The Four Sons of Aymon (French: [Les] Quatre fils Aymon, Dutch: De Vier Heemskinderen, German: Die Vier Haimonskinder), sometimes also referred to as Renaud de Montauban (after its main character) is a medieval tale spun around the four sons of Duke Aymon: the knight Renaud de Montauban (also spelled Renaut, Renault, Italian: Rinaldo di Montalbano, Dutch: Reinout van Montalbaen), his brothers Guichard, Allard and Richardet, their magical horse Bayard (Italian: Baiardo), their adventures and revolt against the emperor Charlemagne. The story had a European success and echoes of the story are still found today in certain folklore traditions.
The oldest extant version of the tale is an anonymous Old French chanson de geste, Quatre Fils Aymon, which dates from the late 12th century and comprises 18,489 alexandrine (12 syllable) verses grouped in assonanced and rhymed laisses (the first 12,120 verses use assonance; critics suggest that the rhymed laisses derive from a different poet). It is one of the longest of all the chansons de geste. Other, later versions of the chanson range from 14,300 to 28,000 verses. Of the dozen extant versions of the chanson, all are anonymous except for one, Histoire des quatre fils Aymon, attributed to Huon de Villeneuve, a 13th-century trouvère. The Renaud chansons de geste were transformed into prose romances in the 14th and 15th centuries, and, judging from the number of editions, the prose Quatre Fils Aymon was the most popular romance of chivalry in the late 15th and first half of the 16th century in France.
The tale is generally included in the Doon de Mayence "cycle" of chansons.
Renaud and his three brothers were sons of Aymon de Dordone (a fictional location in the Ardennes, though the name seems to be related to Dordogne near Montauban). At the Pentecostal feast, Aymon brought them to Paris to be presented to the emperor Charlemagne and Renaud proved himself a worthy combatant in the royal tournament and won the emperor's favor. In most versions of the chanson, the emperor awarded him with the magical horse Bayard (in two versions, it is the fairy Oriande who gives it to him). Unfortunately, Renaud kills one of Charlemagne's nephews (Bertolai) in a brawl over a chess game and the brothers flee, aided by Bayard who can carry all the brothers on its back and leap across valleys.
The brothers decide to hide in the Ardennes where their cousin, the sorcerer Maugis, can help them. Maugis constructs a castle for them called Montessor on a peak overlooking the Meuse. The brothers are, however, forced to flee from Montessor, and eventually they proceed to Gascony to aid the King Yvon his battles against the Emir Begès. Renaud, thanks to his sword "Froberge" (given to him by Maugis), wins a victory, and as thanks, the king gives to Renaud the castle at Montauban and his sister in marriage.
After a series of adventures, Charlemagne is eventually prevailed on by the noble paladin Roland to make terms with the brothers: the four brothers are pardoned on condition that Renaud go to the Holy Land on Crusade, and that their magical horse Bayard be surrendered to Charlemagne. Charlemagne orders that the magic horse be drowned by chaining it to a stone and throwing it in a river, but the horse escapes and lives forevermore in the woods (in some versions the horse is killed). Renaud, upon his return from the Crusades, discovers his wife has died. He abandons his home (sending his sons to be raised at the court of the emperor) and goes to Cologne, where he becomes a builder on a church. In the end, he is murdered by resentful workers, but his body is miraculously saved from the river and makes its way magically in a cart back to his brothers.
Charlemagne is portrayed as vengeful and treacherous in these stories; the sympathy of the storyteller is clearly with the four brothers, but ultimately feudal authority is upheld.
Historie van den Vier Heemskinderen, the Dutch translation, dated 1508 and held at the University of Munich gives the following version:
Duke Aymon, King of Pierlepont, thinks that Charles, his liege Lord, has not shown him gratitude enough when he gets only Dordogne (Dordoen) with the capital of Albi for his help in many of Charles' wars. He is even angrier about the fact that his warrior-friend Hugh (Huon) de Narbonne gets nothing at all and decides to become renegade until Charlemagne gives him a suitable reward. In the end Charles adds: Aymons weight in gold and his sister Aye. Aymon is not truly satisfied and swears that he will kill any child born out of his union with the king's sister.
Aye rears her four sons (Richard, Writsaert, Adelhaert and Renout in this version) in secret at Pierlepont until the day that Aymon tells her how he regrets the fact that they have no offspring. She shows him his sons and Aymon is very impressed with Renaud who is of great height, feisty and strong. He gives Renaud the horse Bayard. The horse is so big that it can carry the four brothers on its back. When the four brothers are presented at Charles' court in Paris Renaud kills Charles' son Louis. They flee to the court of King Loup de Gascogne who betrays them to Charles. They escape their pursuers with the help of King Son of Aquitaine, who gives his daughter Claire or Clarisse to Renaud to wife and the castle of Montauban.
