Reynaert de vos.

Reynard the Fox (Reynaert de Vos) gives Cuwaert the hare ‘singing lessons’. Illustration in the margin of a manuscript that originated around 1280-1290 in the vicinity of the count’s residence | New Haven, Connecticut, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, public domain


Borders, Language & Territory
c. 1260
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Reynard the Fox

Literature in the Vernacular

In around 1260 a certain Willem, about whom little else is known, wrote a story in verse about the sly fox Reynard. Vanden vos Reynaerde is one of the oldest texts in Dutch. With its flashes of humour, its often obscene ambiguities and voluptuous cruelty the adventures of Reynard became incredibly popular. And they have remained so until today.


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Reynard is clearly no sweetie. He is out for his own advantage, lies and deceives for all he is worth and does not even shrink from murder. Because he has broken the laws of king Nobel he has to appear before the king’s court and is condemned to death. But Reynard dreams up all kinds of excuses and wicked plans to save his skin. With his scheming behaviour he demonstrates how selfish the king and the whole animal kingdom are. Civilisation is just a beautiful veneer. In reality all the animals act out of self-interest.

Hendrik Van Veldeke.

Heidelberg Universitätsbibliothek, cpg 848, fol. 30r

Miniature of Hendrik van Veldeke in the Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, beginning of the 14th century.

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Literature in the Vernacular

In the Middle Ages there was still no standard Dutch language. There was a multiplicity of dialects, which are collectively called ‘Middle Dutch’. Scholars and clerics used mostly Latin. At the courts of the Flemish counts and the dukes of Brabant and in the high nobility people generally read French. Chivalrous romances and animal stories were popular in these circles.

The Maaslander Hendrik van Veldeke is the first author of a literary text in Middle Dutch to be known by name. In around 1170-1180, commissioned by Agnes countess of Loon and the treasurer of the Saint Servatius church in Maastricht, he wrote a life of St Servatius. A little later there appeared also in Flanders and Brabant literary texts in Middle Dutch, probably at the request of lesser nobles and rich burghers. Like Vanden vos Reynaerde, they were often adaptations of French-language models.

Not everyone was happy with those imaginative stories. The Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant wanted most of all to bring ‘usefulness and truth’ into the vernacular: useful and realistic texts. For this reason he concentrated on historical works, like the Spiegel Historiael, a ‘history of the world’ since creation. He also wrote the first nature encyclopaedia in Dutch. For this Van Maerlant based himself on learned texts in Latin. So works that were both fictional and informative appeared in Dutch.

Focal points

Reynaert de vos in Sint-Niklaas.

The Reynaert is everywhere in Flanders. Nowhere is he more present than in the Land van Waas. This statue from 1958 by artist Albert Poels (1903-1984) in the town park of Sint-Niklaas shows the cunning fox depicted as a pilgrim, eyes devoutly lowered but ears pricked.

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A Popular Fox

Both in the Middle Ages and in the following period Reynard the Fox appeared in countless stories and retold versions. In 1148 he was first mentioned in the Ysengrimus, a long Latin poem that must have been written in the area around Ghent. In it the sly fox Renardus and the stupid wolf Ysengrimus are opposed to each other. That animal epic inspired many other fox stories, including the French Li plaid (The Judgement), which in turn was the model for Vanden vos Reynaerde.

In all the fox stories the medieval authors tried to present the theme of trickery and deceit in a creative way. A number of the main characters constantly recurred: Reynard’s arch-enemy Isegrim the wolf, the greedy king Nobel the lion, Bruun the bear, fond of honey, Tybeert the tomcat, who cannot resist mice and Cantecleer, the proud but naïve cock. The Flemish Reynard immediately became very popular. So popular that it was quickly translated into the prestigious Latin, an honour that had never before befallen a text in the vernacular.

For centuries Reynaerts historie, a late-medieval adaptation and continuation of the Reynaert, enjoyed exceptional success, not only in Dutch, but in many European languages. At the beginning of the 19th century the rediscovery of the first Reynaert provoked a stream of studies and adaptations. And that interest continues.

Anansi de spin.

Anansi de spin/ Seemee B.V./Moldybyrd

Today, on the shelves of local libraries and among materials for reading aloud in primary school, we also find the books about Anansi the spider, based on stories from West Africa. Anansi (‘whoever is not strong, must be clever’) has meanwhile won over many children’s hearts with its sly (foxy) tricks.

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From Reynard the Fox to Road Runner

Reynard the Fox knows no norms or rules, is able to lead powerful adversaries up the garden path and is always able to rescue himself from awkward situations. That kind of sly underdog, also called a ‘trickster’, is a character – god, human or animal – that is found in all ages and cultures. It is often a fox. For example, before 1,000 BC there circulated in Mesopotamia a story about a fox who is able to escape punishment at a trial. Closer to us he often appears in the fables of the Greek poet Aesop. Berbers have a wealth of stories about the cunning fox Ucchen. When Disney cartoon studios made an animal version of the Robin Hood legend, the main role was not coincidentally given to a fox.

