Melusine

Melusine

‘Melusine came to Lusignan and circled it three times, shrieking woefully in a plaintive female voice. Up in the fortress and in the town below, people were utterly amazed; they knew not what to think, for they could see the form of a serpent, yet they heard the lady’s voice issuing forth from it’.

                                                Jean d’Arras, Roman de Mélusine (1393), M 260-261.[1]

Image of Melusine as a mermaid/serpent from Le Livre de Mélusine (Geneva, 1478).

The story of the fairy Melusine dates from the late fourteenth-century, but has its origins in many human-hybrid folktales of the oral tradition.[2] Melusine, a daughter of a human father and a fairy mother, could be said to have started life as a hybrid and in the course of her mythical career exhibited a number of different hybrid forms. Having transgressed against her father, she was cursed by her mother, the fairy Presine, to turn into a serpent every Saturday. Her only hope of salvation was to find a man who would love her enough to a) respect her privacy every Saturday; and b) if he ever did find out that she was part serpent, to ignore this fact and keep her secret.

The story (or perhaps in Melusine’s case we should say the tale), tells us that Melusine met Count Raymondin, and the two fell in love. Together they had ten sons, eight of whom bore some mark of their fairy ancestry and many of whom proved to be fearsome warriors. Melusine and Raymondin remained very much in love until one day Raymondin’s cousin, the Count of Forez, counselled Raymondin to find out what his wife actually did on a Saturday. Could she be having an affair? Why was there such mystery? The doubts gnawed at Raymondin until eventually he decided to spy on her and, when he did, he realised that Melusine’s secret was that she was only part human. From the waist upwards she was a beautiful woman, but from the waist down, she was a serpent – as we see in this woodcut from one of the first printed versions of the story.

But what type of hybrid creature was she? As the images above and below demonstrate, categorizing Melusine proved difficult. In the 1478 woodcut of the French editio princeps she is very much like a mermaid, although her tail is that of a serpent, rather than a fish. Her chronicler Jean d’Arras tells us that when Raymondin saw Melusine in her bathtub ‘from her head to her navel she had the form of a woman and was combing her hair; and from her navel down she had the form of a serpent’s tail, as thick as a herring barrel, and very long, and she was splashing her tail in the water so much that she made it shoot up to the ceiling’.[3] In the image below, from a contemporary manuscript, we see that she is depicted with wings (an allusion to her final transformation into a dragon), for Melusine’s story did not end with the initial betrayal by Raymondin.[4]

Image of Melusine as a serpent with wings from Le Roman de Mélusine by Jean d’Arras, fifteenth-century manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

As Jean d’Arras’ Mélusine ou La Noble Histoire de Lusignan, written c. 1393 relates, Melusine decided to forgive Raymondin’s initial transgression. However, following the murder of one of their sons by another, Raymondin publicly denounced his wife, blaming her for her son’s murderous/monstrous nature. It was at this point that the curse came into effect because Raymondin had publicly repudiated her. As her mother Presine had foretold, Melusine was now condemned to become wholly serpent and had lost all hope of becoming human:

If you had not been false I would have been spared pain and torment, and I would have lived like a natural [human] woman, and I would have died a natural death, with all my sacraments, and I would have been buried in the church of Notre Dame de Lusignan, and my day would have been celebrated. But you have inflicted upon me an obscure penance that stems from my past misfortunes. And for this reason I must suffer until the Day of Judgment because of your falseness. I pray God may forgive you.[5]

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Image of Melusine as a dragon, flying over the Château de Lusignan, from Les Très Riches Heures de duc de Berry, fifteenth-century manuscript in Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

As this image of Melusine, now depicted as a dragon, demonstrates, her fate was to fly away from Lusignan, only to return to foretell, with dire screams, the death of each count.  So in one version of the story a hybrid human-fairy creature became a hybrid human-serpent, who eventually becomes wholly serpent/dragon-like. Or did she? If we look at some of the printed woodcuts of the late fifteenth century, Melusine does indeed fly out of the top-most tower of Lusignan but does so in another hybrid body not unlike the second image here (i.e. she retains some evidence of her human form).[6]

The image of Melusine as a dragon flying over the castle of Lusignan is a vignette in the calendar page for March in the beautiful manuscript known as the Les Très Riches Heures de duc de Berry.  This manuscript was commissioned by and was one of the treasured possessions of Jean (1340-1416), Duc de Berry, third son of Jean II of France and Bonne of Luxembourg. Jean d’Arras’ 1393 tale of the fairy Melusine was not just written to entertain his audience: he had been specifically commissioned by Jean, Duc de Berry to write the story as part of a propaganda campaign for his patron, the new Lord of Lusignan. The end of the story relates that Melusine came back one last time to Lusignan, just before Jean, Duc de Berry’s forces raised the siege of the castle in 1374. In this way, Melusine, the legendary builder of the castle, could be viewed as noting the passage of the fortress into new hands. Her presence was to mark the ending of English power there and the beginning of Jean, Duc de Berry’s reign as Lord of Lusignan. In effect, by using the story in this fashion, the new Lord of Lusignan was seeking to bolster his credentials as the true Lord of Lusignan, whose coming had been foretold by its foundress.[7]

