Reynard the Fox as Guiser: Images of the trickster in Beverley Minster and Bristol Cathedral

Giles C. Watson
A paper delivered to the Folklore Society Conference on Guising, Warburg Institute, 17th May, 2003

At Beverley Minster, a foundation of secular canons in Yorkshire, two of the misericords, carved by members of a firm from Ripon in 1520, seem on first glance to be the result of natural observation. In the first, a fox lopes in the foreground, a goose slung casually over his shoulder, whilst a woman emerges from a distant house, brandishing a broken household implement; either a distaff or a broom. A gaggle of other geese look on disconcertedly. In the second, the fox has run to his earth, and now pokes his nose defiantly out of the hole, as a man and his hounds converge upon him. We might be prepared to view these bucolic scenes as nothing more than another illustration of the rural seasonal cycle - similar to the months’ labours scenes so common on misericords and in manuscript illuminations - were it not for their context. On the supporters of one of the misericords, another fox is depicted being ridden hell-for-leather by an ape. On the opposite side, an ailing fox (or perhaps, given what we know of the vulpine disposition, a fox who is shamming illness) is being tucked neatly into bed by yet another ape, who is perhaps himself a parody of a medieval doctor. The natural fox and the anthropomorphic fox have an equal share in the iconography.

We should not dismiss the “natural” scenes too summarily. They are more easily reconcilable with scientific observation than the bestiary depiction of the fox, copied on some misericords, in which he shams death in order to attract birds so that he can eat them . But only replace the goose with a cockerel, and these images would make an admirable illustration to the late medieval French verse tale, ‘Reynard and Chantecler’, popularised in English by Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest:

This sely wydwe and eek hir doghtres two
Herden this hennes crie and maken wo,
And out at dores stirten they anon,
And syen the fox toward the grove gon,
And bar upon his bak the cok away,
And cryden, “Out! Harrow and weylaway!
Ha ha! The fox!” and after hym they ran,
And eek with staves many another man.
Ran Colle oure dogge, and Talbot and Gerland,
And Malkyn, with a dystaf in hir hand…

If the Reynard on the supporters is disguising himself as a sick man, the Reynard of the central scenes is a trickster too. He has caught Chantecler by shamming friendship. The source is the French Roman de Renart, possibly communicated by oral tradition, supplemented by lost printed books or by the woodcuts of Wynkyn de Worde, and not the Netherlandish tradition on which Caxton was reliant for his 1481 publication of the romance . To paraphrase, as I shall do occasionally throughout this paper:

The fox took a snap at him; he squawked and jumped aside,
And Reynard gave a rueful laugh; his jaws were open wide:
“My friend! My cousin Chantecler! I envy you, you know,
For no sound is more melodic than your throaty crow!
O! Close your eyes, my cousin dear, and sing a cock-a-doodle,
Or else I’ll have your scrumptious flesh as filling for a strudel!”
“Flattery,” said Chantecler, “will get you everywhere!”
He closed his eyes and crowed aloud, abandoning all care,
And Reynard grabbed him round the neck; he slung him on his back,
And ran away like billy-o, down the dusty track.

These are not the only foxes in Beverley Minster. There are numerous examples among the misericords, in the heart of the liturgical space , and there is a large stone sculpture of another, disguised as a pilgrim, against the north wall. When we combine these images with the programme of Reynardine misericords in another late medieval church at almost the opposite end of the country, the Augustinian monastery at Bristol, it becomes evident that whilst the Reynard cycle may have already begun to languish in mediocrity in the literature of his native country, in the imagery of English churches immediately prior to the Henrician Reformation, he was enjoying a merry renaissance. In the next few minutes, I hope to convey an impression of the playfulness – not to say irreverence – of this imagery, as well as to ask the question why so wily a master of subterfuge and disguise had been allowed to dominate the iconographic programmes of two late medieval choirs. Did he owe his ascendancy, I wonder, purely to these men who have so helpfully provided us with a set of portraits of themselves in the act of brawling and thumbing their noses at each other? Or was he also a favourite of the ecclesiastical patrons, and of the monks and canons whose weariness was relieved by the corbels beneath which Reynard cavorted? Did he lurk beneath misericords, where only the monks and clergy could see him , because they feared that such images, whilst they might only titillate a monk, would be sure to corrupt the populace who peered forward from behind the choir screen? If so, was there any double standard in allowing him into the choir, where the divine offices were recited and the mass celebrated? Was his presence, combined with a plethora of other images of inversion and misrule, not to mention a scene of fellatio, evidence of the monastic vice and iniquity so often cited as a cause of the Reformation by moralistic mid-twentieth century protestant historians? Or was his “Romance”, if we dare call it such, embraced by the Church in its bid to be thoroughly “catholic”, encompassing all aspects of life, including the irreverent? Perhaps those of us who are less kindly disposed to the medieval Church might pose this latter question in another way: was Reynard, the liar, thief, murderer, trickster and archetypal master of disguise being appropriated by the Church ultimately for its own didactic ends, or was it merely because, for all his nefarious villainies of nature, even the ecclesiastics could not help loving him? Was Reynard, devils forbid, being sanctified?

