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From its beginnings, animals have played an important role in European literature. The most influential models were set in classical Greek and Latin texts. Collections of fables, such as Aesop's, natural histories, such as Pliny's Historia naturalis, pseudo-scientific treatises, such as the Physiologus, and individual tales were adopted into Middle English literature, either directly from Latin originals or via translations from French texts. The large amount of Latin and French animal literature, which was available in medieval England, may account for the fact that the number of related vernacular texts in Middle English is not as great as one should expect. One of the earliest texts having animals as protagonists is The Owl and the Nightingale, although this is not a tale but rather a debate poem.

Medieval European beast tales were dominated by the Reynard cycles composed in French from the 11th century onwards. Although these stories were popular in England, as the vast amount of Latin and Anglo-French texts show, there are only a few episodes of Reynard's career in Middle English. Of these The Fox and the Wolf and Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale are the best known. But there is also The False Fox and The Fox and the Goose and the fox story in John Barbour's Bruce, an episode in the Disciplina Clericalis, and one in William Dunbar's Wowing of the King Quhen He Was in Dumferline. The only coherent Reynard cycle was produced by William Caxton in 1481. Literary references to the character of Reynard are also very rare. The fox is mentioned in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and a few other instances.

Two other tales conveniently fit in this group. Both are Scottish and date from the second half of the 15th century: The Buke of Howlat by Sir Richard Holland, an avian parliament in the style of Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls; the other is the Talis of the Fyve Bestes, of which only the stories of the Unicorn and the Wolf deal with animals and not with humans.

From what has come down to us, we can draw a fairly reliable picture of Middle English animal literature. Our sub-division of the texts into two larger groups, namely the bestiaries and the fables, follows the traditional arrangement and appears to be quite convenient, although different categorizations are possible.

Beast Tales