The Mystery of the Maastricht Monkeys
By Steffen Hope
Published Online on My Albion (2013)
Excerpt: The medieval beast-fable, drawing on Aesop’s educational fables, belongs to what is known as the burlesque tradition – one of two overarching categories of medieval satire – and its earliest manifestation is the anonymous Ecbasis Captivi from c.1050, by an anonymous monk from Lorraine. This poem, featuring a calf who runs away from the stall and is abducted by a wolf, inspired Nivard of Ghent’s 1148 beast-epic Ysengrimus.
The latter half of the twelfth century saw the genesis of two other major beast-fables whose popularity endured throughout the Middle Ages, and may therefore have informed and inspired the illuminator of the Maastricht Hours. The oldest of these is the direct descendant of Ysengrimus, a story of Reynard the Fox which later grew into a set of 26 loosely connected branches, approximately 15 of which were composed between 1174 and 1205, while the rest were written prior to 1250. These stories were collectively referred to as the Roman de Renart, a title applied by the end of the 12th century, and their popularity is attested by numerous references in epic poems, romances, chronicles, sermons, and countless edifying and unedifying stories, not to mention that the word renard had replaced goupil as the French word for fox by the mid-13th century. The Romance of Reynard the Fox resulted in a number of adaptations and inspired later writers, such as Gervais du Bus and Geoffrey Chaucer. Gervais wrote the lyrics for the Roman de Fauvel, a story of an ass who becomes the king of France and has tapestries depicting Reynard’s adventures, which was designed as a speculum, a king’s mirror, for Philippe V of France. Geoffrey of Chaucer, however, was most likely inspired by Reynard when writing about Chanticleer in The Nun’s Priest Tale. It is also interesting to note – since MS. Stowe 17 is from Liège – that “a fourteenth century Flemish version is the source of what medieval material remains in Goethe’s Reineke Fuchs”.