Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Melusine flees after being discovered by her husband, but she returns to care for her infants
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This illumination is located in Le Roman de Melusine, a romance in octosyllabic French verse, written by Coudrette for Guillaume Larcheveque, the Lord of Parthenay. The story recounts the marriage of a mortal man, Raymondin, the nephew of Count Aymeri of Poitiers, to a fairy-woman named Melusine. Years before her marriage, Melusine and her sisters cursed their father and imprisoned him in the mountain in Northumberland because he violated a promise that he had made to their fairy mother. As a consequence of her actions, Melusine’s mother retracted the power of her father’s human seed which eventually would have pulled Melusine and her sisters towards a fully human nature, and cursed her declaring that every Saturday she would become a serpent from the navel down. However, if she never spoke about her curse to anyone and found a husband who promised to never seek her out or look upon her on Saturdays, then she would be able to live as a mortal woman and die naturally. Yet despite her curse, her mother declared that Melusine would produce a great and noble lineage that would accomplish many acts of prowess. She falls in love with Raymondin and marries him, but makes him swear to never watch her bathe on Saturdays. Unfortunately, his curiosity gets the better of him, and he peeks into her bath and discovers her secret.

    This image shows the scene in the story where Melusine returns to care for her children after her initial flight from Raymondin’s betrayal. Here, Melusine is breastfeeding one of their children. Her torso is bare and retains a human form, but her lower body is monstrous. She does not have skin, but yellow and green scales. Her feet are bulbous and have claws. A long, snakelike tail stretches out and curls behind her and dragon wings sprout out of her back just above her legs. Yet despite her threatening lower body, her face is calm and affectionate as she looks at the baby wrapped in her arms. Although she has an unfortunate form, she insists that her identity not be reduced to these supernatural attributes, and that their presence does not make her a bad mother. The Romance is told through many competing narratives, and the clerically inflected narratives condemn her as a bad mother due to her monstrous physical qualities. However, a more powerful narrative asserts her accomplishments as a politically astute, dependable, and protective mother to her many sons in spite of her hybridity. Melusine and her oddly bodied sons successfully expand the Lusignan family realms from familiar territory in Poitou to distant Armenia. She selects the sites her sons will acquire and issues directives for the ways that they should proceed; and within this arena, hybrid bodies prove to be politically advantageous in seizing new lands to add to the family’s territories. In contrast to other romance stories which feature a helpless woman in desperate need of a male protector because she is incapable of governing due to her gender, Melusine is represented as definitively capable and astute ruler. E. Jane Burns argues that such a representation could possibly be due to the fact that her gender and perceptions of her as a gendered being are altered when she takes on an animal body.
  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Body Breast Feeding Coudrette- Poet Fairies Infants Melusine (Literary Figure) Monsters Mothers Supernatural Transformation Wives
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca. 1490
  • Related Work: See more images from the story of Melusine in Ms. Francais 24383 made available by Julie Grenon-Morin: http://www.slideshare.net/juliegrenonmorin/roman-de-mlusine-fr-24383
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Francais 24383, fol. 30
  • Original Location: Flanders
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 29.5/22 (size of page)/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Burns, E. Jane. "Snake-Taled Woman: Hybridity and Dynasty in the Roman de Melusine." in From Beasts to Souls: Gender Embodiment in Medieval Europe edited by E. Jane Burns and Peggy McCraken. University of Notre Dame Press, 2013. Pgs. 185-220.;
    Burns, E. Jane. "Magical Politics from Poitou to Armenia: Melusine, Jean de Berry, and the Eastern Mediterranean." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Vol. 34. No. 2. Duke University Press. 2013. Pgs. 275-277.;
    Cassagnes-Brouquet, Sophie. La vie des femmes au Moyen Age. Editions Ouest-France Edilagre SA. Rennes. 2010. Pgs. 54-57.;
    Maddox, Donald and Sara Sturm-Maddox. "Introduction." in Meulsine; or the Noble History of Lusignan by Jean d'Arras. Pennsylvania State University Press. University Park, Pennyslvania. 2012. Pgs. 21-26.;