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21.08.06 Zeldenrust, The Mélusine Romance in Medieval Europe

The Medieval Review

21.08.06 Zeldenrust, The Mélusine Romance in Medieval Europe


It is no wonder that the story of Mélusine, lady of Lusignan, was, as Lydia Zeldenrust describes it towards the beginning of her excellent book, “an early European bestseller” (3). Not only is the story a supernatural thriller (the tale of a beautiful half-fairy who, in revenge for an attack on her father, is cursed by her mother to turn into a serpent from the waist down every Saturday unless she marries a man who can keep his promise never to enquire about her weekly absences); it is also a dynastic chronicle (several of Mélusine’s ten sons, marked in some way by their mother’s supernatural origins, become rulers of territories that are being menaced by enemy invaders until a Lusignan offspring arrives, defeats the attackers, and marries the conveniently available daughter of the grateful ruler); and a tale of family rivalry and redemption (Geoffroy, another of Mélusine’s sons, sets fire to a monastery when he finds out yet another of his brothers has become a monk there; he later repents and becomes a celebrated knight). The story was first written down in French prose in 1393 by Jean d’Arras at the behest of Jean, duc de Berry and his sister Marie de Bar, who prided themselves on being able to trace their family trees to Mélusine’s descendants; it was then recorded in French verse at the beginning of the fifteenth century by the mysterious Coudrette, who had been commissioned by Guillaume l’Archevêque, Lord of Parthenay, another scion of putative melusinian descent. As Zeldenrust demonstrates in her impressively wide-ranging and engaging study, this was just the beginning of the story of the transmission of this tale across medieval and early modern Western Europe. And it is a story which continues to develop: those of us who write on Mélusine often feel it is a contractual obligation to point out (as Zeldenrust does on page 2) that she is represented in the logo of a ubiquitous chain of coffee-shops.

Zeldenrust presents the Mélusine tradition as a complex network of languages and literary technology: she traces the translation of the two French texts into German, Castilian, Dutch, and English, and the transmission of these works in manuscript and print. This is an impressive achievement, and one which Zeldenrust accomplishes with rigour and dynamism. It enables her to frame her study as an enquiry into medieval and early modern translation practices, and an account of the exchange between manuscripts and incunabula during the early stages of the development of print in Western Europe. An admirably clear picture of the various traditions is given in the Introduction, in which Zeldenrust makes a convincing case for the utility of examining the translations as reinterpretations of the Mélusine myth: “Mélusine’s monstrous and mutable figure in fact offers a useful way to think about the international dimensions of this romance” (8), she argues, and in what follows, focus remains on the aspects of the story which deal with Mélusine’s hybridity and transformation. This gives Zeldenrust a useful point of comparison to which she can return in each chapter as she examines the translations in turn.

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the details of the French versions and their manuscript traditions. Zeldenrust highlights a particularly intriguing difference between the versions by Jean d’Arras and Coudrette. At the beginning of his prose account, Jean relates the story of the meeting and marriage of Mélusine’s parents, Elinas and Présine, and then Elinas’ own betrayal of his promise to Présine never to see her in childbed, followed by his imprisonment in a mountain enforced by his triplet daughters, and their consequent cursing by Présine; Mélusine’s weekly semi-serpentine form is a result of this curse. Coudrette, however, begins his account with the meeting between Mélusine and her husband, Raymondin, and does not reveal the cause of Mélusine’s transformation until after Geoffroy has discovered the tomb of his mothers’ parents much later in the narrative. As Zeldenrust observes, this means that the reader learns of Mélusine’s history and lineage as her son does, whereas Jean d’Arras presents Mélusine as a fairy from the start. There can be no identification of either version as the “original,” since both Jean and Coudrette no doubt based their written accounts on tales which had been circulating within families and locales for generations.

This is always a shifting story, then, whose translations Zeldenrust charts in chapters 2-5. Chapter 2 focuses on the German versions: the first of these was completed by Thüring von Ringoltingen around half a century after the French verse version, his source text, which he renders into a condensed prose account. This version of the Mélusine tale is the first to appear in print, although many of the manuscripts were produced after the first incunabula. These printed editions were, argues Zeldenrust, key to the popularity of the tale in other language traditions. While the French Mélusine texts are produced for aristocracy, the German version attracts a readership in the socially aspirational upper class: one might argue that the tale of a woman whose origins are vague yet illustrious appeals to both demographics.

The Castilian La historia de la linda Melosina and the Dutch Meluzine were composed within a couple of years of one another. The Castilian version is attested to slightly earlier, so Zeldenrust dedicates chapters 3 and 4 to these two traditions respectively. She focuses on the two main editions of Melosina, printed in Toulouse by Parix and Clebat in 1489, and by the prolific Cromberger family in Seville in 1526. For Zeldenrust, one of the most significant alterations the Castilian version makes to the French prose text it takes as its source is to amplify Mélusine’s Catholic faith: doubts about the impropriety of this fairy marrying into French aristocracy are addressed and quashed, although Jean d’Arras’ remarks about the supernatural forming part of divine creation are omitted.

