The medieval European beast epic, popular in the twelfth century, represented an allegorical genre that used animal figures to satirise the courtly values and mores of the aristocratic courts in France and the Germanic realm. The concepts of courtly love and romantic love played a major role in the themes of medieval narratives and the animal epic arose as a vehicle of satire intended to cast the values of the aristocratic class into a humorous light. The beast epic has its roots in the fables of ancient Greece and Rome and scholars have traced the earliest connections to Aesop's fables. Examples of beast epics written in Middle Latin include Ecbasis captivi (1140-45) and Isengrimus (1148-50). These two early works were written by Germanic priests and were intended to expose the corrupt lower clergy, as well as the corrupt nobility. The earlier beast epics led to a specific form of twelfth century fox and wolf verse narratives and one of the most notable examples is the Old French Roman de Renart (between 1174 and 1205). It spawned several late medieval adaptations, created in the Dutch and Flemish region. These included the late twelfth century variants Van den vos Renaerde, Reinaerts Historie, and the verse epic Reinke de vos. In addition to the Dutch/Flemish works, an obscure Middle High German poet, Heinrich der Glichezare, produced a version of the fox epic, Reinhart Fuchs (ca. 1189/90).
The main themes in the medieval fox and wolf epics depict a series of confrontations between the fox and the wolf and his wife, the she-wolf Hersant, who are all are masquerading as mock courtly figures. Hersant represents a courtly lady who is subsequently raped by the fox, who appears as a scoundrel and criminal. The ideals of courtly love, chivalry, honour, and justice are depicted in a satirical light, meant to ridicule the nobility's lack of morals, the justice system and the Church.
Early research in the nineteenth century on beast epics in general and on the fox and wolf epics specifically concerned itself with studies of different manuscripts as sources for the literary material. Different versions of manuscripts were juxtaposed linguistically and thematically, and the comparative studies examined how Germanic versions related historically to the Middle Latin or Old French predecessors.
Subsequent scholarship in the first third of the twentieth century focused on comparing animal fabliaux in European countries and interpreting the techniques used in the different narratives for depicting human and societal foibles. For example, the Flemish/Dutch epics were compared thematically with the Old French Roman de Renart. Twelfth century law and justice were examined in light of the legal processes in both France and Germanic Alsace, particularly in light of the rape trial against the fox. These studies illustrate an initial questioning of the sex roles depicted by the rapist fox, the cuckolded husband wolf, and the rape victim, Hersant.
In the later twentieth century from the late 1970s onward, the scholarship concentrated on specific themes in beast epics vis-a-vis fox and wolf tales such as examining the individual characters in the narratives and their meaning. As an example, the figure of the lion king in the fox and wolf epics has been highlighted as the representation of either a corrupt or weak secular leadership figure. Scholars produced in-depth studies on the relationship between fox and wolf figures and how they relate to the female wolf figure from a sexual viewpoint.
In the 1990s, critical studies of the beast epic have centered on specific thematic interpretations of the events and characters. One examination looks at the entire legal system of justice and the application of law during the Germanic Staufer regime (twelfth century Alsatian region) as depicted in the Reinhart Fuchs epic. In particular, Hersant's rape trial is dissected in light of the legal context of twelfth century Germanic Alsace. Historical legal sources are compared to the events and main characters in the trial proceedings to show how Reinhart Fuchs in particular represents a scathing satire of the system of justice in this era.
In 1997, the fox and wolf epic Reinhart Fuchs was reinterpreted using a gendered reading perspective. The issues of courtly love, marriage, family, adultery, and rape became the focal points of this study that casts a new light on how the main animal characters interact in gender roles as opposed to their roles as men and women. The way ahead for future research calls for similar gendered reinterpretations of other beast epics like Roman de Renart and its European variants in the Flemish/Dutch region and Iberia.
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