Fox
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Source: Museum Meermanno - MMW, 10 B 25 facsimile Copyright 2004 Museum Meermanno Manuscript description Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 13v


 

Fox

Latin name: Vulpis

Other names: Golpis, Goupil, Gourpil, Gupil, Vurpil

A crafty and deceitful animal that never runs in a straight line

 

 
General Attributes

The fox is a crafty and deceitful animal that never runs in a straight line, but only in circles. When it wants to catch birds to eat, the fox rolls in red mud so that it appears to be covered in blood. It then lies apparently lifeless; birds, deceived by the appearance of blood and thinking the fox to be dead, land on it and are immediately devoured.

The most famous fox of the Middle Ages was Reynard, the trickster hero of the Romance of Reynard the Fox.


Allegory/Moral

The fox represents the devil, who pretends to be dead to those who retain their worldly ways, and only reveals himself when he has them in his jaws. To those with perfect faith, the devil is truly dead.


Sources (chronological order)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 83): Foxes produce young that are unfinished at birth, and shape them by licking them. In this they are like lions and bears, though fox cubs are born in an even more unfinished state than the others, and it is rare to see a fox giving birth.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 2:29): Foxes (vulpes) are named as if pleasurable (volupes), because the fox flies with its feet (volat pedibus). They are deceptive animals that never run on a direct course, but only follow a winding path. To get food fox pretends to be dead, then captures birds that come to feed on what they suppose to be its corpse.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 17): Foxes lurk and hide themselves under vine leaves, and gnaw covetously and fret the grapes of the vineyard, and namely when the keepers and wards be negligent and reckless, and it profiteth not that some unwise men do, that close within the vineyard hounds, that are adversaries to foxes. For few hounds, so closed, waste and destroy more grapes than many foxes should destroy that come and eat thereof thievishly. Therefore wise wardens of vineyards be full busy to keep, that no swine nor tame hounds nor foxes come in to the vineyard. (Book 18): A fox is called Vulpes, and hath that name as it were wallowing feet aside, and goeth never forthright, but always aslant and with fraud. And is a false beast and deceiving, for when him lacketh meat, he feigneth himself dead, and then fowls come to him, as it were to a carrion, and anon he catcheth one and devoureth it. The fox halteth always, for the right legs are shorter than the left legs. His skin is right hairy rough and hot, his tail is great and rough; and when an hound weeneth to take him by the tail, he taketh his mouth full of hair and stoppeth it. The fox doth fight with the brock for dens, and defileth the brock's den, and hath so the mastery over him with fraud and deceit, and not by strength.... The fox feigneth himself tame in time of need, but by night he waiteth his time and doeth shrewd deeds. And though he be right guileful in himself and malicious, yet he is good and profitable in use of medicine. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

Middle English Bestiary (British Library Arundel MS 292) [13th century]: A wilde der is, that is ful of fele wiles, / Fox is hire to name, for hire qwethsipe. / Husebondes hire haten for hire harmdedes. / The coc and te capun / Ge feccheth ofte in the tun, / And te gandre and te gos / Hi the necke and bi the nos / Haleth is to hire hole. For-thi man hire hatieth, / Hatien and huten bothe men and fules. / Listneth nu a wunder that tis der doth for hunger. / Goth o felde to a furg and falleth thar-inne, / In eried lond er in erthchine forto bilirten fugeles. / Ne stereth ge nogt of the stede a god stund deies, / Oc dareth so ge ded were, ne drageth ge non onde. / The raven is swithe redi, weneth that ge rotieth / And othre fules hire fallen bi for to winnen fode, / Derflike withuten dred he wenen that ge ded beth. / He wullen on this foxes fel, and ge it wel feleth. / Ligtlike ge lepeth up and letteth hem sone, / Gelt hem here billing / Rathe with illing, / Tetoggeth and tetireth hem mid hire teth sarpe, / Fret hire fille / And goth than ther ge wille. / Twifold forbisne in this der / To frame we mugen finden her, / Warsipe and wisedom / With devel and with ivel man. / The devel dereth dernelike, / He lat he ne wile us nogt biswike; / He lat he ne wile us don non loth / And bringeth us in sinne and ter he us sloth. / He bit us don ure bukes wille, / Eten and drinken with unskil, / And in ure skemting / He doth rathe a foxing: / He billeth one the foxes fel, / Wo-so telleth idel spel, / And he tireth on his ket, / Wo-so him with sinne fet. / And devel geld swilk billing / With same and with sending, / And for his sinfule werk / Ledeth man to helle merk. / The devel is tus the fox ilik / Mith ivele breides and with swik; / And mani al-so the foxes name / Arn wurthi haven to same. / For wo-so seieth other god / And thenketh ivel on his mod, / Fox he is and fend iwis - / The boc ne legeth nogt of this. / So was Herodes fox and flerd / Tho Crist kam into this middel-erd: / He seide he wulde him leven on / And thogte he wulde him fordon.


Illustration

The theme of the fox deceiving birds is the the most often illustrated. Foxes frequently appear in marginal drawings in manuscripts, where scenes from the tales of Reynard the Fox are often found. Reynard is also a popular figure on misericords and other church carvings.


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