By Minjie Su
Despite being a romance, the story of Reynard is no romance in the traditional sense. Rather, it makes fun of chivalry and the aristocracy. William Caxton’s fifteenth century English edition, The History of Reynard the Fox, was even labelled as an ‘anti-romance’. Although Reynard’s medieval audience did not necessarily exclude the higher classes, it is the aristocracy that often came off the worst in these stories, and by borrowing from other noted romances or chanson de geste, such passages would appear more comical in the reader’s eyes.
The stories of Reynard, the trickster fox, are generally attributed to Aesop, a slave from Samos in the sixth century BC, but the version we are familiar with really comes from the Middle Ages. The Roman de Renart became immensely popular at the end of the twelfth century and, between then and around the mid-thirteenth century, a narrative that has been customarily divided into 26 ‘branches’ was developed.
For instance, in the first branch, we find Sir Isengrin – a stupid yet pompous wolf who is Reynard’s life-long enemy – accusing Reynard of violating his wife, the lady Hersent. Hersent bravely volunteers to go through an ordeal of walking over a burning fire, apparently taking the example of Iseult. Hersent, however, is well-known for her lust – this is probably unavoidable, since she-wolves are thought to have an insatiable sexual appetite, and lupa, the latin word for ‘she-wolf’, is a synonym for prostitute. Even Isengrin refuses to let his wife to cleanse herself by walking into the fire, in fear of her imminent death. When Reynard finally yields to King Noble the Lion’s command (and threat) and appears at court to be tried, he paints his affair with Hersent as a paragon of courtly love and turns Isengrin into the jealous, cuckolded husband that we frequently find in Marie de France’s lais.
Likewise, although Reynard has practically raped Queen Fière, Fière takes it as ‘love’ and secretly helps him, on the condition that he must ‘by the love he has pledged her, to come and speak with her privately and with complete discretion’. The audience/readers would immediately recognise Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthur in the indecisive, inactive, and now cuckolded King Noble. Connections like these must have made the tales more laughable than they already were for the audience.
Although it is debatable precisely to what extent Roman de Renart was meant to be read as a social satire, it is certainly satirical in tone and has indeed been intended so in its later adaptations: Renart le Countrefait, the last major French treatment of the Reynard materials, criticizes the political, social, and ecclesiastical disorder and corruption. Reynard, therefore, has been more and more made into a voice of the common people; he has become a peasant hero.
Even Roman de Renart, where the aristocratic is not ridiculed as much as in the later works, addresses the issues and conditions of the lower classes. One distinctive feature of Renart is how central a position food occupies: Reynard is forever seeking food, even on his way to the trial (and possibly to death) he cannot help but sigh deeply over how many chickens he has missed when he passes a convent’s farm. The barons of Noble’s court are also slaves to their stomach. Reynard knows it only too well that more often than not he takes advantage of these barons’ appetites and leads them by the nose. Anne Lair, having pointed out Reynard’s obsession with food, calls Roman de Renart, ‘a cultural text’, in that it ‘illustrates accurately what people consumed at the time’. Reynard’s food is what any peasant would have wished to consume, and the way he eats it – in large quantities, and without reserve in fear of future starvation – is also how the members of the lower classes would want to consume food.
Such emphasis on food and, more importantly, on the actual act of eating greatly contrasts the chivalric romance and the epic genre. In those works, scenes of feasting are frequent, but the characters – the good ones, anyway – are never portrayed as gulping down their food. Dishes may be described in detail, but the function is to foreground the richness of the meals and the generosity of the lord; it is meant to impress the audience rather than actually draw their attention to the matter of the stomach. The feast, therefore, is more of a symbol. In Beowulf, for instance, the Danes and the Geats are only seen quaffing beer in Heorot; the only one who does a lot of eating is Grendel. Likewise, in Gawain and the Green Knight as well as other Arthurian romances, Sir Gawain and his valiant friends are frequently seen sit at luxurious feasts, conversing courteously, but not eating.
Scenes of actual eating are dismissed in such genres probably because the act of eating reminds one of his/ her own corporeality; and that causes anxiety. Detailed depictions of eating would draw our attention to our bodily needs – the very needs that bring us closer to animals, than to the divine and the spiritual. A proper hero should fight a dragon in excellent armour and woo a beautiful lady in her richly decorated chamber; he should not feel hungry all the time and run after food.
But Reynard and his enemies are animals already, despite their human attire, human etiquette, and human social structure. Animal epics as Roman de Renart give the authors much more freedom to depict scenes and/or address issues that they normally would not be able to. What would be censorable if all the characters are humans becomes acceptable. This makes the Reynard materials perfect for social satires, even though the Roman itself may not be intended as such. In these stories, it is not the beasts transformed into human as much as human transformed into beasts, and they carry their stories – perhaps metamorphosed but essentially human – along with them.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 1581 fol. 6v