From Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain. Out today and available from the Caught by the River shop, priced at £14.99.
Words: Lucy Jones
In a scene from a French manuscript from the end of the thirteenth century or the first quarter of the fourteenth century, a fox stands on its hind legs, propped up by a bishop’s crozier. His long brush trails behind him and his chest is typically whiter, or at least paler, than the rest of his orange body. He wears a bishop’s mitre and his tongue is lolling out, which gives the impression he is hungry, predatory, salivating and out of control. He is standing before a group of birds: a falcon, chicken, geese, a stork and a swan, his ‘congregation’.
The Stained Glass Museum of Ely Cathedral has a couple of ‘devil preacher’ scenes in its collection. One, from the late fourteenth century, shows a fox wearing a mitre and dressed up in priest’s robes, preaching from a pulpit. The fox has his mouth open with his teeth bared. He looks as if he’s smiling and has a slightly psychotic air. The eyebrows are low and deviously angled. He lifts up his clawed hands; one is already clutching a dead goose, his ‘fingers’ gripping tightly around its neck. He looks out onto a rural scene with a couple of gormless-looking geese, the implication being that they won’t be around for much longer. The fox looks frightening, in control and definitely an enemy. The roundel was from Holy Cross in Byfield, discovered in the rectory but probably its original location was in the church.
A similar scene is found on an Ely Cathedral misericord: a fox in a preacher’s gown gets close enough to the birds in his congregation to make off with one of them. He is on his hind legs, facing four geese who look enraptured by his sermon. It is a common image in medieval art, found in tapestries, stained glass, drawings, paintings, manuscripts and wood carvings across Europe and in the cathedrals of Bristol, Worcester and Leicester, as well as many parish churches including Ludlow, Beverley and Yorkshire, and at St George’s in Windsor. The fox is depicted most often as a bishop but also as a pilgrim, priest, friar, monk or abbot. He always looks sly, crafty and cunning.
The fox remained a beguiling and mysterious animal, a competitor, a predator, a creature little understood and approached with wariness and reluctant admiration. It loomed large in the medieval imagination as a symbol for many of society’s ills. Gradually, that started to become expressed through our language.
The first example of the word ‘fox’ being used to denote artfulness or craftiness is from the late twelfth century, from verse in The Ormulum by a monk known as Ormin (‘Þatt mann iss fox and hinnderrȝæp and full off ille wiless’). By then, ‘foxly’ was used to mean crafty or cunning. The verb ‘to fox’, meaning to trick by craft, appeared in 1250, and there was also ‘to smell a fox’ (to be suspicious) and ‘to play the fox’ (to act cunningly) – it is possible that the Irish word for ‘I play the fox’, sionnachuighim, is where the word ‘shenanigans’ comes from. In recognition of its thieving tendencies, there’s even the word ‘vulpeculated’, which specifically means to be robbed by a fox.
There are many other related phrases in English dialect, mostly picking up on the animal’s negative connotations in popular tradition: to ‘box the fox’ means ‘to rob an orchard’, while a ‘fox-sleep’ is a ‘feigned sleep’. But there are some that are neutral, and even quite charming: ‘foxes brewings’ means ‘a mist which rolls among the trees on the escarpment of the Downs in unsettled weather’.
Around Tudor times, a new connotation arose in the phrases ‘to hunt or catch the fox’ (to get drunk). There is even a connection between drunkenness and the crafty nature of the fox, based on a prose satire written by Thomas Nashe, an Elizabethan poet and playwright. In his Pierce Penniless, His supplication to the Divell (1592), he described the types of drunk- enness you might encounter, comparing their characteristics with animals, finishing with the eighth type of drunkard, who is ‘fox-drunk when crafty-drunk, as many of the Dutchmen be, that will never bargain but when they are drunk’. The association with drunkenness lasted into the Regency period, with ‘to get foxed’, but has become a less common phrase in modern times. The fox as ‘cunning’, however, is now firmly set in our language. ‘Cunning as a fox’, the ‘crafty fox’, ‘sly as a fox’ are metaphors used so often that they have become clichés that appear all over the place. ‘Outfoxed’ is commonly used to mean getting one up on someone in a crafty way. In a memorable scene from Blackadder Goes Forth, Baldrick, typically, has a plan. ‘A cunning and subtle one?’ drawls Blackadder. ‘Yes, sir’. ‘As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed professor of cunning at Oxford University?’
