that the situations he is in are not often that different from their own lives, and this carries across the decades.[5] The most common usage of animals as characters in tales has made it so the stories that touch on morally gray areas are easier to understand and accept.[6]

  • Reynard the Fox. The given name Reynard is from Reginhard, Raginohardus "strong in counsel". Because of the popularity of the Reynard stories, renard became the standard French word for "fox", replacing the old French word for "fox", which was goupil from Latin vulpēcula. Since Reynard has been written about in many different times and places across the world, it is not uncommon to see changes in his appearance to fit the natural surroundings of his story. His fur is often used as a camouflage, meaning if the story was written in a snowy landscape he will have white fur, or yellow fur for desert areas, in the wooded areas of forest he is depicted in red.[3]
  • Isengrim the Wolf, see Ysengrimus
  • Tibert the Cat; see Tybalt, Prince of cats
  • King Noble the Lion; see king of beasts
  • Bruin the Bear
  • Grimbard the Badger
  • Baldwin the Ass
  • Hirsent the She-wolf
  • Kyward the Hare (also Coart, Cuwaert; a coward)[7]
  • Chanticleer the Cock
  • Bellin the Ram
  • Martin the Ape, who had a son named Moneke that may be source of the word monkey[8][9]

In medieval European folklore and literature[edit]

A studious fox in a monk's cowl, in the margins of a book of hours, Utrecht, c. 1460

Foxes in general have the reputation of tricksters in traditional European folklore.[10] The specific character of Reynard is thought to have originated in Lorraine folklore, from where it spread to France, Germany, and the Low Countries.[11][need quotation to verify] Alternatively, a 19th-century edition of a retelling of the Reynard fable states definitively with "no doubt whatever that it is of German origin" and relates a conjecture associating the central character with "a certain Reinard of Lorraine, famous for his vulpine qualities in the ninth century".[12] Joseph Jacobs, while seeing an origin in Lorraine, traces classical, German, and "ancient northern folk-lore" elements within the Reynard stories.[13] Jacob Grimm in his Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin, 1834) provided evidence for the supposition on etymological grounds that "stories of the Fox and Wolf were known to the Franks as early as the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries".[14]

From the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there are around twenty-six different tales of Reynard the Fox. While there might have been more that were written these are the ones that survive to present day. Many of these are written by different authors and anonymous authors, so there was not just one person writing the tales.[4] An extensive treatment of the character is the Old French Le Roman de Renart written by Pierre de Saint-Cloud around 1170, which sets the typical setting. Reynard has been summoned to the court of king Noble (or Leo), the lion, to answer charges brought against him by Isengrim the wolf. Other anthropomorphic animals, including Bruin the bear, Baldwin the ass, and Tibert (Tybalt) the cat, all attempt one stratagem or another. The stories typically involve satire whose usual butts are the aristocracy and the clergy, making Reynard a peasant-hero character.[11] The Catholic Church used the story of the preaching fox (as found in the Reynard literature) in church art as propaganda against the Lollards.[15] Reynard's principal castle, Maupertuis, is available to him whenever he needs to hide away from his enemies. Some of the tales feature Reynard's funeral, where his enemies gather to deliver maudlin elegies full of insincere piety, and which feature Reynard's posthumous revenge. Reynard's wife Hermeline appears in the stories, but plays little active role, although in some versions she remarries when Reynard is thought dead, thereby becoming one of the people he plans revenge upon. Isengrim (alternate French spelling: Ysengrin) is Reynard's most frequent antagonist and foil, and generally ends up outwitted, though he occasionally gets revenge.

An individual tale might span several genres which makes classification difficult. Tales often include themes from contemporary society with references to relics, pilgrimage, confession, and the crusades.[4] There is debate over whether or how closely they related to identifiable societal events, but there is a growing camp[who?] that see direct societal connections and even implicit political statements in the tales. The stories are told in a way that makes such associations easy to make but difficult to substantiate.

Reynard stories translate difficult laws and legal concepts into common language, allowing people to both understand them and enjoy the legal predicaments and antics of the characters. The court operates just as those in medieval society; the king heard cases only on one specified date and all disputes were heard at once.[16]

Many versions follow Reynard's fights with Yesengrin, the fox's regular antagonist throughout the stories.[4] Violence between them and other characters is a common thematic element. It is a matter of debate[by whom?] whether the violence shows animals simply acting as such or is meant to reflect the violence in society, especially the various wars that common folk endured at the time.


