Roman de Renart


Roman de Renart
(ca. 1174–1250)
   Despite its title, the Roman de Renart represents only an agglomeration of episodic narratives. They have been preserved in 26 branches composed by more than 20 different authors between 1174 and 1250. The Roman has survived in 13 major manuscripts, all of which tell the basic tale of the fox Renart as an incredibly witty and resourceful protagonist who is constantly looking for sexual adventures and food and ruthlessly takes whatever he can find, easily triumphing over such opponents as Tibert the cat, Chantecler the rooster, and Tiecelin the crow. One of Renart’s victories is the rape of the she-wolf Hersent, which leads to the perennial enmity between the wolf Isengrin and the fox Renart. The king of the animals, the lion Noble, summons Renart to court, but the fox always outsmarts everyone and comes out of the trial as the king’s most favored subject. Each branch of these narratives adds and expands on the original account, but the overall design remains the same. Some of the most important branches are Branches 6, (the judicial duel between Reynart and Isengrin), 8 (the pilgrimage of the animals), and 10 (the cure of the lion).
   Renart incorporates the most basic instincts in man, and he pursues them with a vengeance, living out his dreams of uninhibited sexuality, violence, and accumulation of wealth. By the same token,Renart demonstrates extraordinary skills in assuming varying roles and masks that allow him to transgress all social norms and taboos. Although the Roman situates the events in the world of animals, the narratives are clearly meant as critical allusions to the world of feudalism. Curiously, however, although Renart’s brutal behavior ought to raise a sense of outrage and disgust, all branches of the Roman contain strong elements of humor, and the fox’s witty maneuvers to outsmart his mostly evil-minded and mean-spirited opponents prove to be hilarious and impressive. Often the reader/listener feels forced to sympathize with the protagonist who only pursues his simple drive for sexual fulfillment and wants to meet his basic need for food and drink. Ultimately, despite his mostly “criminal” behavior, Renart demonstrates that life and nature are the strongest forces in this world, and that social norms often tend to serve only the interests of special groups whose power is regularly undermined by the fox’s operations. Significantly, whereas Renart seems to break the laws all the time, his opponents do not demonstrate any better moral and ethical principles and often prove to be nothing but vengeful, stupid, and gullible enemies. Although the fox often victimizes the other animals—the wolf above all—the audience hardly ever feels sympathy with them and cheers Renart’s triumphs over the evil and mighty ones in this world.Undoubtedly the many different authors and adaptors of the Roman de Renart intended to ironize and satirize the contemporary courtly culture, and they revealed its material underpinnings in an almost grotesque, but certainly highly hilarious, manner.
   The earliest versions of the Roman were composed by clerics, a few of whom we know by name: Pierre de Saint-Cloud, Richard de Lison, and the priest of La Croix-en-Brie. They obviously drew much material from classical antiquity and the early-medieval literature (Aesop’s fables in prose and verse; Ecbasis captivi, and Magister Nivardus’s Ysengrimus, the latter two from the middle of the 12th century). But there are also obvious literary parallels to the TRISTAN material, to MARIE DE FRANCE’s LAIS, and reminiscences of the Mort Artu. Many of the branches change the structure and material of earlier branches, so the Roman de Renart really represents a large corpus of texts that were constantly rewritten. The Roman was adapted for their own purposes by late-medieval French poets such as RUTEBEUF (Rénart le bétourné), the anonymous author of the 13th-century Couronnement de Renart, Jacquemart Gielée (Renart le nouvel, late 13th century), the Priest of Troyes (Renart le contrefait, two redactions, 1319–28), and Jean Tenessax (Livre de maistre Renart, 15th century). The Roman de Renart was also translated into many other European languages. A Latin version by Balduinus (Reinardus Vulpes) appeared before 1280. The Alsatian poet Heinrich der Glîchezâre composed a Middle High German verse epic, Reinhart Fuchs, by the late 12th century. The poet Arnout-Willem created a Flemish version ca. 1250 (Van den vos Reynaerde), which was reworked in a western Flemish version ca. 1375. Geoffrey CHAUCER drew his material for The NUN’S PRIEST’S TALE (ca. 1387) from the French source, followed by Hinrek van Alkmar’s Dutch translation in 1480, and an English translation published by William CAXTON in 1481. A Low German version appeared in 1498 (Reinke de Vos), which in turn was translated into High German in 1650, and many times thereafter.Numerous new editions and translations have been published since then, the most famous being, perhaps, Johann Christoph Gottsched’s Reineke Fuchs (1752) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s hexametric (six-foot line) verse epic Reineke Fuchs (1794) with its satirical allusion to the French Revolution.
   Bibliography
   ■ Owen, D. D. R., trans. The Romance of Reynard the Fox. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1995.
   ■ Varty, Kenneth, ed. Reynard the Fox: Cultural Metamorphoses and Social Engagement in the Beast Epic from the Middle Ages to the Present. New York: Berghahn Books, 2000.
   ■ ———. The Roman de Renart: A Guide to Scholarly Work. Lanham,Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1998.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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