I alluded just before to the sculpture of the pilgrim fox, probably somewhat earlier than the misericords, on the north wall of Beverley Minster . We must not deduce too much from the mock piety of his facial expression, for his head has been restored, but his staff, and the geese and chickens who flock at his heels, are original. He represents, I think, a phase in the evolution of one of the most problematic Reynardine images, the “preaching fox”, who appears in a variety of guises all over this country, wearing a bishop’s mitre in the parish church at Ludlow, and elsewhere garbed as a mendicant friar. The images originate from the first branch of the French Roman de Renart, in which Reynard, who has been condemned to death by the other beasts because he has raped Isengrin the Wolf’s wife Hersent, cold-bloodedly murdered the chicken Coupée, caused Bruin the Bear to be trapped by the neck inside a cleft oak, and abandoned Tybert the Cat to the snare, along with a host of other crimes. Mounting the gibbet, Reynard shams repentance:

They tie the rope and hang the noose,
Reynard harangued by hen and goose,
Beaten, tied up and blindfolded,
The fox who left a wolf cuckolded.

The beasts are thus the fox upbraiding
When he says, “I’ll go crusading!
Infidelium omnipotem!
Reynard in Jerusalem!”

The ever gullible King Noble the Lion, moved to tears by Reynard’s contrition, orders his release so that he can accomplish his crusading pilgrimage to Jerusalem, whereupon Reynard flees, but not before throttling Couard the Hare, and whisking him off to his castle to put him in a stew. The image of the fox as pilgrim is rapidly replaced in English iconography by scenes of the fox as preacher, in which he mounts the pulpit in order to entice a congregation of poultry to waddle within striking distance. Both at Bristol and at Beverley, the misericords depict this scene. At Beverley, Reynard is assisted by an ape, who already has a goose dangling from a stick; at Bristol the carver seems to allude back to the Reynardine romance itself, for behind the pulpit lurks Bruin the Bear, brandishing a club. The preaching fox at Bristol is flanked by his own gibbet, and both churches have scenes in which Reynard is hanged by geese. Such scenes have been variously interpreted. A similar pictorial narrative in the pilgrimage window of York Minster has been seen as a depiction of the danger of false (even Wycliffite) preaching, Reynard being none other than the devil in disguise , a contention which gains some support from the fact that the pilgrim fox sculpture of Beverley is flanked by another sculpture in which a goat-headed devil looms above a pair of embracing (perhaps lesbian) nuns. According to one author, such scenes “might be seen as legitimising or even authorising the power of the laity to recognize and chastize impious religious officials”.

Such a reading may carry weight – although it would be an audacious layman who obeyed such a message - when applied to monumental, public sculptures and stained glass, but it hardly seems to apply to private decoration such as misericords, designed only for the eyes of monks and clergy. More than likely, in these instances, Reynard appears in order to lampoon rival types of clergy and religious. In a parish church such as Ludlow, he wears a mitre because the secular clergy are wearied by visitations from their bishop, and at Beverley and Bristol, he appears as a member of one of those (relatively) newfangled orders of preaching friars, notoriously at loggerheads with the monks and secular clergy. He is certainly a Dominican at Beverley, for he carries a rosary. It is wrong, however, to deduce that because the fox is then depicted on the gallows, the implication is supposed to be that false preachers get their come-uppance. The whole spirit of the Reynard cycle is opposed to the idea of come-uppance of any kind; Reynard may hang, but he always lives to fight another day. In the French romances, he lives on to rape the wife of King Noble, whereupon, on his being captured in an extraordinary feat of dexterity by Sir Tardy the Snail, he is once more sentenced to hang. This time, the wailing of Reynard’s multitudinous mistresses causes Noble to relent again, and Reynard escapes once more. In this supporter at Beverley, we may be sure that although the hanged fox may appear to be in rigor mortis, he will be galvanised into action the moment the ape has removed the rope. The marginal decorations of the choirs at Beverley and Bristol have more to say about the sham death and resurrection of Reynard than about certain disconcertingly similar elements of the Christian narrative.

