Reynard the Foxe is the main character in a set of fables and stories stretching back nearly one thousand years, themselves often deriving from even older animal stories written in medieval Latin, mostly written by various (and often anonymous) authors across Europe. It is the most famous of beast epics, with animals playing human roles, a genre very popular in the early middle ages, especially as a means of satirizing the powerful (i.e., church and nobles) in medieval life. One reviewer aptly sums up Reynard as:
…an anthropomorphic fox who is always up to no good, a cunning trickster whose escapades are both entertaining and illuminating. He is the animal representative of the medieval outlaw, far less benevolent than Robin Hood, and utilized by medieval scribes (who were of course, monks) as a form of satirical and whimsical criticism. But Reynard is also a fox, and like all sly foxes, quite capable of feigning vulnerability (and piety) in order to elude capture and capture his next meal. One of the most common images in medieval manuscripts is of Reynard preaching, to an audience of birds whom he intends to eat.
Brittanica mentions that:
Though Reynard is sly, amoral, cowardly, and self-seeking, he is still a sympathetic hero, whose cunning is a necessity for survival. He symbolizes the triumph of craft over brute strength…
One of the best known and earliest versions of the Reynard fables is Le Roman de Renart written by Pierre de Saint-Cloud in approximately 1170. Another early and famous edition, this time written in Middle Dutch in the mid-13th century by Willem die Madoc maecte, was entitled Van den dos Reynaerde. It is considered one of the great Dutch works of medieval literature. This work eventually became the basis for adaptations of William Caxton (who printed his The Historie of Reynart the Foxe in 1481) and Johann Wolfgang (von) Goethe (who published his Reineke Fuchs in 1794), the former of which being used in the famous William Morris Kelmscott Press edition of 1892, reviewed here.
William Morris was very interested in Mediaeval texts, especially Caxton editions, so happily it is not surprising that this Kelmscott edition came into being. Morris was enormously influential across a wide range of art and culture in the Victorian Era, including the private press movement. That influence continues to this day. He was well known in his life as a poet, though his reputation today stems more from his designs, especially in textile arts, including wallpapers and fabrics. The principles in which he founded and ran the Kelmscott Press remain the foundation on which privates presses have continued to emulate and build upon to this day. An ardent socialist, he was opposed to industrialization, and abhorred the lack of beauty that mass mechanization was inflicting on the natural, artistic and crafts world. As such, and as reflected by his works published by his Kelmscott Press, he eschewed what he saw as a soulless modern production methodology, instead producing works by hand, placing value on the craftsmen who produced the works and on the inherent beauty of the materials used in creating works. For instance, he believed that the kind of paper, the quality of the ink, the type, the ornaments, and text/page placement were all essential to the worthiness of any publication. In other words, design matters if beauty and utility are to remain paramount.
Morris’ 1892 edition of Reynard the Foxe provides an excellent example of these principles. Though printed early in the Kelmscott oeuvre (consisting of 52 titles between 1891-1898), it carries all the hallmarks of what makes Kelmscott publications so collectible. It is simply beautiful, as you will see below, and the printing is fabulously done. The Morris designed Troy type works very well here as the size of the page (290 x 210 mm) and use of white space allows it. As David Butcher mentions in the wonderful and useful Pages from Presses, “the Troy type is genuinely legible once readers overcome the unfamiliarity bred of five centuries of dominance of Roman faces.” Morris first used Troy earlier in 1892 in The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, subsequently using it in nine books. In Reynard, Morris also chose to use his more famous and frequently used typeface, Chaucer, for the glossary (Morris did this for several of the books set in Troy). The text is printed in black and red, with a Morris designed full woodcut ornamental border around the title-page opening, numerous partial borders and elaborate eight-line initial letters. Like always, here Morris used Batchelor unbleached hand-made paper made from linen. The paper is reasonably heavy, though somewhat transparent, and just looks and feels nearly perfect for the ink and type.
As was typical for Kelmscott, the book was bound in full limp vellum with gilt lettering and silk ties (this or quarter linen with blue/gray papers were the standard of most Kelmscott books). It is often forgotten now, but vellum had long been out of fashion for book binding before Morris started using it. However, its simplicity (in look) appealed to Morris, and its use was widely imitated by other presses after Morris’ example. It is hard to imagine this work in any other binding!
…is one of the very best of his works as to style; and being translated from a kindred tongue is delightful as to mere language. In its rude joviality, and simple and direct delineation of character, it is a thoroughly good representative of the famous Beast Epic.
Like most Kelmscott works, finding Reynard the Foxe in reasonable condition can be quite difficult, especially if you do not want to sell your car in order to purchase it! Over the last few years, I have seen the range being $1850 (remarkable price) up to $8500 (overpriced).
About the Edition
- Translated from the Dutch by William Caxton in 1481
- Corrected for the Press by Henry Halliday Sparling
- Bound in full limp vellum, gilt lettering, silk ties
- Text printed in black and red Troy type, with full woodcut ornamental border around the title-page opening, numerous partial borders and elaborate eight-line initial letters
- Wood-engraved borders, decorations and initials designed by William Morris
- Glossary in Chaucer’s type
- Batchelor hand-made paper
- Tall quarto, 290 x 210 mm
- Limited to 300 copies printed on paper (plus ten on vellum)
- Published/sold by Bernard Quaritch, 1892
Pictures of the Edition
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