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22.01.31 Avery, Reynard the Fox

22.01.31 Avery, Reynard the Fox

This book is one of the results of the historical outreach project North Sea Crossings: The Literary Heritage of Anglo-Dutch Relations, 1066 to 1688. This project is largely funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and it is realised by collaboration between the University of Bristol, the Bodleian Library, and Aardman Animations. The project has two aims: enlarging the existing knowledge about the historical Anglo-Dutch relations and making the available knowledge accessible to a larger, non-academic public. This book is a retelling of William Caxton’s History of Reynard the Fox (1481), a translation of a Dutch book: Die hystorie van Reynaert die vos, printed in 1479 in Gouda by Gheraert Leeu. Caxton’s Reynard book is not only the first printed book in English about this most famous of foxes, it is also the first long story about the fox in English and the beginning of a long and complex tradition. In academic circles its importance is well known, but it is seldom read, and outside academia it is even fairly unknown. The reason for this is probably that Caxton translated almost slavishly and kept many Dutch words in his text, and his spelling conventions are very peculiar for modern readers. The reading of the original is thus not easy. Hence the choice to produce a retelling of this important (and interesting) book must be applauded.

The retelling is preceded by an introduction, and this seems to be an overview of the scholarly knowledge about The History of Reynard the Fox, but those who read it as such will be misguided because the information given about the tradition that led to Caxton’s text is sloppy and often wrong. Here I want to raise only the two most important aspects. The first is that the introduction starts with the ideas of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about Reynard and says nothing about what Caxton thought about that beast. Goethe admired the fox and sympathised with him, but in the prologue of Caxton’s text (which is left out by Avery) it is stated explicitly that the following story is meant to make people aware of the bad tricks of characters like the fox. These tricks are not presented for use, but to help people not to become victims of them. Avery’s retelling shows a clear sympathy for Reynard that is in my view anachronistic. It fits in with Goethe’s ideas but is different from Caxton’s view of the fox’s behaviour. That is in itself not a problem, but I think it would have been fairer to a general readership had she been open about this.

The second is that Avery links Caxton’s text directly to Van den vos Reynaerde, the first Dutch Reynaert text, and this direct link does not exist. According to Avery, Van den vos Reynaerde was written around 1250 by Willem van Boudelo, a Cistercian lay brother and clerk of Margaret II, Countess of Flanders (xii–xiii). She refers in this context to the work of Maurice Nonneman and Rik Van Daele but does not give references. She adds that Willem’s Reynard may have been based on Zeger III, Châtelain of the Count’s castle in Ghent, and his King Noble the Lion on Philip the Noble, Count of Namur and Regent of Flanders. The idea that the text was written by Willem van Boudelo is considered by most scholars as a plausible hypothesis, but this hypothesis is not accepted generally; and in the reflection on this the work of Rik van Daele plays a role but the publications of Maurice Nonneman (who published only locally in the seventies of the last century) are completely neglected. [1] The idea that Van den vos Reynaerde refers to the conflict between Zeger III and Philip the Noble is not from Nonneman or Van Daele, but from Jozef de Wilde, who assumes that the author of the text was a certain Wilhelmus Physicus, and not Willem van Baudelo. [2] These ideas of De Wilde have not had any influence at all on the scholarship about Van den vos Reynaerde.

After this undocumented hodgepodge Avery briefly describes the minimal fox tradition in England, Caxton’s discovery of the printing technique, and his setting up of a printing press in Westminster. And then she writes: “In the summer of 1481, having become familiar with the stories and landscapes of Reynard in Flanders, Caxton decided to publish his own translation of the Reynard story, based on the Middle Dutch prose version of Willem’s earlier poem which Gerard Leeu had printed just a few years earlier” (xv). This is a very problematical statement. Leeu had not printed a prose translation of Van den vos Reynaerde but of Reynaerts historie, a Middle Dutch continuation of Van den vos Reynaerde that was probably written in the region of Ypres in the first decades of the fifteenth century. [3] The still extant manuscripts of this text, however, stem from the northern parts of the Low Countries (Utrecht and Holland) and Leeu himself printed his book in Gouda, a place in Holland. So, all the representatives of the story that Caxton translated are from another region than that where Willem van Baudelo was active. There is no reason at all to assume that Caxton learned about the Reynard story in the region between Ghent and the Waasland (cf. xxii). I personally think it is more probable that he learned the story from an exported copy of Leeu’s prose version and that he decided to translate it because he knew that the printed Dutch prose version sold well. And it is generally accepted by Dutch scholars that although the place names in the Dutch Reynaert tradition refer mostly to existing places, the place descriptions in the texts are not realistic but symbolic: they express in an indirect way something about the situation or the attitude of the characters that are present there. Hence there was no need at all for Caxton to become acquainted with whichever landscape in the Low Countries to be able to translate a Reynard story. This all implies that Avery constructs a historical situation that corresponds with her own decisions, but that in fact is completely wrong. I have more criticism regarding the introduction, but I hope this is enough to make clear that Avery’s book is not a reliable guide to the scholarship about the Dutch tradition before Caxton.

It is, however, also possible to see the Introduction as an explanation of Avery’s strategy in her retelling. From that perspective it makes sense. To see Reynard, as Goethe did, as a questionable but nevertheless sympathetic character fits the modern mentality far better than Caxton’s straight moral rejection. And although Avery could as well have chosen The Hague (near to Leeu’s Gouda) or Westminster or Windsor (near to Caxton’s press) as Ghent (mentioned in Willem’s text) as the place for Noble’s court, the choice to place the story in the region between Ghent and Rupelmonde is very understandable because there exists nowadays a lively interest in Van den vos Reynaerde, the primary origin of the tradition that led to Caxton’s text, and that interest can be also inspiring for a reworking of that later version of the fox story. Avery’s choices should be respected because one thing is undeniable: her Introduction may be sloppy and problematical, but her retelling is brilliant. I think it is the best adaptation of a medieval fox story that I have ever read.

