The Manuscript Tradition and Reception of the Huon d’Auvergne, a Franco-Italian romance-epic

by Stephen P. McCormick (Washington and Lee University)


The Huon d’Auvergne romance-epic occupies a unique status in the Franco-Italian manuscript corpus as it is the only one that survives in multiple manuscript versions. Three complete or almost complete manuscripts and one fragment of 1261 lines conserve the Huon epic as we know it today. [1]  The Berlin manuscript is dated 1341 and the Turin version a century later, 1441. The Padua manuscript dates from the end of the fourteenth century or the early fifteenth century, and the Barbieri fragment, as it is known, preserves only the Hell voyage scene of the epic and is dated to the fourteenth century. [2]  The text of the Huon epic was known as early as the last quarter of the twelfth century, when Andreas Cappellanus references the Sofia episode of the epic in his De Amore. In circa 1170, Guiraut de Cabrera, a troubadour poet, mentions a “Alvernatz Uguon.” [3]


The Huon epic’s hell episode is one of the first texts to allude to or cite Dante’s Commedia and, because of these references, the Hell section must have been composed in the 1320s at the earliest, after Dante’s work had been diffused throughout the Italian peninsula. [4]  The numerous manuscripts of Andrea da Barberino’s Ugone d’Alvernia, a prose adaptation of the Franco-Italian Huon epic composed around 1400, [5] and a 1487-88 version in ottava rima by Michelagnolo da Volterra, testify to the lasting popularity of the epic. The Huon epic persisted in early sixteenth-century printed editions, which draw their material from the Michelagnolo da Volterra version of the epic.


All four textual witnesses are written in the Franco-Italian literary language, which is characteristic of northern Italian epic, using to varying degrees Old French lexical and morphological features embedded within an Italianate base language. The four texts of the Huon d’Auvergne exemplify the linguistic spectrum of the Franco-Italian idiom: B and Br conserve a mix of Old French elements and northern Italian features, T is mostly Tuscan with the occasional northern feature, and P incorporates French lexical elements in the rhymes of verses in the Veneto dialect. The Padua manuscript uses French lexemes at the end of verses and demonstrates one of the many creative uses of French in these epic texts.


Like most medieval and early modern epic texts, the author of the Huon d’Auvergne is unknown. B, P, and T do indicate however an elusive figure named “Odinel” as the narration’s redactor: “Com or devisse Odinel en roman” (Berlin MS fol. 49ra); “com or devissa Ondinelo yn questo roman” (Turin); [6] “De ondinel se cunta che…” (Padua fol. 56v). Luisa A. Meregazzi, in her study “L’Ugo d’Alvernia: poema franco-italiano,” and Carla Giacon, in her unpublished thesis “La redazione padovana dell’Huon d’Auvergne: studio, edizione, glossario, tesi,” theorize an original French text, now lost. [7]  There are traces of the ownership history of the extant manuscripts and references to them appear in the library catalogues of Renaissance Italian ruling families. Manuscript B is listed as item 21 in the 1407 Gonzaga family library: “21. Item. Ugo de Alvernia. Incipit:Altens de mais quant furent li preel.Et finit: En sont sant regne. Continent cart. 83.” [8]  Similar entries exist in the 1437 Estense family catalogue and in the 1488 catalogue of the same family as item 49, “Liber dectus Alvernascus.” The Visconti family also had a copy of the text, which is in the inventory of the Visconti-Sforzesca library compiled by Ser Facino da Fabriano on 6 June 1459. [9]  This same codex also appears in the earlier 1426 Consignatio librorum. Another curious reference appears in an English source; on 4 November 1472, Sir John Paston writes to his brother concerning a range of topics, including a lost diamond ring, a pregnant duchess and a new hawk for his brother, and ends: “I feere me that idelnesse ledythe yowre reyne. I praye yow rathere remembre Ser Hughe Lavernoys tyll yowre hauke come.” [10]  The reference to “Ser Hughe Lavernoys” suggests that the Huon story circulated well beyond the Italian peninsula.


The principal protagonists of the Huon story are Carlo Martello, the king; Huon d’Auvergne, who is sent to Hell; his wife, Ynide; Sofia, the wife of Sanguino, who is Huon’s good friend; and Sandino, a minstrel sent to seduce Ynide by King Carlo Martello. The epic consists of six main narrative segments and no manuscript version contains all of the six episodes. The episodes are: Sofia’s betrayal; Carlo Martello’s love for Ynide; Huon’s travels through the East and his visit to the lands of Prester John; Ynide’s defense; Huon’s journey through Hell; and finally the siege of Rome. In the first episode, which is present only in P and in Andrea da Barberino’s version, Sofia betrays her husband Sanguino (who is also Huon’s good friend), and reveals her love for Huon. The plot is uncovered, however, and Sofia and her chambermaid are eventually both burned at the stake, while Sanguino and Huon are reunited. This section follows the biblical plot of Potiphar’s wife. The second segment tells how Carlo Martello falls in love with Huon’s wife, Ynide. In order to gain access to Ynide, Carlo Martello follows the advice of his minstrel Sandino and takes advantage of Huon’s extreme loyalty to Carlo; Carlo asks him to go to Hell and seek tribute from Lucifer himself. The third episode tells of Huon’s travels through the Holy Land and through the lands of Prester John. The traveler’s journey becomes more and more allegorical as he approaches the entrance to Hell. In the fourth episode, which recounts what happens in the meantime back in Auvergne, Carlo sends his minstrel Sandino (or, in other versions, a large envoy of ambassadors) to reveal the king’s love for Ynide. Ynide’s brothers Baldoin and Tomas, who are left in charge of Huon’s lands, punish the king’s envoy by cutting off his nose, cutting out his tongue and poking out an eye. Carlo subsequently besieges the castle, but fails to take it. The fifth episode recounts Huon’s descent and journey through Hell. During this journey, Huon’s guides are first a devil, then Aeneas and the epic hero Guillaume d’Orange together. The pilgrim visits sinners who suffer torments befitting the sins they had committed in life. Finally, Lucifer gives Huon the tribute that Carlo had asked for. Huon wakes up in his own castle and when the tribute is given to King Carlo, Carlo is carried off by devils. A sixth and final scene, which does not exist in P but is conserved in B, T and in Andrea da Barberino’s version, tells of a Saracen siege of Rome, which occurs immediately after Huon’s return home. The Pope calls on the Germans and the French for help and promises the Imperial crown to those who succeed in pushing the Saracens back. Ultimately the Germans succeed in winning the Imperial crown, even though the French were the ones to save the city. Huon dies in this last combat against the Germans.