Other animals can also assume the role of trickster. In West-African folklore the cunning spider Anansi is always too clever for his adversaries. He even fools his own children. In the stories of the North-American Navajo the coyote was often the sly underdog – a role that Hollywood turned around with Wile E. Coyote (where Road Runner is too clever for the coyote). The Looney Tunes cartoons introduced audiences worldwide to other tricksters, such as the rabbit Bugs Bunny and Speedy Gonzales, the fastest mouse in Mexico.

Op deze miniatuur uit het Franse verhaal Renart le Nouvel van de Rijselse dichter Jacquemart Giélée wordt Renart gekroond door de Hoogmoed en Vrouwe Bedrog.
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, f. fr. 1581, fol. 57r

In this miniature from the French animal epic Renart le Nouvel by the Lille poet Jacquemart Giélée, Renart is surrounded by Pride and Lady Deceit.

Reynaert de vos in 1836.
Sint-Niklaas, Stadsbibliotheek, Rik Van Daele

In 1836 Jan Frans Willems (1793-1846) published the Middle Dutch text of the Reynaert, which had been discovered in 1805 in the Ritterstift Comburg (Württemberg). Two years previously he had already published a rhyming version with a printer in Eekloo. With those publications Willems, also called ‘the father of the Flemish movement’ stimulated interest in Middle Dutch literature.

Reynaert de vos paneel Sint-Niklaas.
Stad Sint-Niklaas

One of the seven panels made to decorate a bourgeois Antwerp house by the painter-decorator Henri Verbuecken (1848-1926) at the end of the 19th century in the style of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Reynaert de vos Streuvels.
Ghent, MSK Museum of Fine Arts, inv. 2008-D-2

In 1909 Stijn Streuvels (1871-1969) published a version of the Reynaert, illustrated by Gustave van de Woestyne (1881-1947). At top left Reynaert is on his way with Bruin the bear to the garden of Lamfroot, where honey is said to be found. The scene at bottom shows the villagers beating the bear, who has got stuck.

In 1955 bewerkte Louis Paul Boon (1912-1979) het Reynaertverhaal tot Wapenbroeders, een scherpzinnige satire op de politieke toestand in het België van de Tweede Wereldoorlog. De schrijver doopte zijn eigen huis in Erembodegem bij Aalst ‘Isengrimus’, naar de wolf die gewoonlijk aan het kortste eind trekt.
Erembodegem, private collection Erven Boon / copyright Jo Boon

In 1955 novelist Louis Paul Boon (1912-1979) adapted the Reynaert story as Wapenbroeders (Brothers-in- Arms), a sharp satire on the political situation in Belgium during the Second World War. The writer named his own house in Erembodegem near Aalst ‘Isengrimus’, after the wolf who generally comes off worst.

Fantastische meneer Vos.
De Fontein

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake. The famous children’s book was transformed in 2009 by the American director Wes Anderson into a much-lauded cartoon film with voice work by George Clooney and Meryl Streep.

Road runner.
Warner Bros

Road Runner and Will E. Coyote.

Schelmenstreken van Reynaert.
Koos Meinderts, De schelmenstreken van Reinaert de Vos, Hoogland & Van Klaveren, 2018

In 2018 Koos Meinderts gave a new interpretation to the story with this opening sentence: ‘While Reinaert de Vos, during a game of Monopoly with his children, sneakily stole a thousand euro note from the bank and scoffed a piece of chicken, King Nobel declared the annual Court Day in the palace garden open.’ Twenty well-known illustrators drew their version of Reinaert in this book.

Discover more on this topic

Museum Tour – KBR Museum

Bron: VRT archief – 9 nov 2020


Bron: VRT archief – 8 mei 2018

Besamusca Bart & Bouwman André
Van den vos Reynaerde

Delta/Bakker, 2002. 

Janssens Jozef & Van Daele Rik
Reinaerts streken: van 2000 voor tot 2000 na Christus

Davidsfonds, 2001. 

Schalley Niels
Reynaert de vos: een kleine geschiedenis van het middeleeuwse dierenepos

Phoebus Foundation, 2018. 

Van Altena Ernst
Reinaert de vos: de middeleeuwse satire hertaald

Lalito, 2014. 

Van Oostrom Frits
De Reynaert. Leven met een middeleeuws meesterwerk

Prometheus, 2023. 

Van Oostrom Frits
Handgeschreven wereld: Nederlandse literatuur en cultuur in de middeleeuwen

Prometheus, 2002. 

Van Oostrom Frits
Maerlants wereld

Prometheus, 2018. 

Van Oostrom Frits
Stemmen op schrift. Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse literatuur vanaf het begin tot 1300

Bert Bakker, 2006. 

Van Oostrom Frits
Wereld in woorden. Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse literatuur 1300-1400

Bert Bakker, 2013. 


Dros Nico
Willem die Madoc maakte

Van Oorschot, 2022. 

Legendre Marc & Broens René
Reynaert de vos

Atlas, 2010. (16+) 

Meinderts Koos
De schelmenstreken van Reinaert de vos

Hoogland & Van Klaveren, 2018. (+10) 

Geerts Paul & Verhaegen Marc
Suske en Wiske. De rebelse Reinaert (nr 257)

Standaard Uitgeverij, 1998.