This is all that the Beverley carvers have to say about the Reynardine story. Most of their other misericords depict scenes of inversion, and excerpts from folk tales and sayings not entirely at variance with the spirit of Reynard; I shall return to these in a few minutes. At Bristol, however, the carvers depicted four more Reynardine scenes, and in this case, there is less evidence that the imagery has “evolved” beyond that of the French romances. The first deals with the gullible Bruin the Bear, who has been sent to arrest Reynard for the murder of Coupée the Chicken:

To Maupertuis, Reynard’s castle, Bruin comes at length,
He knows he cannot breach the walls of such great height and strength,
“O Reynard, Reynard, come outside, the King has called for you!”
“No indeed,” says the fox, “For I’m busy eating stew!
And after that, I’ve pommes noisettes, and fricasee de bunny,
All washed down, my shaggy friend, with lots of mead and honey!”
At the word, poor Bruin drools, ears quivering at the tips,
“Did you say honey?” Bruin calls, and lustful licks his lips.
“I did indeed,” sly Reynard says, “and sticky is my gob!
Come, see my honey, unguarded glutton, fat ungraceful slob!”
He leads him to a forester’s yard, where stands a half-split oak,
“The honey’s in that cleft, my friend!” He gives the bear a poke.
Slobbering then, Bruin the bear goes sniffing with his muzzle,
He sticks his head into the trunk the honey for to guzzle.
Stealthy Reynard creeps behind and pulls the wedges out,
“Help! I’m trapped! O! let me go!” Bruin bawls and shouts.

The Bristol misericord shows Bruin stuck inside the cleft oak, being beaten to within an inch of his life by men with clubs. It echoes a woodcut by Wynkyn de Worde. Another misericord, depicting a bear and wolf dancing to the beat of an ape drummer, perhaps represents Bruin’s and Isengrin’s premature jubilation at the news that Reynard is to be hanged for his misdeeds.

The allusion to the French romances is even more obvious in a second pair of misericords, which show Reynard laughing at Tybert the Cat and a naked priest, whom Tybert scratches down the length of his back and then castrates with his own teeth. Once again, the influence may be the contemporary publisher, Wynkyn de Worde, who published a picture of the scene . The priest is depicted naked for a good reason; he has been sleeping with his mistress, and has been rudely awakened by Tybert, who has strayed into a snare. It all started when Reynard fobbed Tybert off with a story about the multitudes of rats in the Priest’s house:

“Did you say rats?” Tybert yowls, “I’d like one in my tummy!
For rats are tasty, yes indeed, and not as tough as bunny!”
“Ah!” says Reynard with a smile, “Then I will show you where
You may smell a rat, my friend, and mayhap one may snare!”
To a priest’s home Reynard leads him, creeping on all fours,
Within the priest sleeps bollock-naked, his harlot softly snores,
“Creep inside,” Reynard grins, “and gorge yourself on rats!”
But Tybert creeps into a snare, for the harlot hates all cats.
Tybert hisses, spits and scratches, the priest leaps from his bed,
Grabs a cane and Tybert thrashes, merciless, upon his head,
Ne’er before had that feline received such bash and wallop -
He bares his teeth, sinks them deep, bites off the priest’s bare bollock.
The priest he roars with agony, the harlot looks dismayed,
Poor Tybert chews the bollock, but still he’s bashed and flayed.
At last the snare snaps in two, the harlot has he fought,
And now he flees and limps away unto Noble’s court.

There is little didacticism here. The misericords might be interpreted as a homily against priestly fornication, were it not for the obvious delight with which the carving has been executed, reflected, I fear, in the delight on the leering face of Reynard, who skulks beneath the legs of the mistress and a second man, whose inclusion in the sculpture only serves to make the whole scenario appear even more dubious.

