Medieval Studies Melusine
by
Olivia Colquitt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0292

Introduction

The Middle English Melusine is a prose romance produced by an anonymous author in the late 15th century. It is a reasonably faithful translation of the French Roman de Mélusine, completed by Jean d’Arras in 1393 at the behest of Jean, Duc de Berri. Jean’s original text, together with a verse version, Roman de Partenay, penned by La Coudrette c. 1401–1405, enjoyed immense popularity in medieval western Europe, with a rich array of manuscripts and incunabula being produced and translations emerging in German, Dutch, and Castilian. There also exists an English translation of the verse romance, The Romans of Parthenay (c. 1500). A pseudohistorical narrative weaving elements of romance and chronicle, Melusine traces the foundation of the House of Lusignan to its mythical ancestor. Cursed to metamorphose into a snake below the waist on Saturday evenings, Melusine’s salvation is contingent upon her marrying a man who swears never to learn of or speak about her secret. After marrying a nobleman of Poitiers, Melusine quickly transforms the wild landscape of Poitou in northwestern France into a rich, cultivated, and prosperous region, constructing an impressive series of fortresses and churches within a matter of days. The first fortress becomes the realm’s main seat of power and is named “Lusignan” in honor of its patroness. Melusine and her husband soon have ten sons, most of whom bear strange facial markings that seem to allude to a supernatural parentage. Despite this, many of the sons venture off on crusade and conquest, spreading their dynasty’s influence across Europe and the Near East. Eventually, Melusine’s snake tail is discovered by her husband; when he reveals her secret to the court, she is forced to leave the human world forever and roam the Earth as a dragon until Judgement Day. As her curse dictates, Melusine must return to Lusignan to hail death and the transferal of power within her genealogical line. Little is known about the precise origins of the Middle English Melusine. As with many insular romances, the translator and patron remain anonymous, though the text’s colossal length would indicate a wealthy clientele. Contrary to literary trends in France and Burgundy, prose narratives written in English appeared relatively late in the 15th century, only truly gaining popularity after the arrival of Caxton’s printing press. The Middle English Melusine is therefore an important example of England’s early prose romances in the vernacular.

General Overviews

The Middle English prose Melusine is mentioned in surveys of 15th-century English romances. Both Cooper 1999 and Pearsall 1976 examine the longevity and diverse readership of the genre, as well as its receptiveness to changing literary trends and the emergence of prose as a form. While the references to Melusine are brief, the essays are essential reading for understanding the historical and literary contexts for late medieval English romances, particularly for their insights into prose romance as a subgenre.

  • Cooper, Helen. “Romance after 1400.” In The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Edited by David Wallace, 690–719. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Evaluates the enduring influence of romance in medieval England, demonstrating how 15th-century copies of earlier romances respond to the shift in historical circumstances and engage with topical issues. Connects the production of the English Melusine to the first and second sieges of Rhodes, suggesting that the crusading exploits described in the romance acquire a new significance within this context.

  • Pearsall, Derek. “The English Romance in the Fifteenth Century.” Essays and Studies 29 (1976): 56–83.

    Traces the evolution of the romance genre in 15th-century England. Includes a short discussion of the Middle English Melusine as a notable example of the movement toward prose at the end of the century.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down