Mmm… Marginalia: Wheel of Reynard

This week’s image is from the same Psalter as last week, still available at the still excellent, but still slow, website of the National Library of the Netherlands:

In a departure from the first three installments of marginal images from the Middle Ages brought to you on Monday, this image was, I believe, actually meant to be a joke in its original context.

I’ve mentioned Reynard before at Got Medieval. As you may recall, he is the namesake of the US government’s program for keeping track of terrorists in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft.* Here, we find Reynard depicted on the medieval metaphorical commonplace, the Wheel of Fortune. That’s Lady Fortune in the back.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Wheel of Fortune, you can think of Lady Fortune as half Pat Sajak, half Lady Luck. The turning of her Wheel causes mankind–or in this case, foxkind–to suffer outrageous slings and arrows. The four images represent the four states of man: up top, regno (I reign); on the right, regnavi (I have reigned); on the bottom, sum sine regno (my reign is kaput); and to the left, regnabo (I shall reign).

I’m fairly sure that the image is meant to be Reynard, rather than simply some random dog, fox, wolf, or beaver because the regnabo beast is wearing a monk’s habit. In the stories, eventually Reynard’s friends get fed up with him either eating or f**king all their friends and relatives, so they demand the king do something about him. Reynard pretends to have joined a monastic order and begs their forgiveness. When they back off, he eats them. He’s a clever guy, that Reynard. Another time, he convinces his old buddy Isengrim the wolf to become a monk, because of all the good food they have in monasteries. While Isengrim’s off enduring the monkish equivalent of fraternity hazing, Reynard f***s his wife (again).****

Across the page from the Reynard Wheel, the illuminator depicts a standard Wheel of Fortune, with humans in the proper places:

Here on the human wheel, note that the reigning king up top is nervously casting his eyes across the page over at the fox-king. He can see that across the page, he’s being mocked by a fox, and it doesn’t make him happy. (Or possibly he knows that Reynard is working for the government.)

This illustrates one of the things that I hope to talk about in future installments of Mmm… Marginalia. Medieval illustrations are often “self aware”: they are drawn as if to indicate that the subjects of the illustrations know 1) that they are pictures and not really the things they depict and 2) that there are other pictures out there doing the same thing. When we see this in modern media, like, say, She-Hulk or Boston Legal, we call it “post-modern,” “post-postmodern,” or “meta-fictional” or some other word that requires a hyphen the first few thousand times its used.***** The medievals were doing it long before Gutenberg invented the hyphen.

*If the government were cleverer, it would devote its efforts instead to trying to get as many terrorists playing World of Warcraft as possible, and then just leave them there. It is impossible to blow up a bus full of cherubic American children if you are trying to kit out your pally for raids.
**That wasn’t a footnote, it was an attempt to censor myself and thereby cut down on the number of readers brought here by Google searches for hot Pat Sajak/Reynard the fox slashfic.
***Nope, still not a footnote. Seriously, you need to learn typographical conventions.
****See, this is a proper footnote. It’s here to make the minor, but related point that when the Encyclopedia Brittanic Online mentions this story, it says that Reynard “goes to […Isengrim’s]] house and possesses his wife.” Way to euphemize.
*****See, post-postmodern still needs a hyphen, but postmodern hocked its hyphen for legal fees during the affaire de Sokal.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rachel

    Can I put in a marginalia plug here for the Macclesfield Psalter which has a lot of wierd and fun stuff?

  • Got Medieval

    That is some pretty awesome weirdness. Some of the stranger grotesques I think I’ve ever seen.

  • Dame chlodyne

    i find your blog and i’m so happy, but my english is not so good. I try to read you as welle as i can. It’s so nice to see interpretation of illuminated manuscripts.

  • Karen

    Re: Medieval illustrations are often “self aware” – there’s a few in the Romance of Alexander (Bodl. 264); the one I currently use in the header of my blog is a couple sawing down the framework of the border on fol. 63v.

  • Got Medieval

    That Alexander MS really is beautiful. So many leaves. So many birds. Everywhere you look a playful flourish. It’s like a master class on manuscript illumination.

    It’s a shame that the monkey dancing with the dog on 43v is so badly faded, as it would make an excellent candidate for my recurring feature otherwise.