Reynard appears first in the medieval Latin poem Ysengrimus, a long Latin mock-epic written c. 1148–53 by the medieval poet Nivardus, that collects a great store of Reynard's adventures. He also puts in an early appearance in a number of Latin sequences by the early-13th-century preacher Odo of Cheriton. Both of these early sources seem to draw on a pre-existing store of popular culture featuring the character.

Roman de Renart[edit]

The first "branch" (or chapter) of the Roman de Renart appears in 1174, written by Pierre de St. Cloud, although in all French editions it is designated as "Branch II". The same author wrote a sequel in 1179—called "Branch I"—but from that date onwards, many other French authors composed their own adventures for Renart li goupil ("the fox"). There is also the Middle High German text Reinhard Fuchs by Heinrich der Glïchezäre, dated to c. 1180. Roman de Renart which fits into the genre of romance. Roman de Renart gets its start using the history of fables that have been written since the time of Aesop.[6] The romance genre of the middle ages is not what we think of the romance genre of today; it was a fiction telling of a character's life.[17] The protagonist of the romance genre often has an adventure or a call to action, almost always caused by an outside force.[18] During the 13th century, French was a standard literary language, and many works during the Middle Ages were written in French, including Reynard the Fox. Many popular works from the Middle Ages fall into the romance genre.[17]

Pierre de St. Cloud opens his work on the fox by situating it within the larger tradition of epic poetry, the fabliaux and Arthurian romance:

Van den vos Reynaerde[edit]

A mid-13th-century Middle Dutch version of the story by Willem die Madoc maecte (Van den vos Reynaerde, Of Reynaert the Fox), is also made up of rhymed verses (the same AA BB scheme). Van den vos Reinaerde and Reinaert Historie (referred to as R I and R II, respectively) are two poems written by two different authors with R II being a continuation of R I. With different writers comes different variations. This can best be seen with Reynard himself. While describing the same character the Reynard from R I has many different character traits of that in R II.[19] While a finished and completed poem by itself, Van den vos Reinaerde does not have a set ending.

Like Pierre, very little is known of the author, other than the description by the copyist in the first sentences:[2]

Illustration from Ghetelen in Reinke de Vos (1498)

Madocke or Madoc is thought to be another one of Willem's works that at one point existed but had been lost. The Arnout mentioned was an earlier Reynard poet whose work Willem (the writer) alleges to have finished. However, there are serious objections to this notion of joint authorship, and the only thing deemed likely is that Arnout was French-speaking ("Walschen" in Middle Dutch referred to northern French-speaking people, specifically the Walloons).[20] Willem's work became one of the standard versions of the legend, and was the foundation for most later adaptations in Dutch, German, and English, including those of William Caxton, Goethe, and F. S. Ellis.[2]


Geoffrey Chaucer used Reynard material in the Canterbury Tales; in "The Nun's Priest's Tale", Reynard appears as "Rossel" and an ass as "Brunel".

Early Modern tradition[edit]

In 1481, the English William Caxton printed The Historie of Reynart the Foxe, which was translated from Van den vos Reynaerde.[11] Also in the 1480s, the Scottish poet Robert Henryson devised a highly sophisticated development of Reynardian material as part of his Morall Fabillis in the sections known as The Talking of the Tod. Hans van Ghetelen, a printer of Incunabula in Lübeck printed a Low German version called Reinke de Vos in 1498. It was translated to Latin and other languages, which made the tale popular across Europe. Reynard is also referenced in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight during the third hunt.

Tybalt in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is named after the cat in Reynard the Fox (and is called 'Prince of Cats' by Mercutio in reference to this). Jonson's play Volpone is heavily indebted to Reynard.[21]

With the invention of the printing press the tales of Reynard the fox became more popular and started to be translated and recreated in many different languages.[22] The tales of Reynard don't follow the typical sense of reprinting, as there is no clear chronology to the stories. Many of the original pages to these stories have been lost, so it is difficult to tell what the exact literary changes are, of which there aren't many, with the exception of the typical changes that are seen from the early days of the printing press.[22] There are also slight changes to the wording that show modernization of the uses and differing orders of the words. While the changes might appear to be mistakes, they are not thought of as such and are often kept in the modernization of the tales.[22] There haven't been many attempts to better the works in during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Changes to the tales during the fifteenth century are not seen as mistakes because of specific roles in the process of printing designed to eliminate mistakes.[22] In the early modern editions of Reynard the Fox, the characteristics of the animals were based on literary topoi appealing to the middle class reader.[23]

The trickster figure Reynard the Fox as depicted in an 1869 children's book by Michel Rodange

Modern treatment[edit]

19th century[edit]

Reinecke Fuchs by Goethe is a poem in hexameters, in twelve parts, written 1793 and first published 1794. Goethe adapted the Reynard material from the edition by Johann Christoph Gottsched (1752), based on the 1498 Reynke de vos.

