Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Melusine in her bath, spied upon by her husband Raymondin
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This illumination appears in Le Roman de Melusine, an early fifteenth century 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 half-fairy woman named Melusine. At the beginning of the story, Melusine maintains that she is a descendant from the Lusignan family-line and claims to be a princess from Albania. However, her future husband worries that his bride is actually an apparition. Mysteriously, their wedding chapel appears out of nowhere and its decoration, while splendid and appropriately regal, are otherworldly and eerie. Understanding her fiancé’s concerns, Melusine assures him that she is not a malicious illusion sent by the Devil, but is in fact a creature of God’s world. However despite her assertion that she is a divine creation, Melusine makes Raymondin promise that he will not look at her on Saturdays while she bathes. This image depicts Raymondin breaking his promise to his wife. Melusine is washing herself in a basin located in a small isolated room. The reason for her secrecy becomes clear when the viewer sees that her legs have been replaced with a serpent’s tail and dragon-like wings sprout out of her back. On the opposite side of the washroom door, anxious Raymondin is watching his wife through a small peephole and discovers her secret.

    The dual nature of Melusine as both a serpent and a woman raises complex issues of identity. Is she an anthropomorphic, demonic being? Or is Melusine, as she argues, a human woman created by God? She does not deny having a snake tail or the ability to turn into a dragon; however, she insists that her identity not be reduced to these supernatural attributes, and that their presence does not make her a bad mother. In the minds of medieval clerical writers, hybrid creatures, especially hybrid women, were considered dangerous because their identities were unstable and fluctuated between human and non-human forms. In the thirteenth century, many French romances warned men that female beauty was a disguise used to seduce and entrap them. Seductive female beings, particularly mermaids and sirens were regarded as demon succubi, demonic spirits that took on beautiful forms in order to trick, seduce, and devastate the virtuous. In the form of Melusine, we see the capacity the female body had for dreadful surprises. However E. Jane Burns makes the observation that while Raymondin accuses her of being a “faulse serpent” during a particularly angry outburst, he also views his wife as the best lady ever born since “she who carried our Creator.” Such differing opinions of Melusine suggest that she is both a monstrous creature and an elegant, courtly lady as beneficent as the Virgin Mary.
  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public Domain
  • Subject (See Also): Bath Body Coudrette- Poet Fairies Gaze Melusine (Literary Figure) Monsters 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. 19
  • 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)/
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  • 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 McCracken. University of Notre Dame Press. Notre Dame, Indiana. 2013. Pgs. 185-191.;
    Burns, E. Jane. "Magical Politics from Poitou to Armenia: Melusine, Jean de Berry, and the Eastern Mediterranean." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34, 2 (2013): 275-276.;
    Cassagnes-Brouquet, Sophie. La vie des femmes au Moyen Age. Editions Ouest-France Edilagre SA. Rennes. 2010. Pgs. 53-57.;
    Maddox, Donald and Sara Sturm-Maddox, eds. Melusine of Lusignan: Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France. University of Georgia Press, 1996;
    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, Pennsylvania. 2012. Pgs. 1-16.;