Utopian Thinking and Entitlement in Huon De Bordeaux

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Believed to have been composed between 1216 and 1268 (Raby 1998: 9-17), the 10,553-verse chanson de geste Huon de Bordeaux distinguishes itself from its predecessors in that its appurtenance to the chanson- or epic- genre is matter of debate. Beginning in the familiar setting of the seemingly unending strife between barons and king that characterises stories of the Carolingian court, the narrative takes a surprising turn when, after accidently killing the crown prince, a disgruntled and wrongly dishonoured Huon is sent off on a quest to the mysterious East in order to regain his monarch’s favour. Leaving Charlemagne’s world of soiled ethos and arbitrary politics, Huon embarks on a mission to the distant city Babylon where, if he finally reaches the city’s court, he must decapitate the first man he sees, kiss the emir Gaudisse’s daughter Esclarmonde three times, present the king of France’s order to the whole court to submit and become his vassals, then recuperate and bring back to Charlemagne the emir’s moustache and 4 of his molars.

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As Luke Sunderland notes, it is on this journey rich in magic and mystery that the text departs from its classic epic setting, ‘showing elements associated with romance, folklore, pilgrimage literature, the crusade cycle of epics, and even Exodus’ (2012: 289).  It has been called a text ‘d’un genre mixte’ (Guessard 1860: 5, as cited in Sunderland 2012) and was termed as “hybrid” by Keith Busby (2008: 144, as cited in Sunderland 2012) because, as Sunderland explains, the lineage of Huon’s magical companion Auberon the dwarf (son of Julius Caesar who, according to the text, held Armenia, Austria, Hungary, and Constantinople, and Morgan le Fay) anchors the poem in all three of Jehan Bodel’s literary categories: the matière de France, the matière de Rome, and the matière de Bretagne.

However, this essay will seek not to participate in the dialectically rich discourse on the question of genre in Huon de Bordeaux[1] but rather to focus on what Sunderland calls the ‘utopian project’ (2012: 292) made possible by the ‘fusion of generic materials’ (292) in the chanson, and in particular with regard to William Burgwinkle’s idea that ‘utopian thinking found in vernacular texts contemporary with the Crusades feeds into fantasies of entitlement’ (2006: 552).

Centuries older than More’s eponymous work, utopian theory in medieval epic and romance is mostly limited to the recovery of the Earthly Paradise which, in turn, is ‘confused with the crusading initiative itself’ (Burgwinkle 2006: 541) and therefore serves to justify Western invasion. Developing Burgwinkle’s idea, I will seek to demonstrate that the utopian thinking in Huon is indicative of Western Christian fantasies of entitlement, symptomized by the fact that ‘promises of absolute fulfilment and eradication of unworthy predecessors’ (Burgwinkle 2006: 552) sufficed to convince the Western Christian community of ‘its rightful mastery of a place in the name of divine volition or manifest destiny’ (552).

This essay will begin by examining the utopian elements of the Huon de Bordeaux narrative, including their significance within the text and the broader socio-political context, then it will seek to demonstrate that these elements are intrinsically linked and inherently dependent on a Western Crusade.

Utopia as a place is discovered in Babylon, in the emir’s garden. Every species of tree grows there (‘Dieu ne fist arbre que fruit peüst porter/Que on n’eüst ens es vergiez planteit.’[2] lines 5661-2) and a magical fountain whose source lies in Heaven itself trickles peacefully (‘Une fontainne y sort per son channielz,/De parraidis vint li ruix, san doubter.’ lines 5663-4). The fountain and the stream that feeds it have miraculous powers, such as rejuvenation for men and revirginization for women. The allusion to Heaven and the mention of a snake guarding the transmogrifying water (“Celle fontainne, .j. serpant la gardoit” line 5678) help assert the identity of the place as the Earthly Paradise.

However, Utopia in Huon encompasses far more than its physical state in Babylon. The world of the East generally, and the journey through it, actively participate in the utopian project of the chanson. The mysterious realm proves to be a veritable cornucopia of solutions to the problems faced by the hero -both the new and those he left behind- providing wealth and riches but also supernatural help and valuable allies at the times when he needs them most.