In Friedrich Nietzsche's 1889 The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche uses Reynard the Fox as an example of a dialectician.[24]

German artist Johann Heinrich Ramberg made a series of thirty drawings, which he also etched and published in 1825.[25]

Renert [full original title: Renert oder de Fuuß am Frack an a Ma'nsgrëßt],[26][27] was published in 1872 by Michel Rodange, a Luxembourgeois author. An epic satirical work—adapted from the 1858 Cotta Edition of Goethe's fox epic Reineke Fuchs to a setting in Luxembourg. It is known to be a satirical mirror image of Luxembourg's social sphere after the turmoils of the Luxembourg Crisis, whereby the author transposed his criticism and social scepticism to the animal society in which his fox 'Renert' lives.[26] Beyond that, it is insightful analysis of the different regional and sub-regional linguistic differences of the country, where distinct dialects are used to depict the fox and his companions.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bianciotto, G. (2005). Introduction. In Le Roman de Renart. Paris: Librairie Générale Française (Livre de poche) ISBN 978-2-253-08698-7
  2. ^ a b c Bouwman, André; Besamusca, Bart (2009). Of Reynaert the Fox: Text and Facing Translation of the Middle Dutch Beast Epic Van Den Vos Reynaerde. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. pp. 42–43. ISBN 978-9089640246.
  3. ^ a b c illustrator., Larrieu, Odette, 1906- Lorioux, Félix, 1872-1964 (1928). The story of Reynard the fox. Macmillan. OCLC 8761673.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ a b c d Kaeuper, Richard W; Guyol, Christopher (20 October 2015). Kings, Knights and Bankers : the collected articles of Richard W. Kaeuper. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-30265-5. OCLC 936344680.
  5. ^ Avery, Anne Louise (2020). Reynard the Fox. Bodleian Library. ISBN 978-1-85124-555-0. OCLC 1232084892.
  6. ^ a b Owen, D. D. R. (Douglas David Roy) (1994). The romance of Reynard the fox. Oxford University Press. OCLC 1036938053.
  7. ^ McGowan, Bob; says, Jr (18 November 2021). "In a Word: Coward, a Tale of the Tail". The Saturday Evening Post.
  8. ^ "monkey". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 14 July 2018.
  9. ^ Weekley, Ernest (18 July 2012). "monkey". An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Courier Corporation. p. 945. ISBN 9780486122861.
  10. ^ Propp, Vladimir J. (January 2009). "Duping". In Perron, Paul; Debbèche, Jean-Patrick (eds.). On the Comic and Laughter. Toronto Studies in Semiotics and Communication. Translated by Perron, Paul; Debbèche, Jean-Patrick. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (published 2009). p. 77. ISBN 9780802099266. Retrieved 5 February 2022. The cunning fox is the main character of many European folktales about animals. [...] The plot of Russian folktales about a fox usually boils down to the fox duping everybody.
  11. ^ a b c Briggs, Asa (ed.) (1989) The Longman Encyclopedia, Longman, ISBN 0-582-91620-8
  12. ^ "Preface". The diverting historie of Renard the fox, newly ed. and done into Engl. Translated by Pardon, George Frederick. London: Willoughby & Co. 1850. p. 1-2. Retrieved 27 January 2023. This is about the most renowned of all the German fables [...]. But though the story was [...] conveyed into France [...] there seems no doubt whatever that it is of German origin; and, according to probable conjecture, a certain Reinard of Lorraine, famous for his vulpine qualities in the ninth century, suggested the name to some unknown fabulist of the empire.
  13. ^ Gilder, Jeannette Leonard; Gilder, Joseph Benson, eds. (1896). "The Critic". The Critic. Volumes 101-108 of American periodical series, 1850-1900. New York: The Critic Company (published July–December 1896). 26 (753): 59. Retrieved 27 January 2023. MR. JOSEPH JACOBS, in his learned introduction to The Most Delectable History of Reynard, the Fox, [1895] traces the literary origin of that world-renowned beast fable to the twelfth-century French versions, but, while admitting wholesale borrowing from Esop and other classical sources, points out that many incidents of the tale must have come from ancient northern folk-lore. [...] And, as the names of the characters [...] are of German origin, these folk-lore stories were most likely imported into France by the Germans. Mr. Jacobs would, in fact, localize the origin of the Reynard in Lorraine [...].
