The legend of Orson of Beauvais is found in only one version: a chanson de geste of about 3,700 rhymed alexandrines, written around 1180-1200, surviving in only one manuscript, written in Lorraine in the late 1200’s.
There are also allusions to the story in Valentine and Orson and in David Aubert’s History of Charles Martel.
ORSON OF BEAUVAIS
In the reign of Charles Martel, Duke Orson of Beauvais helps the king win a war against the rebellion Count Hugh of Berry. After the war, Orson and Hugh become companions. Orson marries Aceline, daughter of Count Huon of Auvergne, and has by her a son, Milon. Hugh stands godfather to the boy. Hugh, unfortunately, falls in love with Aceline. He sneaks into Orson’s chamber at night and pretends to be an angel, ordering him to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Hugh. Orson is suspicious and searches the chamber, but Hugh has gone out the window, and Orson, finding no one, concludes it must have been a real vision. Aceline, woeful, gives Orson a gold ring to send her as a token.
Hugh and Orson travel through France and Italy to Barlette, where Hugh sells Orson to Saracen slavers, subjects of King Isoré of Conibres. Hugh also steals Aceline’s ring. The Saracens offer Orson a chance to convert, which he refuses, and so they imprison him.
Hugh, meanwhile, has bought palm leaves from a Hungarian pilgrim, and now returns home with an elaborate false story: Orson had confessed to him that he had been part of a plot to assassinate King Charles, and to do penance therefore he had decided to become a monk at the Holy Sepulchre. He died shortly afterward, and he begged Hugh to marry his widow, take his fiefs, and raise his son. Charles Martel protests that since Hugh stood godfather to Aceline’s child, it would be incest to marry her. Milon also protests the wedding, as Aceline has no interest in marrying Hugh and neither son nor mother believes that Orson is really dead. Hugh administers a judicious mixture of flattery and bribery to Charles, and the wedding is held, but fortunately, Aceline’s chambermaid gives her a herb she bought from a Slavic merchant which leaves Hugh impotent.
Hugh tries to kill Milon, but a kitchen boy warns Aceline, who arranges for the boy to escape with his tutor Guinemand. (It is never stated how old Milon is at the time, but he is already a strong warrior, though still just a lad.). Hugh beats Aceline and throws her in prison, feeding her once every three days. Meanwhile, Milon refuses to take charity from his mother’s kinsmen, and instead heads for foreign lands. On the way, he and Guinemand pass through Berry, and unfortunately arrive at the castle of Baudri of Bourges, a kinsman of Hugh, who discovers their identity and seizes them, despite Milon’s resistance. He plans to hang them, but his castellan, whose life Orson once saved, persuades him to wait until Hugh can come and watch. Baudri foolishly agrees, and the castellan helps the prisoners escape. The guards sound the alarm, and Baudri pursues, but Guinemand kills him and the fugitives escape, passing through southern France, crossing Roncesvalles, and at last arriving at Compostela. There they take service with some Norman knights who go to succor King Basile of Bile against the Saracen Isoré of Conibres. One of the knights, Forcon, recognizes Milon by his resemblance to Orson, under whom he once served in a war against Floclart of Senlis. The Normans reach Bile, Basile dubs Milon a knight, and Milon and Princess Oriente fall in love. Milon distinguishes himself in battle as Oriente looks on. He fights Isoré, and in the course of trading taunts he reveals that his father Orson was sold to the infidels. Isoré briefly wonders if it could be the Christian he’s holding in his dungeon. The Saracens are repelled.
Basile offers Oriente’s hand to Milon, who accepts it, but refuses to marry her until he has punished Hugh. Isoré returns with an even larger army, but Milon kills him, and the Christians conquer Conibres. They kill the men and baptized the women. Orson is freed from his seven-year’s imprisonment and reunited with his son.
Meanwhile, Hugh has decided to burn Aceline at the stake. Orson’s vassal Count Doon of Clermont, however, rescues her, and a war ensues. Hugh deceives Charles into taking his side, and they lay siege to Clermont, where Aceline and Doon are. The siege lasts six months. Charles at last tells Hugh that he must put Aceline away, and gives him his own niece for his new wife. On the wedding night, the besieged sneak into Charles’ camp and make off with the food.
Orson and company, having visited Jerusalem and bathed in the Jordan, make their way home via Acre, Venice and Rome to France, much to the surprise of the besieged and the besiegers. Hugh, stunned, invents a new story that Orson became a Templar as penance for his attempted assassination of Charles, and begged Hugh to pretend he was dead so as not to embarrass his family. Charles, bewildered, arranges a trial by combat. Milon obtains a dispensation of his godfilial duties from an archbishop in order to fight Hugh and wins. Hugh is hanged in full armor, Orson regains Beauvais, and Milon turns down the offer of Charles’ newly-widowed niece in order to return to Princess Oriante. The poem ends with the statement that he had to endure many hardships before he was wed to her.
VALENTINE AND ORSON
At one point in the story of Valentine and Orson, the titular Orson and his brother-in-law the Green Knight travel to Jerusalem with a knight named Hugh, who has them imprisoned by the Saracens and then forges letters from them saying they intend to stay in Jerusalem fighting the heathens. It is not quite clear whether this is a direct borrowing from Orson of Beauvais or just an odd coincidence.
There can be no doubt, however, that David Aubert’s brief mentions of Orson of Beauvais are owing to the poem. When Charles Martel is fighting Duke Hilaire of Aquitaine, Count (not Duke) Orson of Beauvais is his standard-bearer and distinguishes himself in battle. Hugh is fighting alongside Charles against Hilaire, even though later on he will sell Orson to the Saracens, which is a story David says he does not choose to tell.
SOURCES AND INFLUENCE
There is no historical basis for anything or anyone in the poem, except Charles Martel. Beauvais was never a duchy and never had a lord named Orson.
The lands of Bile and Conibres may be the Portuguese provinces of Beira and Coimbra, or they may be purely imaginary. Bile may also be the same as the Land of Bire, home to King Vivien at the end of the Oxford Roland.
The king in the poem is sometimes called Charles Martel, and sometimes Charlemagne. Since none of the Paladins or the other usual companions of Charlemagne appear, it is most likely that the original intent was Charles Martel.
The poem ends promising a sequel, but if any such was ever written, it is now lost. Perhaps it was never meant to be more than an exciting ending.
Some tapestries (now lost) were made in the 1400’s depicting scenes from the story.
There is a translation in modern French by Michel Lefèvre, which is available from the Beauvais tourist office. There are no English versions of the story.