late 12th century C.E.



Renaut de Montauban

(Les Quatre Fils Aymon)


Probably composed during the reign of Philip Augustus, known for toughness in his dealings with barons, the chanson de geste known as Renaut de Montauban encapsulates the spirit of baronial revolt narratives, characterising opposition to unfair rule as an act of great bravery. Rebellion proves to be a tough road, involving exile, hunger, suffering and pain, but through it all the knight Renaut and his three brothers (Aalart, Richart and Guischart) show unshakeable loyalty to one another, their fraternal bond giving rise to an alternative title for the tale – Les Quatre Fils Aymon (the four sons of Aymon) – which suggests that it was sometimes seen as an epic with four heroes. 

Detail of a miniature of the Siege of Mantauban. Attributed to the Talbot Master. France, N. (Rouen). The British Library. Source:

The brothers are pursued throughout by a Charlemagne whose power rests only on violence and who will tolerate no resistance. Fiercely punitive, he discounts the possibility that baronial protest might be a legitimate response to injustice. Outnumbered by the Frankish army, the rebel heroes resort to all manner of tactics, including magic and theft. Charlemagne is repeatedly mocked, unseated and frustrated in attempts to assert his power, whereas Renaut and his brothers become heroes of the kingdom.

The action begins with Charlemagne sending his son Lohier to reprimand the baron Beuve, who failed to appear when summoned to provide military assistance. But fighting breaks out and Lohier is killed. Beuve is then summoned to Charlemagne’s court but never makes it; at the suggestion of the treacherous clan of barons, whose machinations spark conflicts in many chansons de geste, he is ambushed. The narrator spells out early on how all the action of the tale flows from this murder:

‘One day around Christmas, Charlemagne had the duke Beuve d’Aigremont, whom he had summoned, murdered; in the emperor’s safe-conduct the duke was put to death. Then there was a great war with great number of fatalities, and many brave men were killed, slain or maimed. Renaut, son of Aymon, who had many good qualities, then killed Bertolai the nephew of Charlemagne with a chessboard, and the king was angered: land was destroyed over this and many good territories ruined, and many women widowed, and many orphans were disinherited and fell into poverty and were shamed; and then the vassal Renaut was also maltreated and he and his brothers were driven out of the kingdom, and they then fought Charles their mortal enemy and caused much damage and much uproar.’

Violent act cascades from violent act, and patterns of causality are blurred as different grievances overdetermine each subsequent stage of the conflict. At Charlemagne’s court, Renaut and his three brothers have recently been knighted. As the narrator foretells, a dispute over a game of chess soon reignites existing tensions: Bertolet hits Renaut, but Renaut then demands justice for the death of Beuve, before fatally striking Bertolet. Renaut and his brothers flee court on their magical horse Bayart. The brothers’ first route of escape takes them to their father’s residence, but he condemns them and throws them out, recognizing his subservience to Charles; the narrator muses that family relationships mean nothing in war. Turfed out, the brothers build the castle of Montessor, where they appear safe until Charlemagne, supported by Aymon, eventually finds them. They flee again and the text now portrays the difficulties of rebellion. Through the winter, the brothers suffer the torments of hunger and cold. Their austere existence signals the strength of their opposition; they will renounce all worldly comforts, and give up everything, except the revolt itself. Come spring, they resemble hermits. The enchanter Maugis, Beuve’s son, joins them and they move to Gascony, where they support King Yon. Renaut marries Yon’s daughter, and the brothers build another castle, Montauban. But Charlemagne’s reach is long: Yon succumbs to his pressure, and gives up the brothers to ambush. They are saved by the arrival of Maugis, but Richart is captured and almost hanged before Renaut intervenes. The band continue to defy and elude Charlemagne: Maugis magically disguises himself and steals royal insignia, including the crown; his powers then allow him to escape from shackles in a royal prison. Gradually, Charlemagne is driven mad by his anger, mobilizing all his forces in the hope of crushing the rebels absolutely: ‘never had a king of France gathered such an army’, intones the narrator. Charlemagne laments his inability to win the war: ‘And how can this be, for the love of God, that I have such great force and such great powers, and four knights have done this to me? The French have deceived me and Maugis enchanted me, I know for sure that they have tricked me’. Indeed Charlemagne’s other barons increasingly sympathize with the brothers. Renaut’s defiance even drives Charlemagne to offer up the crown, but his barons refuse to accept it, instead confirming his position as king. They recognize the rightness of his rule despite disagreeing with nearly all his decisions. In face of their reluctance, Charlemagne besieges Montauban again. The brothers flee to Cologne, pursued by Charlemagne, who finally cedes to baronial pressure and makes peace. Renaut goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In his absence, war breaks out again; on his return, peace can be made once more. Finally, Renaut goes to Cologne to work on the construction of a cathedral. The other workers despise him because he works for free and they kill him. Renaut’s body is transported to a church in Trémoigne (identified as modern-day Dortmund) where the bells miraculously ring themselves. Renaut becomes Saint Renaut.

Some voices in the text declare that all revolt is wrong, even blasphemous, and the final episodes suggest that Renaut has penance to do. But he achieves sanctity, and the overall ethical message of the text remains complex. The rebels upset the moral and political order of the entire kingdom, attacking all the material and symbolic foundations of royal authority and legitimacy, but they are nonetheless pariahs. Their plucky and inventive rebellion no doubt explains much of the text’s charm. The chanson de geste version of Renaut survives in thirteen manuscripts, including a Franco-Italian codex, and the narrative drew broad attention from the thirteenth century onwards, with the appearance of reworkings into prose and theatrical forms. There is a notable tradition of Italian versions of the legend, which was also translated into Dutch and German. In France, printed versions, under the title of Les Quatre Fils Aymon, appeared right up to the mid-twentieth century. Renaut and his brothers, underdog heroes, had longstanding appeal.

(This is a revised version of the account given in my Rebel Barons: Resisting Royal Power in Medieval Culture [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017]).

Luke Sunderland
Durham University


Renaut de Montauban, ed. Jacques Thomas (Geneva: Droz, 1989).
Translation (of extracts):
Combarieu du Grès, Micheline de, and Jean Subrenat, trans, Les Quatre Fils Aymon; ou, de Renaut de Montauban (Paris: Gallimard, 1983).
Baudelle-Michels, Sarah, Les Avatars d’une chanson de geste: de ‘Renaut de Montauban’ aux ‘Quatre Fils Aymon’ (Paris: Champion, 2006).
Bloch, R. Howard, Medieval French Literature and Law (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).
Boutet, Dominique, Charlemagne et Arthur; ou, le roi imaginaire (Paris: Champion, 1992).
Calin, William C., The Old French Epic of Revolt: ‘Raoul de Cambrai’, ‘Renaud de Montauban’, ‘Gormond et Isembard’ (Geneva: Droz, 1962).
Haugeard, Philippe, Du ‘Roman de Thèbes’ à ‘Renaut de Montauban’: une genèse sociale des représentations familiales (Paris: PUF, 2002).
Kay, Sarah, The ‘Chansons de Geste’ in the Age of Romance: Political Fictions (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995).
List compiled by Luke Sunderland (Durham University) 
A very extensive bibliography can be found at the ARLIMA website.
The featured image above is taken from an illustrated British Library manuscript.
The Medium database (Répertoire des manuscrits reproduits ou recensés) contains other illuminated manuscripts, : 

The Wikipedia entry on The Four Sons of Aymon contains a paragraph on the tale’s appearance in the visual and performance arts:

Les Quatre Fils Aymon in the puppet theater of Denis Fauconnier, Liège, Belgium.