  • Brendan M

    In the law, hyphens don’t disappear so much as move. For example, the famous stock trading anti fraud provision is Rule 10b-5. Yet when sub-rules are developed to break new ground in stock trading anti-fraudulism, those become called things like Rule 10b5-1. I guess it would be too confusing to call it Rule 10b-5-1 (would that be the same as rule 10b-4?) or Rule 10b-51 (which is clearly unacceptable). Oddly enough, the predecessor of Rule 10b-5 is not Rule 10-b but § 10(b). No wonder people hate lawyers.

  • Marco

    Very interesting blog 🙂

    I am quite puzzled by this "human" wheel of fortune. The king at the top is a common image, but what about the other three? Isn't the "regnavi" figure holding an eucharistic cup? What about the sickle of the rising figure?

  • Michael J. Hurst

    Hi, Marco,

    The Three Estates are displayed on the wheel. The figure at the top is a noble; the rising figure is a peasant; the falling figure is a cleric. The figure at the bottom is without the dignity of such estate.

    You're right about it being an interesting blog!


  • Got Medieval

    I'd not originally noticed the fact that there's three estates present in each of the wheels, but thank you recent commenters. That probably weakens the case for it being Reynard, but does bring up another interesting point. On the human wheel it's the peasant class that's on the way up and the clerics who are falling; on the fox wheel it's reversed.

  • Michael J. Hurst

    Hi, CP,

    Let me try again…

    First, I think that it is definitely Reynard. In Renart le Nouvel Reynard attacks all virtue, treating it in each of the Three Estates in turn. Here is one description:

    "The poem is concerned with Renart's final triumph over the last bastions of virtue. During the course of the poem, the loyalty of a knight to his king to his friend and to his lady are all shown as being infected and destroyed by Renart. As for the clergy, Giélée depicts them as being already in Renart's gripand beyond salvation, sailing his ship of Vice, shrouded in hypocrisy in order to avoid detection, blown by the wind of sin. The pope has the rudder, assisted by the cardinals, while the sailors are the clerks, priests, archbishops, bishops, deans, abbots, monks, and friars. However, after recounting Renart's triumph over the laity, Giélée returns to the clergy and describes their final downfall in detail. Renart loads them with gifts (covetousness, guile, avarice, envy and pride) and they all enter his confraternity and are permitted to wear his grey habit of hypocrisy."

    Second, I'm not sure it matters in this context who is rising or falling. Boethius maintained that attachment to the fickle favors of Fortune was not the way to God, and that those who would not become divine became instead animals: "he who abandons goodness and ceases to be a man cannot rise to the status of a god, and so is transformed into an animal." So the king (or Reynard) gets to be at the top, but it matters little who is shown rising or falling — all on the Wheel are fallen.

    Third, there is a related, albeit much more complicated version of the wheel, with the estates indicated, in manuscripts of Gielée's Renart le nouvel and in other prints with Reynard. For what it's worth, the peasants are rising and the clergy are falling in the two examples at hand. There is some commentary with the second one, on my own blog.

  • Marco

    Thank you Michael!
    I had not recognized the Three Estates, but you explanation make perfect sense 🙂

  • Michael J. Hurst

    Just to follow up on Reynard as king, this description of Reynard crowned by Fortuna is from Kenneth Varty's 2003 Reynard the Fox: Social Engagement and Cultural Metamorphoses in the Beast Epic from the Middle Ages to the Present:

    "In the second half of the thirteenth century, in the Couronnement de Renart, the fox will be proclaimed king with the approval of the dying king, Nobel, carried off by Pride, Envy, and Renardie (=cunning), a symbolic fable like Branch XI and Reinhart Fuchs because it depicts what could happen at the court of Flanders if law and order were not restored; a fable that castigates a world where the old virtues are dead, where egoistic ambition, treachery and hypocrisy triumph, and where the author, a moralist like Heinrich stands up in accordance with a well-established tradition against the vices of the century. And at the end of this same century, in Renart le Nouvel, Renart dreams of killing the king in order to mount his throne (lines 2,278-87), and Noble separates himself from God by forming an alliance with Renart; and then leaves his place to Renart who is crowned by Fortuna. Renart le Nouvel is a fable in which Jacquemart Gielée shows how the fox succeeds by his cunning in dominating the world: it is a cry of alarm, as was Reinhart Fuchs, to rouse the world to beware of the evil that corrupts the times."

    Best regards,

  • Got Medieval

    Those are some very nice Reynardian wheels at your site, Michael.

  • rory brown


  • rory brown

    I’d really like a larger image of the fox wheel. I tried bumbling around on the National Library of the Netherlands to see if i could find it to no avail. can anyone help?

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