The variations between manuscript sources reveal information about the epic’s readership. Variations on female authority between the P version and the B-T version, for example, demonstrate that the epic underwent significant changes for different audience contexts. In P Huon’s wife Nida is much more reticent and takes a much more insignificant role as compared to her counterpart in the B-T tradition. Huon’s voyage through the lands of the East and through the kingdom of Prester John testifies to the impact of cartographic and geographic knowledge on Italian epic texts. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as Italy’s most important commercial centers sought to solidify economic opportunity in the East, Italian epic’s reading audience eagerly sought news and information from exotic destinations abroad. Renewed and sustained interest in classical sources related to the travels of Alexander and classical geographers such as Herodotus, Pliny and Ptolemy were tapped as sources for passages like Huon’s journey to the mouth of Hell.


Despite its popularity among medieval and early modern audiences, the Huon d’Auvergne epic has not until recently received sustained and detailed scholarly attention. A scholarly digital edition and translation project is currently underway and aims to make the text accessible to a larger audience. In addition, new insights into the proliferation of medieval French language and epic throughout Italy and the Mediterranean will hopefully lead to renewed interest into the Huon epic and into the Franco-Italian corpus.





[1]   The manuscripts of the Huon d’Auvergne epic are: Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett 78 D 8; Padua, Biblioteca del Seminario vescovile, 32; Turin, Biblioteca nazionale, N III 19; Bologna, Biblioteca dell’Archiginnasio B 3489. There is at least one missing manuscript witness, composed in octaves and from Carcassonne. This missing text did not conserve the Franco-Italian Huon d’Auvergne, but rather a version of the later cantare version Carolo Martello e Ugo conte d’Alvernia. See Joseph Anglade, “Notice sur un manuscrit de Ugo d’Alvernia,” in Romania 45 (1918-19), 108-19; and Gloria Allaire, “Considerations on Huon d’Auvergne/Ugo d’Alvernia,” in Viator 32 (2001): 185-203. Esp. 186-87; 201.

[2]   For information on the codicological tradition of the Huon d’Auvergne epic, see Allaire, “Considerations on Huon d’Auvergne/Ugo d’Alvernia.” See also the doctoral dissertation by Michela Scattolini, “Richerche sulla tradizione dell’Huon d’Auvergne,” (Doctoral thesis, Università degli Studi di Siena, 2010).

[3]   Allaire, p. 186 and 201. There is debate surrounding the date of Guerau de Cabrera’s ensenhamen, but it is generally accepted to have been composed between 1150 -1180. Stefano Cingolani argues that the text was composed at the very end of the twelfth century. See Stefano Cingolani, “The Sirventes-ensenhamen of Guerau de Cabrera: A proposal for a New Interpretation,” in Journal of Hispanic Research 1 (1992-93), 191-201.

[4]   For a discussion of citations of Dante in the Huon d’Auvergne epic, see Leslie Zarker Morgan, “Literary Afterlives in Huon d’Auvergne: ‘The Art of [Dantean] Citation’,” in “Accessus ad auctores”: Studies in Honor of Christopher Kleinhenz,” edited by Fabian Alfie and Andrea Dini (Tempe, AC: ACMRS, 2011), 61-74.

[5]   Allaire, p. 201.

[6]   This line, otherwise unpublished, is cited by Arturo Graf, “Di un poema inedito di Carlo Martello e di Ugo conte d’Alvernia,” Giornale di filologia romanza 1 (1878): 97.

[7]   Luisa A. Meregazzi, “L’Ugo d’Alvernia: poema franco-italiano,” Studi Romanzi 27 (1937): 69; Carla Giacon, “La redazione padovana dell’Huon d’Auvergne: studio, edizione, glossario, tesi” (unpublished manuscript, 1960-61), Università degli Studi di Padova, 14-15.

[8]   Willelmo Braghirolli, “Inventaire des manuscrits en langue française possédés par Francesco Gonzaga I, capitaine de Mantoue, mort en 1407,” Romania 36 (1880): 508.

[9]   Cited in Giacon, “Redazione padovana,” 22-23.

[10]   Andrew Breeze, “Sir John Paston on Ser Hughe Lavernoys,” Notes and Queries 48 (March 2001): 10-11.