Meluzine is part of the exchange in the Burgundian Low Countries between literature in French and Middle Dutch, or Diets. Appearing for the first time no later than 1491, this version is adapted from parts of the French texts by Jean d’Arras and Coudrette. Zeldenrust observes that, therefore, “it is--like Meluzine herself--a hybrid” (148). Like the German version, the Dutch one condenses its material, often excising descriptions of the heroine’s emotional speeches and actions. As Zeldenrust points out, this effectively cuts out Meluzine’s ability to “communicate across species boundaries” (173), presenting her as a mute animal towards the end of her story.

Both French Mélusine tales are translated into Middle English, and it is interesting to note that Jean d’Arras’ prose version is rendered into the prose Melusine whereas Coudrette’s verse is translated into verse as the Romans de Partenay, the octosyllabic rhyming couplets becoming rhyme royal. In chapter 6, Zeldenrust gives a detailed reading of the translation techniques of each version, remarking that even small variations from (or misunderstandings of) the original wording can have significant implications for the new text.

The success of the Mélusine tale across several centuries and languages depends, as Zeldenrust comprehensively demonstrates, as much on the tradition of images that are reproduced in the manuscripts and incunabula as the on the texts in their various translations. Some fine examples of this visual tradition, from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, manuscript fonds français 24383, adorn the cover of Zeldenrust’s book. At the top, Mélusine leaps from the castle window as she transforms into a dragon; at the bottom, in surely one of the most extraordinary images in medieval manuscript illumination, she returns in her hybrid form (dragon from the waist down, naked yet demure courtly lady from the waist up) to nurse her babies. But the image of Mélusine which most mesmerised medieval and early modern readers was the sight that greets Raymondin when he (inevitably) breaks his promise never to see his wife on a Saturday. Alerted by his brother that rumours are circulating that Mélusine is either consorting with fairies or else she is having an affair (which of these alternatives would be least desirable is not explicitly articulated), Raymondin makes a hole in the door of Mélusine’s chamber and peers through to see his wife happily bathing, human from the waist up, snake from the waist down. Zeldenrust argues that it is this vision of hybridity which most captivated translators and readers: images and descriptions of Mélusine in a form that is entirely a dragon or flying serpent are effaced from the non-French versions and the volumes that transmit them. Zeldenrust’s multilingual approach enables her to highlight the mobility of many of these images: she shows that woodcuts from the first incunabula of the German version printed in Basel around 1473-4 were transported to Lyon and Toulouse, where they were used in the production of editions of the Castilian Melosina; they were also copied and adapted for other printed editions on the continent. The visual tradition of the English versions is much poorer: while there are spaces in the manuscript of the prose English Melusine, they were not filled with illustrations.

Zeldenrust’s Conclusion reminds the reader that the story of Mélusine is not only populated with fairies, giants, and strange-looking yet astonishingly accomplished knights, but also the scribes, printers, illuminators, woodcutters, readers, and translators who contribute to this tale’s dissemination and success. She also points out that this story emphasises medieval processes of translation--and translatio--as dynamic dialogue rather than a one-way rendering of one discrete language tradition into another. This is a vibrant multilingual environment, and one which Zeldenrust brings to life with her engaging style and meticulous, generous research. Nowhere is the latter more apparent than in the appendix to this book, in which Zeldenrust presents an extremely accessible table of all the manuscripts and printed versions of the various versions of the Mélusine story she has analysed in her book.

Although the marvellous hybridity of “Mélusine’s monstrous and mutable figure” is the focal point of this study, the estranges signes ("strange signs") with which her sons are marked are also scrutinised by Zeldenrust. A wide range of approaches to illustrating and describing the more extraordinary of their marks is evident in the texts and images she examines: whereas Coudrette describes Antoine as having a lion’s paw protruding from his cheek, for example, in the English verse translation of this text, Anthony simply has “A hurt ful of pain / off A lyon” (a painful injury from a lion) on his face (218). Since this is a tale of shifts in dynastic power around the medieval Mediterranean, it would also be interesting to amplify the study of Mélusine’s sons to explore in more detail the “international dimensions of the romance” on which Zeldenrust comments in her introduction, and to discuss the variation--or lack thereof--in the representation of their campaigns in the versions in different languages. We might well speculate that their accessions to power in Cyprus, Armenia, Luxembourg, and Bohemia would read differently in Castilian, German, Dutch, or English, even if there was little change in the information being relayed. The tale of Mélusine is a political one, not least because it suggests that the construction of a powerful dynasty which reaches throughout and beyond Europe is only possible with the help of a hybrid fairy; and the political implications of the multilingual literary environment sketched out by this study would be interesting to pursue. This is not a criticism of Zeldenrust’s excellent scholarship or presentation, but simply an observation that her approach and style prompt her reader into asking even more questions of this beguiling tale. As it stands, Zeldenrust’s work is a vital, informative, and original contribution to scholarship on this important, spellbinding narrative tradition.