The Destruction of the Fox Preacher: A Reading of the Borders of the York Minster Pilgrimage Window
York Medieval Yearbook, ISSUE No. 1, (2002)
Images of a fox preaching to a flock of birds, at least one of whom he plans later to devour, fill the margins of medieval religious manuscripts and marginal spaces in medieval churches. This problematic figure appears in dress ranging from bishop’s mitres to friars’ robes to pilgrims’ staffs. One unlucky (or perhaps unwary) member of his congregation is often shown in a following scene, flung over the fox’s back as he runs off. The fox’s success is seldom allowed to go unchallenged, however. Incorporated within the image or within its context is the threat of the fox’s downfall and eventual death. While these images admit to the danger of false preaching even within the boundaries of religion, the impending doom for the fox serves to legitimate the religious work surrounding it. Though the fox uses the power of religious words to captivate (literally) his listeners, in the end, it is the fox who is doomed. The images may act as a warning against false preaching on the part of the clergy who view these images or against unwariness on the part of the laity, but they also act as a confirmation of the viewer’s role in recognizing and chastising such preaching. This self-confirmation is evident in the border imagery in the Pilgrimage Window in the nave of the York Minster, where the fox’s downfall may even be brought about by the pilgrims themselves.