The volume of ‘Reynard the Fox’ which resides in Special Collections is the edition that contains three parts in one volume, and was published by Edward Brewster in 1701. The first part, “The Most delectable History of Reynard the Fox”, is sometimes mistakenly attributed to John Shirley (1680–1702), because he also published a version in the late seventeenth century. Shirley’s version however was in rhyming iambic pentameters, with few illustrations, and as it was never reprinted is believed to have not been that popular.
It was Caxton who produced the first English edition in 1481, based on a Flemish text; with Wynkyn de Worde illustrating it in 1495 and this is the version which Brewster used. The other two parts are also attributed to Brewster who expanded upon the original set of stories, with the final part based on Reynardine, the son of Reynard who had died in a previous tale.
The stories of Reynard the Fox originated in the 12th and 13th centuries across Europe, and versions can be found in Latin, German, Dutch, and French. Popular animal fables that appealed to children, they were also crafty political allegories that became increasingly moralized throughout the 17th century, as we see in this edition. Varty (1999, 23) describes the tales as:
“…a book meant for adults which became a best-seller in the late fifteenth century and remained popular for more than two hundred years, a book characterized by violence, murder, adultery, rape and corruption in high places.”
Most people today are largely unaware of the tales of Reynard the Fox, however, as a trickster folk hero, the enduring image of Reynard has continued into the modern age, and even been reflected in the Disney cartoon of Robin Hood – where Robin is the fox.
The volume is illustrated throughout by charming woodcuts that bear the initials E. B. (for Edward Brewster). Wynkyn de Worde first illustrated the tales in 1495, and the images proved enduringly popular, with the blocks being used into the 17th century until they became too worn. Brewster, the last publisher to own de Worde’s blocks, took it upon himself to create new illustrations basing them very closely on de Worde’s originals, although inserting his own initials into the image. [See Varty (1999, 254-255)] He first used these new blocks in his second edition of the text in 1671, and continued to use them in subsequent editions, including the 1701 text held in Special Collections.
Our copy contains an armorial bookplate on the front pastedown, complete with an ink inscription: C. Roach Smith – presented by his sister Mrs Holliffe, 1847.
Charles Roach Smith (1807-1890) was an antiquarian and archaeologist, and a specialist in Roman coins and Roman London, publishing on both topics. His works led him to being the recipient of several medals that were struck in his honour.
Varty, Kenneth (1999) Reynard, Renart, Reinaert: and other foxes in Medieval England: the iconographic evidence. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.