One of my favourite medieval fables is that of Reynard the Fox.
Found in manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages, Reynard, the trickster, was an anthropomorphised fox who caused trouble for other animals and sometimes came up against Isengrim, the Wolf, or Tybalt, the Prince of Cats.
Reynard in battle, from ‘Roman de Renart’ (f.73v) in National Library of France
It is an allegorical piece originating in Dutch, German and English folklore. These were often used as parodies of the popular courtly love and heroic epics of the Medieval Age, with sprinklings of political and social satire as well.
The first appearance of the trickster fox seems to be in the latin mock-epic poem Ysengrimus, written around the 1150s. Although it is likely he was a pre-existing folklore character before this and multiple authors have moulded and shaped his curious tale.
He stars in the manuscript Roman de Renart, written in the 14th Century. It is held the National Library of France and can be viewed online here. It has some fantastic and unusual illustrations which are well worth a flick through.
An image of Reynard chasing Tybalt, Prince of Cats, who escapes of horseback, from ‘Roman de Renart’ (f.63v) in National Library of France
Tybalt, Prince of Cats, is a secondary character in the tales. He is often mocked and tricked by Reynard but equally he gets up to some bizarre adventures.
The allegorical tales have left their mark. ‘Father of English Literature’, the medieval poet Chaucer, uses some of the characters in his Nun’s Priests’ Tale. It is even famously referenced in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when they refer to Tybalt mockingly as the Prince of Cats.
It is heartening to think that our own affection and enjoyment of anthropomorphised animal characters in books and cartoon is not a modern foible. We are part of a long, proud and mocking tradition.