In Dendermonde the legend of the Four Sons of Aymon is endeared to the people, and they never tire of telling the story in song as well as in prose. Indeed, this legend is perhaps the best preserved of all throughout Flanders.Some Old Flemish Towns by George Wharton Edwards (1911)
The first time I heard the whispers, I was standing along a tranquil bend in the Ambleve river looking up at castle ruins. It started out as a bleak December day. Two years ago, in fact. By the end of the day, the sun was shining, giving hope and color, which at the time was in great deficit. It was as if some veil not only had been lifted from the landscape but from the mystique of the land and of a history long pre-dating what we today call Belgium. It was my first introduction to the legend of the Les Quatre Fils Aymon. The Four Sons of Aymon.
To give a detailed recounting of the plot summary of the Les Quatre Fils Aymon would be about as clumsy a venture for a non-historian as trying to fish a piece of eggshell from a bowl of egg yoke. It is a legend that dates back to 12th century France which managed to take on a life of its own, constantly changing as it weaved its way into different cultures and languages. At its most rudimentary, it is a cycle of stories about the exploits of four brothers led by Renaud (or Reynault) who revolted against Charlemagne. They ride a magical horse named Bayard which is able to carry all four brothers at the same time and leap across rivers. There is also the enchanter Maugis who builds them a castle in the Ardennes called Montressor to hide out in. In the end, the brothers reach a truce with Charlemagne and are forced to surrender Bayard. Charlemagne tries to drown Bayard by tying a millstone around it’s neck with a chain and throwing it in the River Meuse, but Bayard manages to heroically escape and disappear into the Ardennes forest.
From the moment this legend entered my conscience, I have seen signs of it everywhere. From Dinant, where several of the landmarks have been incorporated into the legend, to Sedan in France with its suburb Noyers-Pont-Maugis named after the enchanter and a tourist information sign stating “Here wander the shadows of Renaud the knight, of Bayard the horse, of Maugis the enchanter…” to Etten-Leur in the Netherlands where an emblem resembling the horse and four riders is prominently mounted on the outside of a school. Below are the adventures so far which have included some intersection with this legend. And I expect many more to come.
Four Sons of Aymon Sightings
January mud and flooding can’t wash away a legendary romance which lives on in Dinant Continue reading Beer & Hike: La Croisette de Dinant
Having beers with Van Gogh Pt. 1 Continue reading Beer & Bike: Van Gogh – Zundert to Breda
Hiking, ham, and hops. Nowhere combines all three better than Rochehaut in the Ardennes. Continue reading Beer & Hike: Brasserie de Rochehaut
While Les Quatre Fils Aymon legend has more of a Franco origin and feel to it, nowhere does this legend seems to live on more lavishly than in Dutch-speaking Flanders, Belgium. Several Flemish communities celebrate the story of the Ros Beiaard (Dutch form of Bayard) with processionals, called Ommegangs, where the story is played out with large giant puppets and elaborate floats which include depictions of other historical or mythical characters as well. The most famous of these is in Dendermonde, where a UNESCO-certified Ommegang takes place every 10 years. The Ros Beiaard centerpiece is always ridden by four boys, who must all be brothers, born in Dendermonde and born consecutively without other siblings in between.
Dendermonde and its Ommegang
The last Ommegang of Dendermonde took place in May 2022. Even without the Ommegang, the city flourishes with horse iconography everywhere you look. Even the town hall proudly calls itself the “City of Ros Beiaard”.
Ommegang of Lier
The town of Lier also has an Ommegang which occurs every five years including October 2022.
This is Belgium so naturally a legend this big will find its way into the beer culture.
This Dendermonde brewery uses the Ros Beiaard in its Vicaris logo. They are also responsible for brewing the special Ros Beiaard beer in the featured photo.
Ros Beiaard Aymon Beer
Brewed by the Ros Beiaard Bierproevers in Dendermonde.
This beer distributor in Dendermonde is the place to find any Ros Beiaard beers.
Bayard contemptuously shook off the heavy stone and with steam pouring from his nostrils gave three neighs of derision and triumph and climbing the opposite bank vanished into the gloom of the forest where none dared to follow. Of the immortality of this great horse history is emphatic and gravely states that, for all that is known to the contrary, he may still be at large in the Ardennes but that “no man has since beheld him.”Some Old Flemish Towns by George Wharton Edwards (1911)
When Bayard escaped, the pounding of one his hooves is said to have created this rock formation near Dinant.
It is puzzling to me why places like Dendermonde and Lier are at the center of the Four Sons of Aymon legend. The legend exists in the Ardennes and its mysterious forests, along the winding picturesque rivers like the Meuse, Ambleve, and Ourthe which turn the Ardennes into a series of peninsular hideaways perfect for castles and castle ruins where legends can thrive. The Ros Beiaard procession in Dendermonde seems to have its beginning in 1801 during a birthday celebration for Napoleon I. Since then as other Flemish towns took on the tradition, Dendermonde outdid the competition and became the most prestigious of all of them. I don’t hear or feel the whispers and vibrations of the legend in cities like Dendermonde or Lier. Yet they remain the proud windows into this region’s Middle Age past, where Charlemagne was not portrayed as the great Father of Europe as he is known today, but as the villain in a tragic tale of a group of local heroes who for a time rebelled against the establishment. But this was the Middle Ages, a time of great religious control. So cheering on the rebels might have been tolerated for a time, but surely their exploits must come to a satisfactory conclusion for proper religious order. The heroes were made to repent, sent off to the Crusades; Renaud later becoming a friar in Cologne. If Bayard is still “at large”, he won’t be found strolling the cobbled streets of any Flemish town. He would be hiding away somewhere in an Ardennes grotto or crouched in the vine-covered remains of some old chateau once owned by a forgotten baron. And 1200 years later still snorting in laughter every time he pictures Charlemagne’s shocked face as Bayard tossed that millstone aside like a bag of leaves and leapt off into the forest and forever into the imagination of his descendents.