Huon’s demise was originally caused by Amaury, a member of the infamous clan of traitors. They constitute an undefeatable evil, not only because their offspring will always perpetuate their malice but also because they are, after all, fellow barons. As members of such a class they are protected, and chansons often make them even more untouchable by having them manoeuvre themselves into the King’s favour. The East has no place for such ambiguities or politics, and instead of dishonourable schemers Huon finds clearly defined enemies that can be attacked and vanquished without hinderance. Unlike the traitors of Charles’s court, they can be permanently defeated and are, furthermore, embodiments of evil itself: a monstrous eighteen-foot giant by the name of l’Orgueilleux with eyes that burn like coals, and later his equally terrifying brother Agrapart

 Huon also defeats Dudon, his own uncle and former Christian turned traitor and pagan. The East distinguishes itself from the West not because it is free of evil but because the separation between friend and foe is clear. Enemies are real monsters, not political opponents, and even traitors can be permanently disposed of.The Orient offers a simpler world than Carolingian court, where ‘ethical opacity’ (Sunderland 2012: 294) is replaced by a ‘black-and-white paradigm of good and evil’ (294).

King Charlemagne fails as a ruler in the Huon narrative, unleashing unrestrained anger on the hero even after he wins the trial by combat and then sending him on a mission designed all but to take his life. Ironically, it is on this mission that Huon encounters an unusual ally, displaying all the characteristics a king should aspire to possess. Auberon, magical and all-powerful Christian dwarf, functions as a surrogate monarch to the Bordelais hero. He possesses immeasurable military might and wealth, but is also merciful, pious and just. Taking on the role of mentor, he guides and advises Huon while also showing a firm hand, giving clear commands to make sure he follows the right path. When these orders are disobeyed, which the reckless young knight often chooses to do, Auberon does not condemn him as Charles would but instead shows mercy. As Huon attacks Dudon in Tormont, despite having been forbidden to do so, the son of Caesar magically appears with an army of 100.000 men to aid him (Or me sohaide ou li cor ait sonnés,/En ma compaingne .c.m. homme armés’ lines 4536-7).

He stands in further contrast to Charles and his court through the importance he accords to honesty, piety and other moral and religious values. While seeking entry to Babylon, Huon is forced to lie, claiming ‘Paien sus je’ (line 5552) and in doing so temporarily falls from Auberon’s favour. Similarly, after disregarding his master’s prohibition of bedding Esclarmonde before they are married in Rome, Huon is punished by a storm, shipwrecked, and then attacked by pirates. Auberon helps his protégé become a better knight and Christian, leading and guiding him in the way Charlemagne should. He is favoured by God, explaining at the end of the epic that a seat at His side awaits him in Heaven (‘Car Nostre Sire le m’ ait, certe, mander ;/Mez siege est a son costeit parer’ lines 10758-9).

Charles, on the other hand, is humiliated when his unsuccessful attempt at drinking from the magic chalice reveals his lack of pure and noble heart (‘Et il lou prant, qu’il ne l’ ozait veer;/Luez qu’i le tint, li vin en est aller’ lines 10554-5). As Sunderland states: ‘there is an unambiguous contract between the two parties with clear terms and conditions providing for aid, which stands in clear contrast to Charles's vindictive and irrational rule’ (2012: 296).

Huon de Bordeaux is no different to many of its fellow chansons de geste of the 13th century in that it expresses the unease of barons in the face of rising royal power and a unified France. Often anachronistically set in Carolingian times, conflict between the King and the aristocracy is a familiar theme of literary production of the period, partly attributed to the reign of Philip Augustus. Barons were reluctantly forced to submit more and more to the throne, and this might explain the extent of Charlemagne’s negative portrayal in Huon. The narrative (and through it the Orient) provides a solution to this problem by having Auberon bequeath his kingdom of Monmur to Huon, promising him the throne in three years’ time (‘D’uy en .iij. ans a Monmur en vanrez,/Si averez toute ma roialteit,/Et avuec ceu avrez ma digniteit’ lines 10743-5).