  14. ^ Thoms, William J. (1844). "Sketch of the Literary History of the Romance of Reynard the Fox". The History of Reynard the Fox. Volume 12 of Early English poetry, ballads, and popular literature of the Middle ages. London: Percy Societ. p. xix - xx. Retrieved 27 January 2023. We shall content ourselves with extracting one passage from Grimm, important for the etymological grounds which it affords for supposing that stories of the Fox and Wolf were known to the Franks as early as the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries.
  15. ^ Benton, Janetta Rebold (1 April 1997). Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings. Abbeville Press. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-7892-0182-9.
  16. ^ Bannon, Andre; Norton, Laura (1947). Rouge Reynard : being a tale of the fortunes and misfortunes and divers misdeeds of that great villain, Baron Reynard, the fox, and how he was served with King Lion's justice. Houghton Mifflin Co. OCLC 607036300.
  17. ^ a b Stevens, John E. (1974). Medieval romance : themes and approaches. W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-00715-4. OCLC 1089580728.
  18. ^ Kiser, Lisa J. (October 2003). "Holy and Noble Beasts: Encounters with Animals in Medieval Literature. David Salter". Speculum. 78 (4): 1390–1392. doi:10.1017/s0038713400101319. ISSN 0038-7134.
  19. ^ D., Bensen, Larry (1974). The Learned and the lewed : studies in Chaucer and medieval literature. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-51885-3. OCLC 876454497.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  20. ^ Lemma = Waal, INL
  21. ^ Jonson, B. (1999) Brian Parker and David Bevington (eds.), Volpone, Manchester, Manchester University Press pp. 3–6 ISBN 978-0-7190-5182-1
  22. ^ a b c d Percy, Society (1965). Early English poetry, ballads, and popular literature of the Middle Ages. Johnson Reprint Corp. OCLC 337731.
  23. ^ Mish, Charles C. (August 1954). ""Reynard the Fox" in the Seventeenth Century". Huntington Library Quarterly. 17 (4): 327–344. doi:10.2307/3816500. JSTOR 3816500.
  24. ^ Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche, p. 13
  25. ^ "Reineke Fuchs. In 30 Blattern gezeichnet und radirt von Johann Heinrich Ramberg." Hannover 1826. New edition with colored prints 2016. Waltraud Maierhofer (ed.). Reineke Fuchs - Reynard the Fox. 31 Originalzeichnungen u. neu kolorierte Radierungen m. Auszügen aus d. deutschen Übersetzung des Epos im populären Stil v. Soltau | 31 original drawings and newly colored etchings with excerpts from the English translation of the burlesque poem by Soltau. VDG Weimar, 2016. ISBN 978-3-89739-854-2
  26. ^ a b Renert at the European Literary Characters website. Retrieved on 22 April 2015.
  27. ^ Rodange, Michel (2010). Renert, oder de Fuuss Am Frack an a Mansgresst. Kessinger Publishing. ASIN 1166177424. Retrieved on 22 April 2015.


  • Bonafin, Massimo, Le malizie della volpe: Parola letteraria e motivi etnici nel Roman de Renart (Rome: Carocci editore, 2006) (Biblioteca Medievale Saggi). cf. here an abstract of this book & cf. here a review of this book unfortunately not yet translated in English.
  • Zebracki, Martin, Het grenzeloze land van Reynaerde Archived 2013-08-01 at the Wayback Machine [The boundless country of [the Fox] Reynaert]. Geografie 20 (2011: 2), pp. 30–33.
  • Johann Heinrich Ramberg (artist), Dietrich Wilhelm Soltau (author), Waltraud Maierhofer (editor): "Reineke Fuchs – Reynard the Fox. 31 Originalzeichnungen u. neu kolorierte Radierungen m. Auszügen aus d. deutschen Übersetzung des Epos im populären Stil v. Soltau | 31 original drawings and newly colored etchings with excerpts from the English translation of the burlesque poem by Soltau." VDG Weimar, Weimar 2016. ISBN 978-3-89739-854-2.

External links[edit]