Free fox, free hen-roost

U 15.1692-7: No more patriotism of barspongers and dropsical impostors. Free money, free rent, free love and a free lay church in a free lay state.


Free fox in a free henroost.


(Yawning.) Iiiiiiiiiaaaaaaach!

When Joyce wrote the so-called “Messianic scene” (Buffalo MS V.A. 20) to be included into the Circe episode Bloom’s promise to the crowd of “Free money, free rent, free love and a free lay church in a free lay state”, is countered by Mr O’Madden Burke’s rather sarcastic heckling "Free fox in a free henroost".

The phrase suddenly turns up around 1914 in both English and French publications, and we might feel inclined to accuse Joyce of anachronism:

The German advocates of the "Manchester School" in economics were principally Jews, whose object seemed to be the establishment of freedom of the kind defined by Kürnberger, in another connexion, as "the free fox in the free hen-roost."

Henry Wickham Steed The Hapsburg Monarchy (1913), ch. 3 p. 155

Fair play and justice demanded that the arena of life be held wide open for everybody. Experience, however, has taught us that this job of holding open the gate involves in itself government regulation, and that an open arena without rules for the game often becomes a case of "a free fox in a free hen roost."

Bulletin of the University of Minnesota (General Series No. 25) (1915), January p. 5

Par libéralisme je n'entends pas ce qu'un parti politique en Autriche-Hongrie appelle de ce nom, et que Kürnberger définissait: le renard libre dans le poulailler libre.

Mercure de France (1915), 1 August p. 730

Quite a few people are actually credited with this sarcastic aphorism, among them Karl Marx and Henry Wickham Steed, but Steed himself and the Mercure de France (above) and The Times (below) know better:

Finally, and not without irony, he sums up the German programme as revealed by Herr von Bethmann Hollweg, shows that the quality of "freedom" at which Germany aims is that once described by an Austrian essayist as the "free fox in the free hen roost"[…]

The Times (1915), 26 August p. 7

The author of this frequently quoted expression was indeed the Austrian writer Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821-79), who participated in revolutionary activities in Vienna in1848 and had to flee to Dresden to save his skin.

It is likely that Joyce took the reference to Kürnberger’s polemic anti-clerical commentary from Steed’s Hapsburg Monarchy (see quotation above), as he had a copy of the book in his personal library at Trieste.

A Hungerian statesman, Baron Eötvös, had introduced a bill whose programme was “A free church in a free state” in order to turn public property into church property. Kürnberger vitriolicly suggested that this kind of economic freedom compared to “Der freie Fuchs im freien Hühnerhof” (The free fox in the free henroost) or “Der freie Hecht im freien Karpfenteich” (The free pike in the free carp pond).1

It can hardly be denied that Bloom’s programme and Mr O’Madden Burke’s reaction to it are pure Kürnberger. But unless we believe in an uncanny coincidence, Joyce must have read up on the "free church in a free state" context in Kürnberger's article somewhere else. Although the Hapsburg Monarchy does contain six references to Kürnberger and even mentions Eötvös, it does not contain this crucial link between free church and free fox.

Harald Beck


1 Ferdinand Kürnberger, "Freiheit, die ich meine", in Neues Wiener Tagblatt (1870) 3 March; reprinted in the Klagenfurter Zeitung of 6 March (1870), p. 326/3.

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