Charles attacks the castle and after months of siege Renaud has to surrender. The cost of their survival is the drowning of his horse Bayard. Charles urges Renaud to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem. When Renaud comes back he helps to build the shrine of St.Peter in Cologne. Envious men kill him and throw his body in the River Rhine.
Ein schöne und lüstige Histori von den vier Heymonskindern appeared at Cologne in 1604. It was largely an adaptation of the then current Dutch version and based on a French original. A previous German adaptation of 1535 was based directly on the prose romance Les quatre fils Aymon.Ludwig Tieck edited and published the story, but seems to have taken it from a different source.
The story was known in England by the first half of the 13th century. and William Caxton published a prose translation under the name "The Right Pleasant and Goodly Historie of the Foure Sonnes of Aymon". The translation was repeatedly reprinted, as well as dramatised, in the C16th and early C17th, and its popular story was referred to (and used) by figures such as Thomas Nashe and Samuel Rowlands - though by 1673 Francis Kirkman would call the text a rarity.
A prose and a verse version of the story called Rinaldo existed in Italian in the 14th century.
From the 13th century on, other texts concerning separate elements of the extended Renaud de Montauban story were created. Together with the original, these are termed the "Renaud de Montauban cycle". These poems are: Maugis d'Aigremont (story of the youth of Maugis), Mort de Maugis (story of the death of Maugis), Vivien de Monbranc (story of the brother of Maugis), Beuve d'Aigremont (story of the father of Maugis, Beuve d'Aigremont, brother to Girart de Roussillon and Doon de Nanteuil).
Renaud, as Rinaldo, also became an important character in Italian Renaissance epics, including Morgante by Luigi Pulci, Orlando Innamorato by Matteo Maria Boiardo and Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. (For more info on the character and his appearance in other texts, see Renaud de Montauban.)
Proust briefly makes use of this tale in Swann in Love by describing chemical workers of France toiling amounts sculptures of this tale's characters.
During the German occupation of Belgium during World War II, the story of Les Quatre Fils Aymon was made into a play that was banned by the German authorities, because of the sympathy it displayed for resisting authority; the play was performed underground and became quite popular.
La Légende des fils Aymon, a stage work by Frédéric Kiesel, was created in 1967 in Habay-la-Neuve.
The four brothers--usually represented all together seated on their horse Bayard--have inspired many sculptures:
Monument des Quatre Fils Aymon, Bogny-sur-Meuse.
The town of Orp-le-Grand (near Orp-Jauche) : The fountain des Quatre Fils Aymon
Statue in Dendermonde.
Sculpture in Grembergen.
Ros Beyaert in Ghent.
Vier Heemskinderen in Nijkerk.
The horse Bayard in Namur.
A study by the University of Liège in 1976 found a dozen sites in the Ardennes that claimed to be the fortress Montessor (or Montfort) constructed for the brothers by Maugis. The château of Amblève is one of these. Dhuy (near Éghezée) possesses an old castle called "Bayard" in 1770, that was also called "Montessor des fils Aymon".
Bogny-sur-Meuse has a number of sites referencing the four brothers: four rocky crags on a mountain peak near the town are said to symbolize the four brothers on the back on Bayard, and the castle of Château-Regnault has been claimed as a possible site of Montfort/Montessor.
According to a tale told by (among others) Claude Seignolle, the village of Francheval owes its name to a legend of the brothers: "Bayard, having shown great bravery to help Renaud and one of his brothers, the latter said to him 'Tu es un brave, Bayard, franc cheval!' ('You are a brave one, Bayard, noble horse!'), and at this site the village of Francheval was established". A similar legend is related to the creation of the village of Balan: as the brothers, upon Bayard, were being pursued, the horse made a huge leap and fell to the ground; Renaud cried out to his brothers, "Balan!", (i.e. "Get back in the saddle!"), and the village was thus named.
In Dinant there exists the "Bayard Rock" (Rocher Bayard) that was said to have been split by the giant hoof of Bayard while carrying the four sons of Aymon on their legendary flight from Charlemagne through the Ardennes.
The sons of Aymon are included among the "giants of the north" in Belgian folk festivals.
A procession in Namur has been attested in 1518. Taking place on each July 2, the procession of "giants" represents Charlemagne, the nine worthy peers, the four sons of Aymon upon their horse, and their cousin Maugis.