Recovering Lost Stories

by Frans van Liere
Carved image of 4 armored men on the back of a single horse.
The Four Sons of Haymo depicted on a building in Maastricht. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

The story of the Four Sons of Haymo was widely popular in the late middle ages and Renaissance, especially in France and in the Low Countries, where I grew up. As a boy in school, I learned a song about the “Vier Heemskinderen” (as it is called in Dutch), and their magical horse Bayart. “Gable stones,” decorative stones sometimes found on medieval and renaissance era Dutch houses, depict the four youths sitting nicely lined up on their one large horse. The Flemish city of Dendermonde has a whole festival dedicated to the four heroes.

I stumbled upon a manuscript fragment of this medieval French poem thanks to Vern Wiering, a Calvin graduate and bookbinder who often repairs books for me and for Calvin’s Hekman Library. Two years ago Vern, one of the finest craftsmen I know, showed me some strips of parchment that he had uncovered while repairing a sixteenth-century book from Calvin’s Meeter Center collection. The strips, recycled materials from a medieval book, contained some writing that he could not identify. I took the fragments home and started trying to decipher them. After some detective work, I was able to identify the fragments as part of the twelfth-century French chanson de geste “Renaud de Montauban,” the medieval version of the story of the Four Sons of Haymo. Palaeographical analysis suggested that the fragments might date to the thirteenth century, making it one of the oldest written versions of this text. A medievalist friend and specialist in Old French, Margriet Hoogvliet, identified the dialect as originating in Picardy, the region in the North of France bordering Belgium.

Fragment of manuscript with handwritten text
One of the manuscript fragments. (Photo by Frans van Liere.)

The fragments Vern gave me only contained about a hundred lines of this massive poem, which comprises about 18,000 lines of verse. Some of them were only legible with the help of a UV lamp, borrowed from Calvin’s Biology lab. (Thank you, Lori Keen!) They hold considerable interest for scholars, because they are among the oldest surviving written versions of the text (or as scholars say, “witnesses to the text”), and they contain some variations that do not occur in any of the other surviving manuscripts. This might indicate that some of these versions were written down as records of an oral performance of the poem, rather than as exact copies of its written form.

The story features the four sons of Haymo, one of Charlemagne’s vassals. All are valiant knights, but they have their faults. Renaud, the oldest, is known for his temper, and during a game of chess he gets into a fight and kills one of Charlemagne’s other vassals. Charlemagne demands revenge, and the four brothers have to flee for their lives. They are aided by their uncle, the knight-wizard Maugis, who helps them hide. But Charlemagne persecutes the brothers relentlessly, unwilling to accept any kind of reparation or satisfaction. Even his most faithful vassals (such as Turpin, the archbishop, and Roland, the eponymous well-known hero of another chanson de geste) start to be uncomfortable with Charlemagne’s bullying behavior and his unwillingness to be reconciled. Renaud eventually surrenders, however, and takes a vow to redeem himself by going on a pilgrimage. In other versions, he spends the rest of his life aiding in the building of Cologne cathedral.

The story does not end well for Renaud’s horse, Bayard. He is surrendered to Charlemagne, who demands that he be drowned in the River Rhine (or Meuse, or Mosel, depending on which version you read). The horse is too strong to be drowned willingly; only when Renaud turns away from him, the faithful animal believes himself to have lost his master’s approval and surrenders himself to the waves.

Some stories are so engrained in the educational canon that we can easily forget that their survival into the modern age was precarious. Beowulf and the Song of Roland, two of the most widely read medieval texts today, are each found in only one manuscript. In the case of Beowulf, that manuscript was almost lost to fire in the seventeenth century. By contrast, the story of the Sons of Haymo is so widespread that there are multiple versions. By the late Middle Ages, versions of the poem existed in German, Dutch, Italian, and English, in addition to a French rendering into prose. Only a handful of manuscripts from the thirteenth century survive, and they already show considerable differences between the versions. Finding one more manuscript fragment can thus shed valuable light on the origin and early dissemination of the text.

The Renaud is far less prominent today in both education and popular culture than Beowulf or the Song of Roland. But it deserves more attention. It is a tale of murder and redemption, rebellion and abuse of authority, and even the bond between human and animal. It has heroism, friendship, and even magic. It might even make a good mini-series, like the Arthurian teenage TV Epic Merlin. The more widely read Song of Roland, by contrast, is about a go-at-it-alone hero who by his willful pride gets the whole rearguard of Charlemagne’s army killed. It is a story that glorifies Jihad – by Christians against Muslims— and ends with Roland’s suicidal “martyr’s death.” I see more inspiration in Renaud’s story of transgression and redemption. He kills a man in anger, underestimating his own strength, but eventually turns his life around by going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Medieval literature has lots to teach us about restorative justice. The Renaud also grapples with the question of how far rightful authority can reach before it becomes oppressive and needs to be resisted. The German occupation forces in Belgium in World War II knew very well the power of stories, and tried to suppress the tale. Perhaps it is time to re-introduce this text to the canon of World Literature.

The author of the post seated at a desk with the two small fragments of manuscript displayed on it.
Frans van Liere with the manuscript fragments in their new home at WMU. (Image source: Special Collections & Rare Book Room, Western Michigan University)

What happened to the actual manuscript fragments? Calvin’s Meeter Center graciously agreed that they should be donated to our southern neighbor, Western Michigan University, which has an excellent M.A. program in Medieval Studies (as several Calvin graduates can attest), and a great medieval book collection. As Manuscript 191, they are now accessible to be studied by all.

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two sons, and two cats named Pippa and Emma.

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