Like today, the Middle Ages had great sinners. Unlike today, it also had great penitents. The story of Renaud de Montauban

January 9, 2020

[T]he following little known tale is from Renans de Montauban, in which the hero of the fine poem, after a severe retrospective examination of all his past life, takes the resolution to quit “the world,” and devote himself to Heaven. The dominant grief is that he has slain a whole troop of men in his time.

Par moi sont mort mil homme, dent j’ai de cuer dolent” [A thousand men have met their deaths through me, and thus my heart sorrows], he cries.

Renaud, a workman at Cologne

War, which formerly seemed to him so grand and beautiful, in such radiant colors, now appears either brutal or criminal, and he only thinks of saving his soul, he wants no more, “Se puis m’ame salver, plus ne demant noient” [If I can thus save my soul, I will demand nothing else].

The time too is well chosen for such an eminently Christian resolution. Renaud has made his fortune, he is overweighted with happiness; his children have vanquished the traitors who had opposed them and were in possession of their fiefs; his brothers lived in peace amid the glories of former exploits. All was well: Renaud wanted no more here below save to live amid his friends and relatives and do penance. He resolutely proceeded to carry out his plan.

In the middle of the night when all was silent in the castle he rose, dressed in beggar’s clothes, and with naked feet silently descended the stairs. The porter awakened was very much surprised to see his lord and master at such an hour and in such a costume.

Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, also known as Cologne Cathedral. Painting by Carl Hasenpflug.

“I shall go and call your sons and brothers,” he said.

“Do so; but only tell them to pray for me, and that I send them greeting.”

“What more shall I say?”

“As my last advise, my latest wish, I leave them these words. ‘Let them seek to do good!’”

“And whither goest thou in this condition?”

“I go to save my soul, and to live a holy life.”

On that the porter permitted him to pass out, and the great Renaud, the conqueror, the hero who had held Charlemagne in check, and delivered Saint Sepulcher, fled like a thief across the fields, wrapped in his capote, with his eyes fixed on the ground, not daring to look behind him. He ran away seeing safety far away from his home which contained all that was dear to him on earth.

But soon the day dawned and Renaud’s sons awoke and went to chapel. On ordinary occasions Renaud preceded them thither and heard Matins with them. But on that morning they did not see their father, and they began accordingly to feel uneasy. “Renaud, where is Renaud?” They searched for him in all directions, they ran to his chamber, the bed was empty! The baron’s armor, his sword, lance, and accoutrements were all there, and his horse was in the stable.

“Renaud! Where is Renaud?”

Then the porter came and informed them of what had passed during the night. “You will never see him again,” said he, “and listen now to what he bade me tell you.” Then he delivered the baron’s message, exhorting them to love one another. The young men wept and bemoaned themselves, and after a while they mounted their horses and, proceeding to the sanctuary, beat at the gate until eventide. In vain!

Yet while they were thus seeking him whom they regretted so dearly, a man of giant stature, all in rags, was hiding himself in the thick forest, eating wild fruits and debating in his own mind in what monastery and in what form of religion he could expiate in a worthy manner his sinful life. This man was Renaud, who had rushed away in a hurry to save his soul, and scarcely paused until he reached Cologne, where he died, a poor workman, a worker in the service of God—one of the masons of Saint Peter’s.

León Gautier, Chivalry, trans. Henry Frith (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1891), 371–2

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 708


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