The Fox: A Medieval View, and Its Legacy in Modern Children’s Literature
By Joan V. Chadwick
Between the Species: An Online Journal for the Study of Philosophy and Animals, Vol.10 (1994)
Introduction: In the history of Western literature, no animal except perhaps the wolf, has stirred the human imagination more than the fox. Fables and legends passed down through the ages have guaranteed the fox a place in our cultural heritage, and the words “cunning,” “crafty,” and “sly” have become synonymous with the name “fox.” An old “fox,” meaning a person with the aforementioned traits, has the same meaning today that it had at the time of Chaucer.
The fox looks weak and small when compared with the larger wolf, but his intelligence and daring have insured his survival, whereas the wolf was exterminated from most of his European range during the Middle Ages. When the great forests were felled for shipbuilding and the early smelting industry, the wolf’s habitat was destroyed, while the fox, like the North American coyote, learned to live within human modified habitats, and today can even be found within the city limits of large urban centres. Despite concerted efforts to destroy the fox, the species has shown remarkable adaptive success.
The wolf was hunted for sport by the medieval nobility, and persecuted by farmers and peasants because of his threat to their cattle and sheep. When he disappeared, the nobles turned reluctantly to fox hunting, which has culminated in the barbaric cultural ritual of the modern fox hunt. The fox also supplanted the wolf as the main object of detestation for farmers, who blamed him for the disappearance of their poultry, and pursued him as relentlessly as they had formerly chased the wolf. With the increase in sheep farming, the fox was also condemned for predating new-born lambs.