Not every story starring a group of animals is meant for children – at least not today’s children. Rarely are the original versions of medieval fables as idyllic as Disney movies make them look. The fables featuring Tybalt the Cat give a very interesting look at the difficult and often violent way of life in the middle ages.
A Medieval Menagerie
Tybalt the cat comes to us from a folklore series centering around Reynard the Fox. These stories begin to crop up in France in the middle ages and spread across Europe (taking hold mostly in the Netherlands and Germany). A manuscript called Roman de Renart from 1301 – 1400 is held the the National Library of France and can be viewed online here. This copy is 327 pages long and contains over 40,000 lines of verse. It’s beautiful! There is an English translation of 7 of the stories titled The History of Reynard the Fox, translated by William Caxton in 1481, available online for free here.
The characters in the Reynard the Fox tales are anthropomorphic animals that represent different types of people. Often the characters were used in a satirical fashion to talk about feudal institutions, government officials, and the clergy. A few of the common characters were:
- Reynard the Fox
- Tybalt the Cat (called Tibert in some versions)
- Isengrim the Wolf
- Bruin the Bear
- Noble the Lion
Reynard is technically the hero of the stories. He’s a very sly fox that is always doing devious things, but is able to talk his way out of trouble. The meaning of the name Reynard indicates that he is the type of evil doer who will never change his ways. He wins at the end of every story through a web of lies, cheating, and shear luck.
Tybert the Cat is a close family friend of Reynard the Fox. At points The History of Reynard the Fox, Reynard even refers to Tybert as his cousin. Tybert too is considered to be sly and wise by the other characters. Despite his wisdom, he can be a little bit stingy and hot-headed.
A Tale or Two of Tybalt the Cat
In The History of Reynard the Fox, there are 2 distinct tales about Tybalt the cat. In the first, Reynard is being summoned to court by the king (Noble the Lion) because of 2 serious complaints about his behavior. Isengrim the Wolf had complained that Reynard had harmed his wife. When Bruin the Bear was sent to bring Reynard back to court, Reynard tricked him and he ended up in a trapped and being severely beaten by people living nearby.
The king next asked Tybalt the Cat to go and retrieve Reynard. Tybalt refuses at first claiming that he and Reynard are close friends and he wouldn’t feel right bringing him in. Of course, the king feels that Tybalt is the perfect person to bring Reynard to court because he knows Reynard better than anyone. The king also praises Tybalt’s great wisdom and cunning. When Tybalt meets Reynard, Reynard agrees to go with him peacefully – after lunch. Reynard says that he knows where Tybalt can find the biggest, juiciest mice and Tybalt just can’t resist the offer. Reynard leads him to a hole in the ground near a priest’s house where Tybalt is inevitably tricked into getting himself stuck in the hole. Then Reynard alerts the priest to the cat and the priest beats Tybalt. Tybalt returns to the king and makes his own complaint about Reynard.
In the second story, Reynard is attempting to explain away all the harm he has done to other creatures to change the king’s mind about sentencing him to death. He tells a story regarding why he tricked Tybalt in the previous story. There is no mention of whether this story is wholly true or not, but it is assumed that it is, at least in part, a fabrication. Reynard’s father had taken Tybalt on a journey with him because he trusted him more than anyone else. As they were walking, they noticed a group of hunters and Reynard’s father looked to Tybalt to help get him out of the situation. However, Tybalt, fearing for his own life, ran up the nearest tree and hid himself. He called down from the tree and teased Reynard’s father for not having anywhere to go. When the hunters noticed the fox, they beat him. Reynard claimed that his actions were in revenge for this, but now they were even and he still loved Tybalt.
A Legend Leaves It’s Mark
It may be that monks began the Reynard the Fox series, but some great writers kept it alive. Geoffery Chaucer used some of the characters when he wrote The Nun’s Priests’ Tale. Even Shakespeare got in on the action. In one of the most famous plays in history, Romeo and Julliette, the fiesty character of Tybalt takes his name from Tybalt the Cat. Mercutio even calls him “the prince of cats” as a reference. Moving forward in history, Jacob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) carefully studied the tales of Reynard the Fox. He felt that the stories were displaying the feelings of the common people – corrupt men were wronging the poor and using religion to cover up their violent deeds.