Mélusine’s Human Heart: Interiority and the Supernatural in a Medieval Romance

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Melusine’s serpent form, revealed as she bathes Paris, BNF, Français 24383, (1401-1500), fol. 19r.

Jean d’Arras’s Roman de Mélusine is a remarkable romance in its use of interiority and emotion to ground a supernatural plot in a believable emotional context. Written in 1392, it uses the plot of an earlier local folktale of a fairy ancestress to the Lusignan family, but uses the inner lives of his characters, and particularly his heroine, to provide an unusual emotional realism to his text.

In the earlier story recorded by Pierre Bersuire, Mélusine appears as the fairy wife of a lord of Lusignan, who transformed into a serpent on being seen naked by her husband. Given that d’Arras’s patron, Jean Duc de Berry, was descended from the house of Lusignan through his mother, the supernatural elements of this story had to be distanced from the demonic connotations of shapeshifting serpent brides, which were common in medieval folklore. In order to create this distance, d’Arras provides his heroine with a unique psychological depth and emotional life which transforms her from a monstrous fairy or demon bride to a compelling, sympathetic heroine. Using the emotional interiority that fairies and demons typically lack, d’Arras provides Mélusine with a human heart to counterbalance her supernatural, sometimes monstrous, body.

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Melusine’s flight and return to nurse her children Paris, BNF, Français 24383, (1401-1500), fol. 30r.

The psychological depth d’Arras gives his heroine is fairly unusual in medieval romance, a genre in which emotions are typically expressed through dramatic action rather than internal struggle. For a romance heroine, Mélusine is uniquely stoical, and when her emotions are revealed to the other characters rather than only the reader, it is typically in a subtle fashion, and only rarely do her feelings overwhelm her. Thus, Mélusine’s love for her sons is displayed through her care in raising them rather than in dramatic deeds or speeches, as “she herself took such good care of her children that they flourished and became so strong that all who saw them marvelled.” When her eldest sons depart on crusade, an adventure from which they may never return, her response is controlled rather than passionate: she “kissed each one, tearful and saddened by their imminent departure. For what she felt for them was not the transient sentiment of a wet nurse, but deep maternal love.” Even after her permanent transformation into a dragon, her “deep maternal love” for her children remains unchanged, and she returns to Lusignan every night to feed and comfort her infant children.  In spite of her supernatural form, Mélusine’s love for her children is, and continues to be, that of an ordinary human mother, expressed in the terms of affection d’Arras’s female readers might have used in their relationships with their own children.

Mélusine’s emotions have their strongest presence at the climax of the narrative, immediately before her dramatic departure from Lusignan. This is precipitated by a family tragedy: one of her sons, Geoffroy, is enraged that his brother, Fromont, has become a monk at the monastery of Maillezais. In his anger, he burns the building to the ground, killing his brother and the other monks. On hearing of this tragedy, Raymondin, Mélusine’s husband “almost went mad” and sequesters himself in his rooms, abandoning his people. His alarmed courtiers immediately write to Mélusine to inform her of the murder of her son and her husband’s overwhelming grief. Mélusine’s response is again recognisably one of mourning: before returning to her husband, she visits Lusignan where “deeply sorrowful and distressed… she spent two days… wandering through the castle and around the region, uttering bitter laments and heaving deep sighs.” After this brief period of mourning, Mélusine returns to her duties as wife and noblewoman, concealing her grief. While the circumstances of Mélusine’s mourning may have seemed extraordinary to her readers, her grief, and her response to it, may have struck a chord. D’Arras again uses Mélusine’s understated but intense emotions to add a note of sympathetic realism to the supernatural or melodramatic trials of his heroine.

Mélusine’s emotions only become obvious to the other characters after Raymondin lashes out at her as a “deceitful serpent” and blames her for Geoffroy’s crime. The revelation of her secret – that on Saturdays she becomes half-serpent – breaks the vow that Raymondin made before he married her: that he would never attempt to see her or question what she did on a Saturday. It also fulfils the second half of the curse which originally gave Mélusine her serpent tail, which transforms her permanently and forces her to leave the human world. Overcome by grief and pain at this betrayal, Mélusine falls into a faint in which “no breath or pulse could be detected in her”. Her emotions, previously only revealed to the reader, become obvious to her husband only at this climax of the narrative. The importance of Raymondin’s revelation of her secret transformation is particularly emphasised in the Upton House Bearsted fragments, where her collapse and subsequent lament are depicted in the manuscript. The overwhelming power of her emotions destroys her stoical façade and affirms her humanity and sympathetic nature to the reader immediately before her final transformation into a purely supernatural being.

It is at this point in the narrative that Mélusine truly gives voice to her emotions, rather than d’Arras revealing them in narrative asides. She laments:

Ah! Raymond, the day I first saw you was a most unfortunate one for me. Oh, if only I had never seen your graceful body, your gracious manner, or you handsome face! Would that I had never desired your beauty, since you have so perfidiously betrayed me! … Alas! My friend, our love has turned to hatred, our tenderness into contempt, our solace and our joy into tearful remorse, our good fortune into irreversible calamity.

The betrayal Mélusine has experienced may be based in the supernatural world of curses and vows, but the emotional content of her lament could as easily be applied to a more mundane spousal betrayal, for example of infidelity or disloyalty. Her “wild laments” continue as she flees the castle in dragon form, no longer able to verbalise her emotions, but continuing to express them through her “excruciating, desolate cry”. Her inner emotions again remain consistent in spite of the supernatural transformations of her form. Through the inner life of Mélusine, d’Arras grounds his supernatural plot in familiar emotional conflict. While his heroine shifts from human to serpent-woman to dragon, her heart retains its capacity for human emotion, creating a sympathetic, psychologically complex protagonist to excite the empathy of his audience.

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