Given Jean Duc de Berry’s interest in the appropriation of the Melusine myth for his own political ends, the unusually favourable treatment of Melusine in Jean d’Arras narrative begins to make sense, for though her sons have monstrous attributes, she herself, though she transforms into a serpent, is still considered to be a good and true lady. Melusine’s essentially good nature is emphasised throughout Jean d’Arras’s tale: when she first meets Raymondin at the fountain, she makes it clear that her powers might seem like the work of the devil but that she herself was ‘on God’s side and … I believe everything a true Christian must believe’.[8] Even more strikingly, when she finally transforms into a dragon, we are told that the people of the city, ‘cried out with one voice: Today we are losing the most valiant lady, who ever governed a land, and the wisest, the humblest, the most charitable, the best loved and most attentive to the needs of her people, who has ever been seen’.[9] Melusine’s orthodoxy is further emphasised in the advice she gives her two youngest sons before she departs forever: ‘Listen to what I say and keep it always in mind, because it is important. First, love and serve God, your Creator, always. Obey all the commandments of our holy Church and all the teachings and commandments of our Catholic faith’.[10] If Jean, Duc de Berry, was claiming a link with a dragon foundress, at least the dragon was a true Christian! The villain of the piece (or perhaps misguided idiot would be closer), is not Melusine in her final, dragon-like, incarnation but rather her husband who, although he will suffer their separation, will not have to endure being a serpent for all eternity.

Image of Melusine on the binding of a book owned by Louis-Henri de Lomenie, Comte de Brienne: Worth’s copy of  Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640), front cover details.

Jean, Duc de Berry, wasn’t the only one who sought to appropriate the allure of Melusine in an attempt to raise his own political fortunes. None of the manuscripts above are in the Worth Library but there is a connection between the legend of Melusine and Edward Worth for the latter’s library includes a number of bindings on books belonging to Louis-Henri Lomenie (1635-1698), Comte de Brienne. As this image demonstrates, Melusine was, quite literally, the crowning glory in Louis-Henri’s coat of arms. Here we see her in yet another guise – in a washtub, holding up a mirror and combing her hair (an allusion to Melusine in mermaid form).

Why did Louis-Henri Lomenie, Comte de Brienne, a noble man in seventeenth-century France, decide to include this reference to the fairy Melusine in his family coat of arms? The answer lies in a desire for power. The famous and powerful Lusignan family were said to have been from the Limoisin, the same area from which the new comtes de Brienne claimed descent. In addition, Louis-Henri probably had in mind the claim that the comtes de Luxembourg were likewise descendants of Melusine since his mother was of the House of Luxembourg: Louise de Béon-Luxembourg (d. 1665), was one of the descendants of Charles, the twenty-fifth comte de Brienne, and was, in addition, an heiress of the House of Luxembourg.[11] The two cows, seen here in the 1st and 4th quarter of the coat of arms, represent the House of Béon, while the rampant crowned lions represent the House of Luxembourg. By including the Luxembourg elements on his coat of arms, and, in addition, adding the mysterious fairy Melusine, Lomenie de Brienne sought to move up the slippery ladder of power at the French court. For Louis-Henri it was simply too good a story to ignore and the fair Melusine graces many of the bindings on his books in the Worth Library.

As Ridley Elmes reminds us, Jean, Duc de Berry, and Louis-Henri Lomenie, Comte de Brienne, may have appropriated the legend of Melusine for political ends but her story might also be interpreted in other ways.[12] The sixteenth-century doctor, Paracelsus (1493-1641), wrote about Melusine as type, rather than Melusine as ancestral progenitrix. His treatise On Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies and Salamanders, includes a section on water nymphs of which Melusine is one of the most famous examples. Like Jean d’Arras, he emphasised Melusine’s quest to become human. At the same time, Melusine, for Paracelsus, was less an ancestral figure and more an alchemical principle, one which played a vital role in the union of Iliaster and Aquaster into the Primordial Man.[13]

One might conclude that Melusine’s multiple forms reflect the multitude of meanings ascribed to her. That her legend lives on may be seen in the decision of the city of Luxembourg to erect a statue in her honour to mark the 1050th anniversary of the city’s foundation in 2015. Here too, we see another variation on the tale: for Melusina of Luxembourg is shown as a mermaid.

Sources

Brownlee, Kevin, ‘Melusine’s Hybrid Body and the Poetics of Metamorphosis’, in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox (eds), Melusine of Lusignan. Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France (Athens, Georgia, 1996), pp 76-99.

