The Medieval Review 12.02.04

Bonafin, Massimo. Le malizie della volpe: Parola letteraria e motivi etnici nel Roman de Renart. Biblioteca Medievale Saggi. Rome: Carocci editore, 2006. Pp. 319. . . 26.50 EUR. ISBN 9788843037193.

Reviewed by:

Andreea D. Boboc,
English, University of the Pacific

Although Massimo Bonafin seems to have intended The Mischiefs of the Fox primarily for an Italian audience, this book will also prove useful to scholars of comparative literature interested in the hermeneutics and textual history of the rich array of texts that constitute the Roman de Renart. Bonafin's main contribution is to expand the interpretive aspects of the Roman by providing us with a valuable study, which makes simultaneous use of philology and cultural anthropology, and which lingers, particularly in the second section (183ff.), on the deconstructionist aspects of the Roman.

The book addresses in two main sections some crucial interpretive aspects of the Roman. In the first six chapters, which make up the first part, Bonafin focuses on the textual analysis of individual branches (specifically 24, 2, 5a, 1, 6, 23, 9, 4, and 17). At times, however, the author reflects on the epistemological and symbolic implications of a particular scene across several branches--consider, for instance, the episode between Renart and Isengrin in the well. In the second section, the author abandons the analysis of particular branches to deal with more general interpretive questions, such as the place of the Roman de Renart in the history of Romance literature, its techniques of representing reality, as well as the meanings of zoomorphic literature, a genre both widespread and well- anchored in the popular imagination before the Middle Ages. The book concludes with a review of the manuscripts and editions of the Roman, the history of its production and transmission, and, finally, an attempt to categorize it: does the Roman constitute a cycle, a macrotesto (that is, a textual conglomerate that, according to its formal and thematic elements, may be considered as one unified opus), or a genre in itself? The volume also contains an appendix describing the Roman's manuscripts and the subdivisions of various branches, an index, and a bibliography.

The first chapter belongs to a delightful, quasi-Biblical sequence that runs through the first part of the book progressing from Original Sin to Justification, Court of Justice, In the Well, and Death and Resurrection. It focuses on the textual history of branch 24 and its allusions to the Book of Genesis. Significant here are issues of naming and genealogy. As the archetypes of the trickster and the scoundrel, Renart and Isengrin stand in symbolically for those corrupt members of the church and nobility whose names had become synonymous with crime. But, as Bonafin points out, the familial relationship between the fox and the wolf (as uncle and nephew) also throws light on the textual history of this animal epos and its ethnical stratifications. It is branch 24's anthropological edge and its interpretative richness that fascinates Bonafin the most and that renders it the "foundational myth" (mito di fondazione) of the Roman de Renart.

In the second chapter, Bonafin revisits Lucien Foulet's 1914 thesis that branches 2 and 5a represent two sections of a unified poem by examining their internal narrative logic, their "intertexual" and "interdiscoursive" qualities (as defined by Segre in Le strutture e il tempo), and their indebtedness to folklore. The strength of this section relies on its original close-readings, which are grouped by protagonist (rooster, tit-mouse, cat, raven, and she-wolf). Especially intriguing is Bonafin's suggestion that totemism (54-56) might become a venue for future research into the familial relationships of the animal world rather than the previously used category of "anthropomorphism," which he finds both "dubious" and "all-too-general" (dubbia e onnicomprensiva).

The third chapter employs the Bakhtinian theory of carnivalesque to investigate the "polyphony" of the animal world (as depicted in branch 5a) and its role in the discursive construction of characters and reality. It enables Bonafin to arrive at a historical and sociological contextualization of the narrative techniques used in branch 5a. Bonafin argues that, among the multiple authors of Roman, there exists a certain class, which he identifies as "proto-bourgeois" (una classe proto-borghese), that prefers astuteness to force (104). Indeed, all conflicts in which an opponent takes advantage of his physical superiority to impose his views upon others ultimately get resolved by means of cunning. Bonafin associates physical force (potenza) with the old chivalric class, while deceit and well- devised verbal tricks belong to the arsenal of the mercantile class, which also traffics in words (104).

Chapter four discusses branch 1 as the reproduction on a small scale of the entire structure of the Roman, whose cohesion is less due to some organic narrative development than to the constant presence of its main characters, which take part in various adventures. Here Bonafin restates his hypothesis about the Roman's anti- aristocratic orientation, noting (with Lefay-Toury) that the only institution not "bombarded" (bersagliata) by the Reynardian satire is the family, a tendency which might point to the clerical education of its authors (125), who used their training not as a means of conserving the values of their time but of opening them up for debate (127).

Chapter five investigates across several branches and manuscripts the misadventure of the wolf Isengrin, who unwittingly replaces the fox Renart at the bottom of a well, in which the fox had fallen, by manipulating a pulley. Using textual history and philological evidence to illuminate the story's three versions, Bonafin argues that the "minor" version, transmitted via the manuscripts H I C M, has a better probability of being more authentic (piĆ¹ genuina) than the version included in E. Martin's 19th-century edition (161). He draws on several literary traditions (the African, Asian as well as the European) to offer symbolic readings of the well as an entry into the other world or as a means of communication with the sources of life, truth, or with the world of the deceased (152). Particularly compelling is his discussion of this episode as a fable of possible Hebrew origin (155-160).

Chapter six chronicles the three phony deaths of Renart the fox in branch 17. Death and resurrection belong for Bonafin to a natural cycle in an imaginary universe ruled by ambivalence, by the coexistence of opposing principles, which are however complementary. The structures of ambivalence, borrowed from the medieval culture of carnival, regain their folkloristic grounding in the text; they appear antithetical to the Christian doctrine, which, in Bonafin's view, cannot accommodate a mixture of weeping and laughter, of mourning and sexual license, or of funeral and feast, because it has placed its hopes of resurrection and rebirth in a life after death (179).

In chapter seven, Bonafin points to the Roman's strategic use of mise en abyme to reveal a multiplicity of narrative voices and points of view that all converge on the fox's illicitness. Using as examples the fox's mirroring confessions in branches 1, 7, 8, and 17, Bonafin calls for a study of literary allusions in the Roman, a study meant to illuminate the interplay between intertextual and polyphonic narrative techniques.

In order to grasp Reynardian humor in all its dialectical complexity, however, one needs to understand the folkloric meta-text that gives shape to its zoomorphism. Chapter eight proposes several interpretations through an anthropologic lens. Drawing on studies of totems and proverbs, Bonafin illuminates the character of the trickster, who tends to surface whenever societies or cultures face a crisis, undergo a transitional phase, or question their assumptions and truths (153).

Chapter nine summarizes and reevaluates the main strands of Reynardian criticism in Europe (particularly the differences between the German and the French schools of thought), while pointing out the mediating role of Italian scholarship. Chapter ten deals with problems of textual transmission and concludes Bonafin's well-balanced study with a discussion of the Roman's genre (290-295). I was interested in this study for its potential implications for the law, particularly with respect to conflict resolution. I was not disappointed. Bonafin's rich meditations on the cultural role of the trickster may serve his readership in more ways than the author intended.