As well as craftiness, the fox started to become associated with sexuality – possibly going back to Reynard’s rape of the wolf’s wife. A pilgrim’s badge dating from the fourteenth or fifteenth century shows a fox standing on the back of another fox playing an organ. Another has a fox with an erect penis being led by a chained goose. Experts suggest these might have been a comment on the lust of certain preachers, with the organ representing an actual sexual organ. In other carvings and woodcuts, Brother Reynard stands trial for adultery and rape.
In the early sixteenth century, ‘foxy’ is found to mean ‘foxlike’, but it became slang in twentieth-century North America to mean a sexy woman. The first example of that meaning is from 1964 in J. H. Clarke’s story Harlem. ‘Daddy, she was a real fox!’ a character says.
The etymology of ‘vixen’ can be traced back to the Old English word ‘fyxen’. The meaning of the vixen as an ‘ill- tempered, quarrelsome woman’ was first recorded in 1575, according to Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. The etymology of the word ‘fox’ itself can be traced back to Old English, before 830. It is of Germanic origin, and related to the Dutch vos and German Fuchs. Its exact beginnings are hard to ascertain, but the leading etymologist Anatoly Liberman suggests that the word ‘fox’ may be related to words meaning ‘tail’ or ‘hairy skin’, ‘sheen’, ‘secrecy’ or ‘offensive smell’.
‘Tod’ was also a proverbial word for fox, first appear- ing in the twelfth century in the writings of the Benedictine monk Reginald of Durham. It is found again in the Scottish poem The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie in 1508. A ‘tod’s bairns’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means ‘an evil brood, or children or persons of bad stock’.
And it’s not just in Britain that the fox has entered the language for its questionable qualities; in Finland, for example, if someone has a hidden agenda, they are said ‘to have a fox under their arm’. The Finns also have a rather lovely word for the aurora borealis: revontulet, which translates as ‘foxfire’. The origins are supposedly in a Finnish fable, in which an Arctic fox, running through snow, sprayed up crystals with his tail, causing sparks to fly off into the night sky.
In Tudor times, in Britain, we can still see admiration for the fox’s cunning expressed in our language: Shakespeare celebrated it with all but two of thirty-three references to foxes in his plays, paying tribute to their guile. ‘If thou were the lion, the fox would beguile thee,’ Timon says to Apemantus in Timon of Athens. ‘No more truth in thee than in a drawn fox,’ says Falstaff in Henry IV Part I to Mistress Quickly, referring to the trickery played by a fox while it is hunted. In King Lear, Edgar refers to the fox as ‘sneaky’ and ‘in stealth’.
It’s not just our language in which the fox has clearly left its mark, but also in place names all over Britain: Todmorden, Todwick, Todber and Toddington; Foxcombe Hill, Foxton, Foxearth, Foxholes and Foxfields. In fact, a study conducted by Claire Marriage found that ‘fox’ was the most popular animal-related place name in England, with 206 named for the fox, 141 for the badger and 37 for the otter. Similarly, taverns and ale houses springing up in the Middle Ages were often named after foxes. There remain 143 pubs called the Fox and Hounds and, among others, the Fox (120), the Fox and Goose (16), the Snooty Fox (10) and more than a handful of pubs called the Fox and Grapes, the Fox and Pheasant, or the Fox and Duck. This may, in part, have been due to the popularity of fox hunting across the country, particularly in the case of names such as the Fox and Hound, but many of these names predate that by some way. Perhaps it’s a sign of how widespread the fox was in Britain; perhaps it’s an indi- cation of affection for the animal; perhaps it’s an indication of the animal’s usefulness, having coexisted with us side by side for centuries.