She follows the plot of Caxton’s text closely and takes over many passages, but she fleshes out this core with descriptions of the feelings of the characters, their possessions and their housing, their food, and the things they see when they travel. She also gives the female characters bigger roles than they had in the original and, just as Caxton did, she uses many outlandish words in her English. This all creates a story that is exciting and compelling and that is written in a style that glitters and sparkles. These literary qualities deserve a thorough analysis, but The Medieval Review is not the best place for that, so I will restrict myself to a few remarks about the role that scholarship plays in the retelling itself.

Avery lets a Cast of Characters precede Caxton’s text (xxvii–xxx) and adds at the end a Glossary (425–446). These two elements were absent in Caxton’s edition, but they are found in some nineteenth century retellings of Caxton, so it is probable that Avery was inspired here by her predecessors. Caxton’s text is divided into chapters. Avery takes this over but also adds a division into parts and into days. Her story starts on Whit Sunday, 6th June (3) and ends on the Feast Day of the Translation of Saint Thomas à Becket of Canterbury, Wednesday 7th July (422). 2020, the year that Avery’s book was published, was the 800-year anniversary of this event, so she made a fitting choice, the more so because “translation” is a term that also could be used for her own work. [4] This playing with real medieval elements in a fictional story may be found in many places, for instance the naming of the saints, the glossary, and the notes that Avery sometimes adds to her text. To illustrate it I want to describe the role that Boethius plays in her story. According to Avery, Tybert the cat, the second summoner of Reynard, is a professor at Leuven University. He is a specialist on the works of Boethius and is working on a translation of his Consolatio (67). On his way to Reynard’s castle Tybert remembers the carefree past when he discussed with “a good and old friend--an English mercer and sometime publisher --...the idea of printing his translation of Boethius” (78). This mercer is of course Caxton, who printed Chaucer’s English translation of the Consolatio in about 1478. Tybert’s translation, however, must be a Dutch one. And this exists: in 1485 a Dutch translation of the Consolatio was printed in Ghent. In the prologue of this translation, it is mentioned that a person who wants to check the correctness of his copy can find an exemplar in the library of Sint Veerle in Ghent. [5] According to Avery, Tybert’s house lies next to the Abbey of Sint Veerle (67) and the cat dines sometimes with the abbot of that monastery (69). At the end of his remembrance Tybert cries: “it is the worst, the most miserable misfortune to have been happy once” (78). This is exactly the opinion that Boethius expresses when he remembers his past good fortune in the beginning of the Consolatio. Immediately thereafter Tybert composes a poem (78); the Consolatio is composed as an alternation of prose and poems. Nearing Reynard’s castle Tybert sees the tidal mill of Rupelmonde and he interprets its wheel as Fortune’s Wheel, the most famous image in the Consolatio. [6] After he has been maltreated by the priest and his family, Tybert is in pain, especially because of the loss of one of his eyes, and he weeps because of his stupidity (96). Then he feels a presence next to him and sees a vixen. This is Hermeline, Reynard’s wife. She comes to comfort him, and she is described exactly as Boethius describes Lady Philosophy when she enters his bedchamber to cure him (97). Hermeline accompanies Tybert on his way back to Ghent and the summary of their conversation (97–98) could also be used to summarise the Consolatio itself. Avery’s writing writes here can be understood and enjoyed without any knowledge of Boethius, theConsolatio, or its vernacular tradition, but it contains many analogies with and references to the Consolatio and “tongue-in-cheek” jokes for the expert. For scholars her book is full of hidden extras of this type.

The conclusion is crystal clear: Avery’s book is a worthy result of the North Sea Crossings project, not because it brings adequate knowledge, but because her retelling is outreach of sterling quality. And without outreach our profession is doomed to die.



1. Rik van Daele, “De robotfoto van de Reynaertdichter: bricoleren met de overgeleverde wrakstukken: ‘cisterciënzers’, ‘grafelijk hof’ en ‘Reynaertmaterie’”, Tiecelijn: 18 (2005), 179-205. In shorter form: “De robotfoto van de ‘Reynaert’-dichter: puzzelen met overgeleverde wrakstukken,” in Maar er is meer: avontuurlijk lezen in de epiek van de Lage Landen: studies voor Jozef D. Janssens, Remco Sleiderink, Veerle Uyttersprot, Bart Besamusca (eds.). Leuven: Davidsfonds/Literair; Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005, 193-215.

2. Jozef de Wilde, Van den vos Reynaerde ontsluierd, Gent: Provinciebestuur Oost-Vlaanderen, 1989.

3. Avery mentions Reynaerts historie on p. xvi but without any extra information. On p. xv she writes about “Gheraert Leeu’s two editions of Reynard, one in prose and one in verse.” It is unclear whether she realizes that what she calls the verse edition of Reynard on p. xv is the same as what she calls the verse version of Reynaerts historie on p. xvi.

4. And perhaps she had also in mind that the relationship between Becket and his king was completely different from that of Reynard and Noble.

5. An exemplar is a carefully corrected manuscript of an authoritative text that can be used to check the quality of any handwritten copy of that text. The mentioning of an exemplar in the prologue of a printed book shows that the intended public is not yet aware of the principal differences between manuscript and print.

6. The mentioning of this tidal mill is also apt because during part of the twentieth century its attic contained a Reynaert museum.