The remainders of the iconographic programmes of the Bristol and Beverley misericords, whilst they do not directly depict foxes, or scenes from identifiable Reynardine romances, do for the most part have a touch of whimsy which leaves the viewer wondering whether Reynard does not, after all, rule over them too, like some sort of mock-infernal magister. Two of these scenes seem very likely to originate from folk tales or oral traditions of a similar ilk. In one, which occurs only at Bristol, a naked woman leads a group of roped apes into a hell-mouth, where she is greeted with apparent enthusiasm by a demon. Such a sculpture might also be regarded as didactic: the apes might be sinners, being led to perdition, presumably, by the wanton woman of their imaginings. More obscure is the scene, repeated at both Bristol and Beverley, in which apes rob the pack of a sleeping pedlar, which also occurs in the Smithfield Decretals (c. 1340). These occur in conjunction with other scenes which reflect popular sayings: Bristol has two men goading a “sky slug”, a Somerset metaphor for a slow horse, and Beverley illustrates several proverbs: the shoeing of a goose, the chopping of a sausage with an axe (presumably a medieval representation of what we might call overkill), and a cart before a horse . Such scenes, if playful, may seem relatively innocuous, but there is also inversion of a more scurrilous kind. The scenes (at both churches) in which a woman attacks her husband for stealing from the pot, may be interpreted as ecclesiastical misogyny aimed at convincing a celibate audience of the wisdom of their vocations . Satires of chivalry, in which men and women joust astride pigs and geese, or do battle with snails may be interpreted as a monkish satire on things secular .

Other images fit the moralising framework less comfortably. Animal musicians play an important part in the iconographic programme at Beverley, as they do at three other churches which have been identified as part of its chain of influence: Ripon Cathedral (1488-94), Durham Castle Chapel (1490s) and Manchester Cathedral (1506) . Perhaps these refer less to the Church’s normal liturgical routines, than to its one day of inversion and misrule, the Feast of Fools, in which the mass was parodied to a cacophony of animal noises. Animal musicians also, incidentally, have a fine Reynardine lineage, for in the proto-Reynardine Latin poem Ysengrimus (c. 1150) the abbess Salaura is in fact a sow, who leads her underlings in singing liturgical chants. This in itself was a satire on the excesses associated with church consecrations . Some animal musicians on misericords may simply be parodies of bad music, such as this ape, whose musical instrument presumably sounds like bagpipes. Apes are frequently also depicted as fox’s attendants, or doctors examining flasks full of urine , and of jesters, naked wrestlers and grotesque green men in a variety of poses. And Reynard and his carvers would surely have been titillated, even if the monks were not, by two supporters at Bristol which leave very little to the imagination. Christa Grössinger’s admirable book on misericords interprets this carving as misogynistic, for the woman “is in total command of the male organ and therewith man’s virility, which she can destroy at will.” I cannot help doubting this, partly because most men would gladly relinquish command of their “organs” to such treatment, and partly because I think that such a view regards the middle ages through post-Victorian spectacles. Monks may have been vowed to chastity; this does not necessarily mean that they were prudes.

By contrast, Biblical scenes are rare; at Bristol there is one depiction of Adam and Eve being beguiled by a serpent with a woman’s head, and Samson fighting a lion, and at Beverley there are playful depictions of two of the deadly sins. There is also an owl mobbed by birds, which may be an antisemitic allegory, as the bestiaries suggest, of the Jews being superseded by Christians for choosing spiritual darkness. Many of these images depict what the late sixteenth century Church categorised under the headings “sin” and “temptation”, yet the carvings themselves exhibit a playfulness which belies the didactic theme. The carver, one often feels, and perhaps his patron too, is enjoying a quiet joke, like Reynard chuckling over Tybert and the priest.

To conclude, I must draw us back to the theme of this conference. Reynard the Fox was himself a master of disguise. Had the Reformation (and the Italianate influence of the Henrician renaissance) not so rudely interrupted, the Bristol and Beverley carvers and their progeny might have gone on to depict other scenes from his romance, such as that in which he accidentally – and fortuitously - falls into a pot of bright yellow dye, thereby effectively disguising himself once more and eluding his hunters. Alternatively, they might have shown him raping Hermeline with her head stuck down a burrow, or pretending to be the host of a group of Tironesian monks so that he can have the opportunity of tonsuring Isengrin the Wolf with a pot of boiling water. They might, more ironically, have had chance to depict him, beguiled by the sight of his own undisguised reflection looking up at him from the bottom of a monastic well, and leaping into the bucket so that he can descend into his own vision of vulpine heaven. These hypothetical carvers, and the real ones who produced the images we have seen, must have laughed openly. The monks and canons must have laughed too, but perhaps only in private. Reynard rules the misericords at Bristol and Beverley because the Church, for all its strictures and persecutions, did not really manage to proscribe humour until Cromwell, or perhaps until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We do the medieval imagination an injustice when we assume that the purpose of such images must ultimately be didactic and moralising, and we certainly do a disservice to one of the most attractive characters ever invented. Beneath the bottoms of the secular canons, and the monks at mass, Reynard waited to make them snigger when they did the dusting in the morning. But surely they would have laughed with, and not at him, because at bottom we instinctively know that Reynard the guiser, who hunts chickens and rides a horse, is more human than we admit ourselves to be .