beast epic


beast epic
(beast fable, Tierdichtung)
   Medieval beast epics, like the earlier fables of Aesop and others, were linked series of tales revolving around animals that talked and behaved like human beings. Often they were written in a mock-epic style that parodied the conventions of other literary genres, like epics and romances. The tone might range from low comedy to bitter satire, but often beast epics had a didactic purpose, usually to satirize the contemporary court or the church.
   The origin of the beast epic genre has been a matter of scholarly debate. Some have held that the stories were shaped by TROUVÈRES and monastic scholars out of popular traditions. Others believe that scholastic Latin writers originated the tradition. In any case, the first text with features of a beast epic was composed in Latin between 782 and 786 by a cleric of CHARLEMAGNE’s court known as Paulus Diaconus. In about 940, an anonymous German monk from Lorraine composed a 1,226-line Latin poem called Edbasis captivi that featured a runaway calf that is caught by a wolf and eventually saved by a bull, dog, and fox. A later Latin beast poem from the late 12th century was the witty Speculum stultorum (by the Canterbury monk Nigel Wireker), which recounts the adventures of the donkey Burnellus.
   But the first fully developed beast epic is probably the 6,500-line Latin poem Ysengrimus, composed about 1150 by the Flemish poet Nivardus. This text introduces the wolf Ysengrimus, the fox Reinardus, who engages in an affair with the wolf ’s mate, and the cock Sprotinus, who has a dispute with the fox.
   Nivardus’s text was the chief source for the most important and influential beast epic, the ROMAN DE REYNART. Begun about 1173 by the French poet Pierre de St. Cloud, the Roman chronicles the adventures of the fox introduced by Nivardus, the popular “Reynard the fox.”The affair of the fox and the wolf ’s wife in particular helped inspire several other “branches,” or groups of stories, added to the Reynart cycle by mainly anonymous writers between 1178 and 1250. These ultimately swelled the Roman de Reynart to some 27,000 lines of octosyllabic French verse. These included 27 branches of stories, containing characters like the lion, badger, camel, ant, cat, and hare, in addition to the wolf, fox, and cock.
   From this source developed other versions of the Reynart beast epic. The Alsatian poet Heinrich der Glicherzare wrote Reinhart Fuchs in Middle High German about 1200. The story of Reynart’s trial from the Roman inspired a number of other beast epics through the 13th and 14th centuries, including the French Couronnement de Renart, Renart le Nouvel, and Renart le Contrefait, as well as the Dutch Van der Vos Reynaerde and Reynaert’s Historie. The popular Dutch versions inspired more Reynart stories in German, Danish, Swedish, and English.
   The best-known text inspired by the Roman de Reynart is Geoffrey CHAUCER’s NUN’S PRIEST’S TALE, which relates the story of the fox’s failed attempt to trick the cock Chaunticleer into becoming his dinner. Beast fables, particularly those inspired by Reynart, remained in fashion through the 15th century, culminating in Caxton’s printed prose text in 1481.
   Bibliography
   ■ Best, Thomas W. Reynard the Fox. Boston: Twain, 1983.
   ■ Blake, N. F., ed. The History of Reynard the Fox; translated from the Dutch original by William Caxton. Early English Text Society. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
   ■ Needlen, Howard. “The Animal Fable Among Other Medieval Literary Genres,” New Literary History 22, no. 2 (Spring 1991): 423–439.
   ■ Ziolkowski, Jan M. Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 7501150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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