This conclusion is a fantasy resolution to the baron-king conflict, where both are able to rule without impeding on the other. Auberon makes clear to Huon however, that he should by no means wage war against Charles (‘Se te deffant sor lez mambre coper/Que ver le roy n’aie mais estriver’ lines 10763-4). The text does not call for conflict and rebellion as other chansons in the Doon de Mayence cycle do. The aim here is peace, a happy ending where everyone benefits, a utopia made solely possible by the East and its conquering.

Huon’s motivation to conquer the East seems to extend beyond the completion of his quest or the acquisition of material wealth. Under the aegis of Auberon, the young knight leads a veritable one-man crusade through pagan lands. The holy-war agenda is made apparent in moments like the fall of Tormont, when Auberon promises that all who convert to Christianity will come to no harm: ‘Qui Dieu vuelt croire, il n’I arait ja meil.’ (line 4557). The same promise is reiterated verbatim after the capture of Babylon: ‘Que Dieu vault croire, il n'i avrait ja meil’ (line 6964). It is in fact an ultimatum, and all who do not convert face death. Huon displays his ruthlessness towards non-believers during the Aufalerne battle, which ends in a genocide (‘nez ung tout soul ne laissent eschepper’ line 8479). As stated in the introduction, the search for Utopia and the crusading initiative often overlap and serve each other. They are intrinsically linked and the narration of the violent side of crusade, far from being a hinderance, further underpins the value of the East as a solution to all antagonisms. Huon’s foes are as much his own as those of God. The monstrous giant l’Orgueilleux swears by Mohammed (‘per Mahommet mon dei!’ line 5113) and was engendered by Beelzebub (‘Ains m’engerra Beugibus’ line 5140).

Similarly the treacherous uncle Dudon has renounced God and martyrs all Christians in his reach: ‘Qu’i ne tient homme, se il croit Damedei,/Qu’i ne lou faice a martir[e] livrer’ (lines 3985-6). These enemies are seen as ‘divine gifts that allow the pilgrim to manifest his faith and perform the requisite acts of Christian valour’ (2006: 542), writes Burgwinkle. He develops this further with the help of Geraldine Heng’s ‘healing and aggressive properties’ (Heng 2001: 136, as cited in Burgwinkle 2006) of romance, proposing that the adjectives are consequentially linked, that is ‘healing because aggressive, aggressive only in order to heal’ (553). The true horrors of crusade are masked as a necessary evil, a deed that must be done. When the hero returns from his journey of death and destruction, he is rewarded with a royal pardon and a kingdom of his own. This cements the text’s message: conquering the East will achieve universal peace and prosperity, in other words, Utopia.

Because, as Sunderland argues, Utopia is something not only depicted in Huon but also practiced (2012: 297), achieved. The successful union of East and West under the Christian God, and its ensuing peace, is the professed apogeal aim of crusade. This promise of an idyllic ending therefore serves as justification for Western conquest of the East, as do in fact all its various depictions. Every element of the East’s ambiguous portrait contributes in some way to the justification of invasion. As Burgwinkle remarks, they ‘feed into fantasies of entitlement’ (552) and appropriation of these foreign lands metamorphoses from desire to necessity, a right that is being unfairly denied. (In a typically Orientalist manner)

The Orient is a place of extravagant and immeasurable wealth, with scintillating palaces of gold and precious stones, but evil giants and cruel Saracens are standing in the way. When Huon enters the giant l’Orgueilleux’s bedroom, he finds a blanket made of ‘un paile d’ oultremer’, sheets of ‘soie naturel’ and a pillow that ‘valloit .c. livrez de denier menoieit’, filled with ‘Roussel d’ oultremelz’ feathers (lines 4959-63). The mention of the provenance of the materials, outremer, as an indicator of luxury reveals the extent of the (Orientalist) fantasy surrounding the East’s legendary opulence. It is also a not so foreign land. Huon finds Christians there, like Hondré the provost in Tormont or Gériaume near Auberon’s forest (line 2968), who becomes a mighty friend and ally. The hero even comes across his own cousin Sebille, held captive in l’Orgueilleux’s castle. This seeks to reinforce the paradoxical notion that the East is both mysterious, dangerous and also waiting to be rescued, in desperate want and need of Western invasion.