Brownlee, Marina S., ‘Interference in Mélusine,’ in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox (eds), Melusine of Lusignan: Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France (Athens, Georgia, 1996), pp 226-240.

Chambers, Jane, ‘“For Love’s Sake”: Lamia and Burton’s Love Melancholy’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 22, no. 4 (1982), 583-600.

Delogu, Daisy, ‘Jean d’Arras Makes History: Political Legitimacy and the Roman de Mélusine’, Dalhousie French Studies, 80 (Fall 2007), 15-28.

Maddox, Donald, and Sara Sturm-Maddox (eds), Melusine of Lusignan: Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France (Athens, Georgia, 1996).

Guigard, Joannis, Nouvel Armorial du Bibliophile : Guide de l’Amateur des livres armoriés (Paris: Rondeau, 1890), 2 vols.

Péporté, Pit, ‘Melusine and Luxembourg: A Double Memory’, in Misty Urban, Deva F. Kemmis and Melissa Ridley Elmes (eds), Melusine’s Footprint: Tracing the Legacy of a Medieval Myth (Leiden, 2017), pp 162-182.

Ridley Elmes, Melissa, ‘The Alchemical Transformation of Melusine’, in Misty Urban, Deva F. Kemmis and Melissa Ridley Elmes (eds), Melusine’s Footprint: Tracing the Legacy of a Medieval Myth (Leiden, 2017), pp 94-108.

Nichols, Stephen G., ‘Melusine between Myth and History: Profile of a Female Demon’, in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox (eds), Melusine of Lusignan: Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France (Athens, Georgia, 1996), pp 137-164.

Sturm Maddox, Sara, ‘Crossed Destinies: Narrative Programs’, in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox (eds), Melusine of Lusignan: Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France (Athens, Georgia, 1996), pp 12-31.

Urban, Misty, Deva F. Kemmis and Melissa Ridley Elmes (eds), Melusine’s Footprint: Tracing the Legacy of a Medieval Myth (Leiden, 2017).

Zeldenrust, Lydia, ‘Serpent or Half-Serpent? Bernhard Richel’s Melusine and the Making of a Western European Icon’, Neophilologus, 100 (2016), 19-41.

Text: Dr. Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library.

[1] Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox, ‘Introduction: Melusine at 600’, in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox (eds), Melusine of Lusignan. Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France (Athens, Georgia, 1996), p. 1.

[2] Chambers notes an ancient Greek story with similarities to the story of Melusine: Jane Chambers, ‘“For Love’s Sake”: Lamia and Burton’s Love Melancholy’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 22:  4 (1982), 583-600.

[3] Kevin Brownlee, ‘Melusine’s Hybrid Body and the Poetics of Metamorphosis’, in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox (eds), Melusine of Lusignan. Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France (Athens, Georgia, 1996), p. 80.

[4] Nichols notes that this latter visual image of Melusine links her iconographically with the theme of the ‘winged siren’:   Stephen G. Nichols, ‘Melusine between Myth and History: Profile of a Female Demon’, in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox (eds), Melusine of Lusignan. Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France (Athens, Georgia, 1996), p. 139.

[5] Marina S. Brownlee, ‘Interference in Mélusine’, in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox (eds), Melusine of Lusignan. Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France (Athens, Georgia, 1996), p. 234.

[6] On this see Lydia Zeldenrust, ‘Serpent or Half-Serpent? Bernhard Richel’s Melusine and the Making of a Western European Icon’, Neophilologus, 100 (2016), 19-41.

[7] On this point see Pit Péporté, ‘Melusine and Luxembourg: A Double Memory’, in Misty Urban, Deva F. Kemmis and Melissa Ridley Elmes (eds), Melusine’s Footprint. Tracing the Legacy of a Medieval Myth (Leiden, 2017), pp 162-182 and Daisy Delogu, ‘Jean d’Arras Makes History: Political Legitimacy and the Roman de Mélusine’, Dalhousie French Studies, 80 (Fall 2007), 15-28.

[8] Sara Sturm Maddox, ‘Crossed Destinies’, p. 23.

[9] Sara Sturm Maddox, ‘Crossed Destinies: Narrative Programs’, in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox (eds), Melusine of Lusignan. Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France (Athens, Georgia, 1996), p. 24.

[10] Brownlee, ‘Interference in Mélusine, p. 234.

[11] According to Guigard, her father was Bernard de Béon du Masseu and her mother was Louise de Luxembourg-Brienne: Joannis Guigard, Nouvel Armorial du Bibliophile. Guide de l’Amateur des livres armoriés (Paris: Rondeau, 1890), 2 vols, vol. II, p. 327.

[12] Melissa Ridley Elmes, ‘The Alchemical Transformation of Melusine’, in Misty Urban, Deva F. Kemmis and Melissa Ridley Elmes (eds), Melusine’s Footprint. Tracing the Legacy of a Medieval Myth (Leiden, 2017), pp 94-105.

[13] Ibid., p. 99, fn 20.

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