There is a reason that the characters in Volpone behave like beasts: one of Jonson’s sources was beast fables that dated back to antiquity. The most popular of these were Aesop’s fables. He began the practice of giving animals human characteristics to impart moral lessons. In the Middle Ages, monks picked up the practice and illuminated the margins of their manuscripts with mini-fables. The fox, already known as a cunning animal, was an obvious choice to embody the traits of the conman. By the thirteenth century, there were two French manuscripts depicting a fox who routinely flouted law and authority: Reynard.
These manuscripts depict Reynard doing what comes most naturally: fooling other people for his benefit. He assaults a rabbit with a broom. He jousts with his lifelong enemy, Ysengrin the wolf. He robs other animals of their food and possessions without a thought. He tricks a rooster into pulling him in a cart so he doesn’t have to walk. He tricks a sheep into stranding itself at the bottom of a well so he can escape the well. Patiricia M. Gathercole writes that one manuscript depicts Reynard at the top of a Wheel of Fortune (a medieval idea which depicted the natural rises and falls of man), “with cape and crown, [presiding] in glory.” He even wrestles with Noble, the lion king of the beasts.
The stories of Reynard are legion and tend to go like this: Reynard dupes another animal into harming itself, either for Reynard’s benefit or sheer amusement. The animal does so and realizes later it’s been wronged. Both appear before the king for a trial and Reynard shrewdly worms his way out of trouble (usually, by showing the king a hidden treasure or tricking the king into believing the aggrieved animal is actually at fault).
Jonson was working from a central image: a fox on its back feigning death to lure birds of prey close to its mouth. According to Oxford Journals author D.A. Scheve, the earliest mention we have of this is from the first century AD. It is in a Greek hunting and fishing tome by Oppianus. Furthermore, “the episode of the fox…is set forth in detail in a book Jonson had in his library, Conrad Gresner’s Historia Animalium.” Richard Dutton writes that the most famous version (which Jonson also read) hails from a fifteenth-century translation of The History of Reynard the Fox. Reynard pretends to be dead, as is his wont. He loses the crow; his “actual victim [is] the crow’s wife (that is, the play’s Celia).”
The stories of Reynard appear throughout the Continent from the Middle Ages through the late Victorian Era. Another popular edition was published after Volpone, 1620’s Reynard the Fox. It had two sequels. The first deals with Reynard’s appointment to a royal position and his subsequent attempt at a coup d’état. He is caught and executed in the final chapter. The second is entitled The Shifts of Reynardine the Son of Reynard the Fox. It tells the story of how Reynard instructs his two sons (Reynardine and Volponus) to avenge his death. The stories’ populatiry peaked in the 1700s. By the end of the Victorian Era, it was relegated to children’s tales.