The late medieval romance of Mélusine tells the story of a beautiful noble woman cursed to transform into a half-serpent every Saturday. The tale is a riveting read: it features giants, dragonesque monsters, conquering knights, pagan armies, burning monks, some very assertive women, and several trips to the pope in Rome. However, it is the complicated relationship between the fairy Mélusine and the human knight Raymondin that lies at the heart of this romance – and its international success. With versions in French, German, Castilian, Dutch and English (and later also in Czech, Polish, Danish, Swedish, and Russian), the romance can truly be called one of the earliest European bestsellers.
Mélusine’s curse comes with a set of rather complicated conditions, the most important of which is that she must keep her weekly half-animal form a secret at all costs – even from her loved ones. So, when she meets her future husband Raymondin, she makes him swear never to look for her on a Saturday and that – if he were to see her on that day – he never reveals what he sees to anyone.
Raymondin is so dazzled by Mélusine’s beauty that he has no problems accepting this rather curious request, and the two are happily married for years. They even have ten (!) sons together. Interestingly, almost all of the sons are born with a monstrous deformity, linking them with their mother’s monstrous curse. Geoffroy, for instance, is born with a large boar-like tooth that sticks out from his bottom lip, Horrible has three eyes, and Anthoine has a lion’s claw – complete with hair and nails – stuck to his cheek. Although the sons’ monstrous features are found in the region of the face and are therefore clearly visible to all, Raymondin does not seem to suspect that anything may be amiss…
But, of course, when a story sets up a condition for secrecy, it is only a matter of time before the mystery is revealed – and so we are not surprised to learn that Raymondin eventually breaks his promise. One Saturday, urged on by his brother’s suggestion that Mélusine disappears each week because she has fallen in love with another man, Raymondin spies on his wife and sees her bathing in the form of a half-serpent. This famous bathing scene gives us a description of Mélusine’s hybrid body:
[Raymondin] sawe Melusyne within the bathe, vnto her nauell in fourme of a woman kymbyng her heere, and fro the nauel dounward in lyknes of a grete serpent, the tayll as grete & thykk as a barell, and so long it was that she made it to touche oftymes (…) the rouf of the chambre
(A.K. Donald, ed., Melusine, compiled (1382-1394 A.D.) by Jean d’Arras, English, about 1500: Part 1 (London: Early English Text Society, 1895), pp. 296-97)
Translation: Raymondin saw Melusine sitting in the bath, in the form of a woman from the navel up, and she was combing her hair, but from the navel downward she had the likeness of a great serpent, the tail as large and thick as a barrel, and this tail was so long that she often made it touch the ceiling of the bathhouse
In all the versions of this story, the description of Mélusine’s hybrid form in the bath presents us with a clear contrast between Mélusine’s beautiful, often quite alluring human half and her coarse and potentially dangerous animal body parts – an unsettling combination of beast and beauty. Mélusine’s half-serpent body not only invites us to question conventional ideas of the boundaries between man and animal, but the fact that this transformation happens only once a week also poses quite a challenge to ideas of bodily stability. The question is, of course, how Mélusine’s husband will respond to his discovery. After all, as a knight, Raymondin knows that he ought to marry beautiful women and kill dangerous serpents, but what do you do when you find out that your wife is a combination of both?
Unfortunately, the story does not have a happy ending. Raymondin eventually chooses to ignore his wife’s human side and calls her a serpent in front of several witnesses. Mélusine is then forced to transform into a serpent completely: in a rather dramatic scene she says her final goodbyes to her husband, sons, and courtiers, before jumping out of the window of a castle and transforming mid-air. She flies off to depart the human world, all the while crying and lamenting her fate – and probably wondering why she married such an idiot. Not all versions agree, however, whether Mélusine truly becomes an animal in the end, leaving us to wonder whether she is really a serpent or a human soul trapped in an animal body.
The two earliest versions of this romance were written in French, by Jean d’Arras around 1393 and by Coudrette around 1401. The first translation is the German Melusine by Thüring von Ringoltingen, finished around 1456. The first edition of the anonymous Castilian Melosina was printed in 1489, the first edition of the Dutch Meluzine appeared in 1491, and there are also two English translations that were created around 1500. An edition of the English prose version of this romance can be found online.
This medieval ‘snapshot’ of what it means to be human is one of a series to inspire Karrie Fransman’s medieval comics artwork. To read more, go to project + snapshots.
Dr Lydia Zeldenrust is an Associate Lecturer in Medieval Literature at the University of York. She favours research that takes a transcultural approach and crosses various boundaries. Her research interests range from comparative literature and translations to the material text and early book illustration, romances and Arthurian literature, contemporary reimagining of the medieval period, and the role of animals, monsters, and the supernatural.