The New Reynard
Translated by Nigel Bryant
Welcome back to the Medieval Herald! Please tell us about your new book The New Reynard.
It’s a translation of three thirteenth-century satires that borrow animal characters from the Roman de Renart – the Romance of Reynard the Fox. First is the poet Rutebeuf’s Renart le Bestourné (‘Reynard Transformed’), then the anonymous Le Couronnement de Renart (‘Reynard Crowned’), and finally Renart le Nouvel (‘The New Reynard’) by Jacquemart Gielée, which may well have been (quite wisely, given the content) a pseudonym.
How did these works fit into the literary world at their time of composition?
The animal tales that make up the Roman de Renart were immensely popular, but those original stories were primarily playful, bawdy, scatological – satire and social comment are there, for sure, but they’re pretty light of touch. But what an opportunity they were for those of a more savage satirical bent! A chance to characterise people as beasts – fox, wolf, sheep, slug! And savage is the word for these satires: they seethe with anger about the world around them, a world so corrupt that the satire is finally apocalyptic. You could be forgiven, of course, for thinking that satires of the world 750 years ago would be a bit obscure and distant, but these three aren’t at all: they’re uncannily resonant for us now.
How is that?
Because they’re principally about deceit – the prime exponent being of course Reynard himself, the Fox. When (in a bizarre kind of election) he’s made king – as you can tell he is from the title Reynard Crowned – the spirit of the Fox takes over the world: it’s gripped by a pandemic of lying, of misinformation. I think we can all identify with that. To make matters worse, The New Reynard ends with the brilliant image of Reynard sitting crowned atop Fortune’s Wheel – which sounds dodgy for him but it’s not: he’s never going to fall because the Wheel’s been chocked! It’s never going to turn again and we’re stuck with him for good. The world’s in a terminal state! With the way things are at present I think we can identify with that as well.
What drew you to study these?
I’m grateful to Elizabeth Eva Leach, Professor of Music at Oxford, for alerting me to the need for a translation of Renart le Nouvel – ‘The New Reynard’. Elizabeth is especially interested because Renart le Nouvel is the most abundant source of medieval refrains.
How does music play a part?
It’s full of songs: no fewer than seventy, and the musical notations are all there in the manuscripts. They’ve been edited by Matthew P. Thomson and are included in situ in the translation. He recorded the tunes – a lot of them are stunning – so that I could hear the probable rhythms and translate the lyrics into performable, singable form (with literal translations in footnotes). What’s really interesting is that the songs are crucial to the work’s satirical purpose. We’re talking about a work that presents aristocratic splendour – nobles’ castles, their armour, their horses, their caparisons – as a veneer: a veneer over something composed of every vice. It’s a work that depicts humans and their behaviour by way of beasts. And likewise love-song, supposedly an expression of refined customs and sensibilities, it scathingly undermines. It shows love – central to the unwritten code of chivalry on which aristocratic rule depended – to be hollow. It’s showing that something semi-sacred was now corrupted, rotten.
These satires sound very pessimistic!
On one level they are: they’re full of heartfelt alarm – the same could be said of most of us these days! But there’s nothing solemn about them: for the most part they’re richly comic. Like all good satirists, the authors may have been boiling inside with rage at the world’s affairs but they knew that po-faced polemic will always have far less impact and appeal than comedy. The world may have been sleepwalking to disaster, and people slumbering while the powers that be rode roughshod, but satire that delights and entertains may always be the best way to startle us awake.
From what you were saying about music, it sounds as if performance was important?
It really is. There’s a remarkable amount of dialogue involved – far more than in most modern fiction – because, of course, at a time when literature was primarily heard by an audience rather than read alone in private silence, direct speech lent itself so well to reading-aloud, to being animated by talented performers. And the singing in The New Reynard takes the potential for this to new heights. On one level the songs are there to lampoon – to strip the veneer of refinement from courtly culture – but they also unashamedly interrupt the narrative for no other reason than to revel in the chance to entertain! And it’s animals we hear singing! Giving a performer – or indeed multiple performers – the chance to adopt the physicality and voices of animals not just in speech but also in singing was a splendid theatrical coup. You could almost say that the performance of The New Reynard was a prototype of musical theatre.
You are a Boydell legend, with a huge contribution to medieval studies, what are you currently working on?
A legend? That’s very gratifying – thanks! After Renart le Nouvel I’ve become so intrigued by romances that included songs that I’m currently working on translations of others. They raise exciting questions about how romances were experienced and performed.
Translated by Nigel Bryant
£70 / $105
222 pg., 69 music exx.
SPECIAL MEDIEVAL HERALD
USE CODE: BB155
Other books by Nigel Bryant
NIGEL BRYANT is well known for his lively and accurate versions of medieval French works. His translations of Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval and all its continuations and of the extraordinary late Arthurian romance Perceforest have been major achievements; he has also translated Jean le Bel’s history of the early stages of the Hundred Years War, and the 13th- and 14th-century biographies of William Marshal and Bertrand du Guesclin. He was awarded the 2019 Norris J. Lacy Prize for outstanding editorial achievement in Arthurian studies.