Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



The Fox and the Wolf

The words “tale” and “fable” appear frequently in Pierce the Plowman’s Creed.  In one context, the accusation is that friars give no credence or respect to the gospels and distort or dismiss them: “I trowe, he toucheth nought the text but taketh it for a tale” (“I swear, he touches not the text, but takes it for a tale”; PPC 586).  In another context, friars are charged with including tales and fables in their sermons to enliven their preaching: “But now the glose is so greit in gladding tales” (“But now the glossing is so great in gladsome tales”; PPC 515).  The first case is social criticism, and the second is fact.

In his chapter on “Fiction and Instruction in the Sermon ‘Exempla,’” Owst identifies three specimens found in sermons: “narration” for stories of men and women; “fable” for animal tales; and “figure” for similitudes of natural objects, all intended to hold the listener’s attention (152).  Many were standards taken from classical sources, familiar anecdotes, folklore, chronicles, personal reminiscence, bestiaries, legend, and myth and marvel.  Many were comical or grimly humorous, and often used for rivalrous attack between the regular and secular clergy.

Though these types of exempla were used by all clergy, they were popular with friars.  For example, the prolific producer of preaching handbooks, the Dominican John Bromyard, used beast fables frequently, such as the sad tale of the innocent, naive ass in A Song on the Times which, as Maddicott notes, has the simplicity, strong narrative line and moral tone of a sermon examplum (Maddicott, Protest 134).  Another beast fable that would be particularly suitable to their purpose is The Fox and the Wolf, dated during the late thirteenth century.  The corrupt cleric as fox was a well-known medieval figure of satire and complaint, and the image of the fox-priest, seen in literature and woodcuts, was symbolic of “widespread condemnation of clerical hypocrisy” (Bercovitch 288).

The Fox and the Wolf, from the late thirteenth century, is the only extant Middle English beast fable before Chaucer’s Nun's Priest's Tale.  As in The Land of Cokaygne, the friars take their turn at criticizing the clergy, though secular rather than monastic, and to the modern reader at least, the poet injects a hint of pathos for the victims of clerical guile.

The Fox and the Wolf

A fox went out of the woods, so hungry that he was woeful.  He had never in any way been half so hungry. He held to neither road nor street, as he was loath to meet men; he would rather meet one hen than half a hundred women.  He strode quickly over all, until he saw a wall.   There was a house within the wall, towards which the fox went readily, for he thought to quench his hunger with either meat or drink.

He looked around quite eagerly and began to run until he came to a wall, some of which was broken and fallen down, and had a locked gate.  At the first opening he found, he leapt in and over he went.  When he was in, he laughed scornfully and had game enough, for he came in without leave of both the hayward and reeve.  There was a house, and the door was open.  Five hens had crept inside—which makes a flock—and a cock sat among them.  The cock flew on high, and two hens sat near him.

“Fox,” said the cock, “What are you doing  there?  Go home. May Christ give you sorrow!  You often shame our hens.”

“Be still, I command in God’s name,” replied the fox.  “Sir Chauntecler, fly down and come near me.  I’ve done nothing but good here.  I have let your hens’ blood; they were sick under their ribs and might not live any longer unless their blood was taken, which I did for the sake of charity.  I have let blood from their veins, and it would do you good, Chauntecler, for you have the same sickness under your spleen.  You haven’t nested with your hens for ten days, because your life-days are all gone unless you do as I advise and let your blood under your breast.  Otherwise ask soon for the priest.”

“Go away,” said the cock.  “Woe to you!  You have harmed our kin.  Go with what you have now and be cursed of God’s mouth.  If I were down there, by God, I might be sure of other shame.  But if our cellarer knew you had come here, he would go after you immediately with pikes, stones and strong staves and break all your bones.  Then we would be well avenged.”

The fox was quiet and said no more, but he was very sorely thirsty, which caused him more woe than his hunger had earlier.  He went and sought everywhere, and by chance his wits brought him to a pit in which there was water and made with great cleverness.  He found two buckets: when one went down, the other wound up.  The fox did not understand the device; he took the bucket and leapt into it, for he hoped to get enough to drink.  The bucket began to sink.  He pondered too late when he was brought into the trap; he gave it much thought, but it didn’t help him with the trick.  He was caught in the treacherous trap and down he must go, though it might well have been his will to let that bucket hang still.

What with sorrow and dread, all his thirst disappeared.  When he came to the bottom of the pit, he found enough water there.  He drank eagerly but thought the water stank, for it was against his will.

“Curses on the lust and longing,” said the fox, “that knows no moderation about food.  If I hadn’t eaten too much for my mouth’s pleasure, I wouldn’t be in this shame now.  Woe to thieves in every land.  I am caught by treacherous magic, or brought here by some devil.  I used to be wise, but now I am finished.”  The fox began to cry piteously.

A wolf came quickly out of the deep woods, for he was very hungry.  He had found nothing all night with which he might quench his hunger.  He came to the pit and heard the fox, whom he knew well by his voice, for he was his neighbor and close friend since childhood.  He sat down by the pit and said, “What may it be that I hear in there?  Are you Christian or my companion?  Tell me the truth, and don’t lie; who has brought you into the pit?”

The fox knew him well for his kin, and then an idea came to him; he thought that with some trick he might bring himself up and the wolf into the pit.  He said, “Who is there now?  I believe it is Sigrim that I hear.”

“That is true,” said the wolf.  “But who are you, by God?”

