1902 Encyclopedia > France > Roman du Renart

(Part 32)


Roman du Renart

If the fabliaux are nor remarkable for direct satire, that element is supplied in more than compensating quantity by an extraordinary composition which is closely related to them. Le Roman du Renart, or History of Reynard the Fox is a poem, or rather series of poems, which, from the end of the 12th to the middle of the 14th century, served the citizen poets of northern France, not merely as an outlet for literary expression, but also as a vehicle of satirical comment, -- now on the general vices and weaknesses of humanity, now on the usual corruptions in church and state, now on the various historical events which occupied public attention form time to time. The enormous popularity of the subject is shown by the long vogue which it had, and by the empire which it exercised over generations of writers who differed from each other widely in style and temper. Nothing can be father from the allegorical erudition, the political diatribes, and the sermonizing moralities of the authors of Rénart de Contre-fait than the sly naiveté of the writers of the earlier branches. Yet these and a long and unknown series of intermediate bards the fox-king pressed into his service, and it is scarcely too much to say that, during the two centuries of his reign, there was hardly a thought in the popular mind which, as it rose to the surface, did not find expression in an addition to the huge cycle of Renart.

We shall not deal with the controversies which have been raised as to the origin of the poem and its central idea. The latter many have been a travestie of real persons and actual events, or it may (and much more probably) have been an expression of thoughts and experiences which recur in every generation. France, the Netherlands, and Germany have contended for the honour of producing Renart; French, Flemish, German, and Latin for the honour of first describing him. It is sufficient to say that the spirit of the work seems to be more that of the borderland between France and Flanders than of any other district, and that, whenever the idea may gave originally arisen, it was incomparably more fruitful in France than in any other country. The French poems which we possess on the subject amount in all to nearly 100,000 lines, independently of mere variations, but including the two different versions of Renart le Contre-fait. This vast total is divided into four different poems. The most ancient and remarkable is that edited by Méon under the title of Roman du Renart, and containing, with some additions made by M. Chabaille, 37 branches and about 32,000 lines. It must not, however, be supposed that this total forms a continuous poem like the Aeneid or Paradise Lost. On the contrary, the separate branches are the work of different authors, hardly any of whom are known, and, but their community of subject and to some extent of treatment, might be regarded as separate poems. The history of Renart, his victories over Isengrim, Bruin, and his other unfortunate rivals, his family affection, his outwittings of King Noble the Lion, and all the rest, are too well known to need fresh description here. It is perhaps in the subsequent poems, which are far less known and much less amusing, that the hold which the idea of Renart had obtained on the mind of northern France, and the ingenious uses to which it was put, are best shown. The first of these is Le Couronnement Renart, a poem of between 3000 and 4000 lines, attributed, on no grounds whatever, to the poetess Marie de France, and describing how the hero by his ingenuity got himself crowned king. This poem already shows signs of direct moral application and generalizing. These are still more apparent in Renart le Nouvel, a composition of some 8000 lines, written in the year 1288 by the Fleming Jacquemart Giélée. Here the personification of which, in noticing the Roman de la Rose, we shall soon have to give extended mention, becomes evident. Instead of or at least beside the lively personal Renart who used to steal sausages, set Isengrim fishing with his tail, or make use of Chanticleer’s comb for a purpose for which it was certainly never intended, we have Renardie, an abstraction of guile and hypocrisy, triumphantly prevailing over other and better qualities. Lastly, as the Roman de la Rose of William of Lorris is paralleled by Renart le Nouvel, so its continuation by Jean de Meung is paralleled by the great miscellany of Renart le Contre-fait, which, even in its two existing versions (Ménage seems to have known a third), extends to fully 50,000 lines. Here we have, besides floods of miscellaneous erudition and discourse, political argument of the most direct and important kind. The wrongs of the lower orders are bitterly urged. They are almost openly incited to revolt, and it is scarcely too much to say, as M. Lenient had said, that the closely following Jacquerie is but a practical carrying out of the doctrines of the anonymous satirists of Renart le Contre-fait.

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