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Crusade is God’s will and the text makes clear that Huon and his mission have divine sanction. This is noticeable during the trial by combat when Huon receives a divine blessing (‘Mais la vertus de Dieu de parraidis[…]Ont si Huon en sa vertus remis/Que il dollour ne nul mal ne santit’ lines 2110-3) and later through the figure of Auberon, who’s powers hail from Jesus (‘Et dou povoir que Jhesu m’ait donnér’ line 3437) and who dictates Christian precepts. One can see in these fantasies of entitlement an attempt to appease anxiety stemming from the doubts emerging at the time over the efficacity of crusade as the solution to overcome cultural clash with the East. The horrors of crusade are rewritten as ‘fairy-tale fantasy’ (Sunderland 2012: 298).

As Luke Sunderland remarks, the portrayal of the Orient in Huon is ambiguous. It is ‘partly a strange and distant land waiting to be freed from giants and tyrants, partly a prohibited realm of beauty, riches, and wonder, and partly the rightful home of Christians, populated by potential allies and converts’ (2012: 297). These conflicting and in theory mutually exclusive portrayals of the East aim to convey the same idea however, that it is a paradise waiting to be conquered by the West, already populated by magical friends and family but under the yoke of unfit and monstrous rulers. Utopia exists in the form of the emir Gaudisse’s garden in Babylon. The journey to that garden however, and its conquest with the help of Auberon, is rich in crusade overtones. The foes he defeats on the way are clearly denominated enemies of the Christian God and the West, spawn of the fantastical world of romance and the crusade agenda, like l’Orgueilleux or Dudon.

Inversely, his greatest helper Auberon is on numerous occasions an enunciator and defender of Christian dogma and has a place at God’s side in Heaven. The fantastical and the mysterious, to which medieval utopian thought belongs, is therefore heavily intertwined with religious warfare, and serves to appease conquest anxiety by justifying Western presence in the East. Huon’s conclusion is unmistakable: Utopia awaits but it is currently in undeserving Muslim hands, awaiting to be conquered and returned to its rightful owners, the Christian West.


Baldwin, John W. (1991), The Government of Philip Augustus: Foundations of French Royal Power in the Middle Ages, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burgwinkle, William (2006), ‘Utopia and Its Uses: Twelfth-Century Romance and History’, Journal Of Medieval And Early Modern Studies, 36(3): 539-560.

Busby, Keith (2008), 'Narrative genres', in Simon Gaunt & Sarah Kay (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval French Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 159-52.

Guessard, François & Charles Loizeau de Grandmaison(eds) (1860), Huon de Bordeaux; chanson de geste, Paris: F. Vieweg. pp.2

Heng, Geraldine (2001), ‘The Romance of England: Richard Coeur de Lyon, Saracens, Jews, and the Politics of Race and Nation’, in Jerome Cohen (eds), Postcolonial Middle Ages, New York: Palgrave, pp. 135–71, at 136.

Jodra, Serge (2004-15), ‘Huon de Bordeaux’, in Imago Mundi: Encyclopédie Gratuite en Ligne. http://www.cosmovisions.com/textHuon.htm (accessed 8 January 2020).

Kibler, William W. & François Suard (2003), Huon de Bordeaux, Paris: H. Champion.

Raby, Michel J. (1998), Le "Huon de Bordeaux" en prose du XVe siècle, New York: P. Lang.

Sunderland, Luke (2012), ‘Genre, Ideology, and Utopia in “Huon de Bordeaux”’, Medium Ævum, 81(2): 289-302.

[1] For a more in-depth discussion on genre in Huon, see Sunderland: 2012

[2] All quotes from the chanson are from the Kibler and Suard edition


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