“Ah!” replied the fox, “I will tell you without a single lie.  I am your friend Reynard, and if I had expected your coming, I would have prayed that you should join me.”

“Be with you?” the wolf asked, “What for?  What would I do in the pit?”

The fox told him, “You are unwise.  Here is the bliss of paradise. Here I may fare well forever, without pain or care.  Here is food, here is drink.  Here is bliss without work. Here there is never any hunger or other kinds of woe; there is enough of all good things here.”

With these words the wolf laughed.  “Are you dead, God help you, or of the world?  When did you die, and what are you doing there now?  It is not three days ago that you, your wife and children, small and big, all ate together with me.”

“That is true,” the fox said.  “Thank God it is now like this, that I have gone to Christ.  None of my friends know.  For all the world’s goods, I wouldn’t be in the world where I find them.  Why should I go in to the world, where there is but care and woe and living in filth and sin? But here there are many kinds of joy.  Here are both sheep and goats.”

The wolf was very hungry, for he hadn’t eaten in a long time, and when he heard talk of food, he would happily be there.  He said, “Ah!  Good friend, you have deprived me of many a good meal.  Let me come down to you, and I will forgive you everything.”

The fox replied, “If you were shriven and had forsaken all sin and taken up a clean life, I would pray that you should come to me.”

“To whom should I confess my misdeeds?” asked the wolf.  “There is no one alive who could absolve me here now.  You have often been my companion; will you now hear my confession, if I tell you all my life?”

“No, I won’t,” replied the fox.

“Will you not show me mercy?” asked  the wolf.  “I am very sorely hungry.  I will be dead tonight unless you give me some counsel. For Christ’s love, be my priest.”  The wolf bent down his breast and began to sigh hard and strong.

“Will you tell your sins one by one, so that not one remains?” asked the fox.

“Right now, and very gladly,” answered the wolf. “I have been evil all my life.  I have the widow’s curse,1 and therefore fare the worse.  I have bitten a thousand sheep, and more if they were recorded, which I sorely repent.  Master, shall I tell you more?”

“Yes,” said the fox.  “You must say all; otherwise you must atone.”

“Good friend,” the wolf continued, “forgive me.  I have often said evil of you.  Men said that you had sinned with my wife.  I perceived you one time and found you in bed together.  I was often quite near and saw you together in bed.  I supposed, as others do, that what I saw was true, and therefore you were loathsome to me.”

Then the fox said, “Wolf, all that you have done here before, in thought, speech and deed, in every other kind of evil, I forgive you at this time of need.”

“God reward you,” said the wolf.  “Now I am in pure life, and don’t care about my children or wife.  But tell me what to do and how I may come to you.”

“Do?” replied the fox.  “I will teach you.  Do you see a bucket hanging there?  There is an entrance2 to heaven’s bliss. Leap into it with assurance and you will come to me immediately.”

“That is easily done,” said the wolf, and leapt in.  He  was quite heavy, as the fox knew well; the wolf began to sink and the fox to rise.  The wolf became frightened, and as he came to the middle of the pit, he met the fox.  “Dear friend,” said the wolf, “What now?  What do you have in mind?  Where will you go?”

“Where do I wish to go?” the fox said.  “I wish to go up, by God!  And now you go down with your meal.  Your gain will be quite small; but I am glad that you are taken in a pure state. I will ring the death knell and sing a mass for your soul.”  The wretched wolf found nothing at the bottom but cold water, and he was wracked with hunger.  He was invited to cold refreshment, with frogs having kneaded his dough. He stood in the pit so hungry that he was mad, and cursed the one who had brought him there, but the fox cared very little about it.

The pit was near a house in which very sly friars lived.  When it came time for them to rise and attend their matins, there was one friar among them who should wake them from sleep.  He said, “Arise, one by one, and everyone come to matins.”  This friar’s name was Ailmer, and he was their master gardener.  He was extremely thirsty, and right in the middle of matins he went alone to the pit and drew up the bucket. The wolf was quite heavy and the friar pulled with all his might so long that he saw the wolf.  When he saw the wolf sitting there, he cried out, “The devil is in the pit.”

All the friars went to the pit with pikes, staves and stones, each man with what he had.  Woe to him who lacked a weapon.  They came to the pit and drew up the wolf.  Then the wretch had plentiful foes that were eager to hunt him with great hounds and to beat him.  He was vengefully beaten, and stung with staves and spears.  The fox deceived him indeed, for he found no kind of bliss or forgiveness of blows.


1  The meaning of “the widow’s curse” is unclear.  It is tentatively defined as “a malediction pronounced by a widow” in the MED, but in the poem’s context it is not apparent whether the wolf has been cursed by an individual widow or is afflicted with a specific condition called “the widow’s curse,” which was familiar to medievals but not moderns.  In general, a curse delivered by the weak, poor or otherwise disadvantaged, the group to which the widow frequently belonged, was powerful.  Widows were often vulnerable to exploitation, as in Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale, in which the Summoner tries to extort money from Mabely the widow then, failing that, her pan.   She curses him to the devil, who promptly collects his soul and takes him to hell (FrT 1622-41). 

Widows were in need of protection, and provisions were made, though not always executed, for their care on the manor.  Widows also had God’s protection, along  with orphans:  “Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.  If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry out at all unto me, I will surely hear them cry.  And my wrath shall wax hot and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives will be widows, and your children fatherless” (Exod. 22:22-24).

2  In the context, this may be read as double entendre. The Middle English bruche is both a breach, or opening, and a breach of moral law or sin, such as the fox is committing.

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