Elections and their sequel

On Wednesday June 9, 2010 elections have been held for the Dutch parliament. Much can be said about the results, but clearly there is no party large enough to form a new government on its own. New coalitions will have to include three or more parties. One of the parties running for parliament was the Party for the Animals which focuses on animal rights. Instead of jumping to George Orwell’s Animal Farm I had in mind a different association which was stimulated by the theme of a congress this month at Amiens on “Law and ethics in literary discourse from the Middle Ages to the Age of Enlightenment”.

Last year an edition of the Middle Dutch Van den vos Reynaerde appeared with both the text in Middle Dutch and an English translation edited by Bart Besamusca (Utrecht) and André Bouwman (Leiden) (Of Reynaert the Fox/Van den vos Reynaerde.Text and Facing Translation of the Middle Dutch Beast Epic (Amsterdam University Press, 2009)). Large parts of this book can be read online using Google Books. The story of the cunning fox has its roots in the Latin Ecbasis captivi and the Ysengrimus. Adaptations of the story such as the Roman de Renart appeared during the centuries. Even Goethe wrote a version, Reineke Fuchs. Jakob Grimm edited several versions of the tale in his Reinhart Fuchs (Berlin 1834), including an Ysengrimus abbreviatus.

Scholars have offered many interpretations of beast epics such as the Ysengrimus and Van den vos Reynaerde, but the relations of these texts to real life are also elusive. Beast epics do not offer the clear-cut moral education of fables and fabliaux. The bitter satire might have been provoked by the example of contemporary powerful persons, yet the author avoids clear identification of the victims of his ferocious pen. The scenes of an animal parliament for which Reynaerd was summoned belong to the most obviously legally charged parts. However, calling it a parliament might be evocative, but is also confusing. It is a king’s court, but one can better label it as a distorting mirror of a king’s court.

Perhaps as important as unraveling the strategies of the authors and the structures behind the beast epic is the impact of the legal imaginary on people’s understanding and opinion of medieval justice and aristocracy. King Noble and his council behave to a large extent as fools misled by the appearance of things and led by their own interest, instead of carefully balancing between suspicion and trust. Their behaviour points even today to the importance of not only knowing the rules of court, the law and statutes in force, but also acknowledging larger issues at stake, such as the role of justice in society and the opportunities the workings of the law offer to reset balances of power and influence. Rereading Van den vos Reynaerde allows you to open a medieval window cherished by readers through the ages. For us today reconsidering our views of nature because of the harm done to the natural environment is a most fruitful exercise: exactly what do we perceive as nature, how should we look at animals, how can we protect the earth from further devastation? Can the concept of natural law still help us or is it a dead-end? Some epic efforts might await us.

A postscript

The book by Besamusca and Bouwman with the text and translation of Van den Vos Reynaerde is now available as a PDF (2,5 MB) at the Directory of Open Access Books.

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