Cover image for Melusine; or, The Noble History of Lusignan  By Jean d'Arras, Translated and with an introduction by  Donald Maddox, and Sara Sturm-Maddox

Melusine; or, The Noble History of Lusignan

Jean d'Arras, and Translated and with an introduction by Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox

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$72.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05412-4

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ISBN: 978-0-271-05415-5

264 pages
6" × 9"
2 maps
2012

Melusine; or, The Noble History of Lusignan

Jean d'Arras, and Translated and with an introduction by Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox

“Part history, part fantasy, part romance, the story of Melusine—brought to life in this readable and lively translation—opens a window onto late medieval European chivalric culture, its refinements, its brutality, and its anxieties. Ranging from Ireland to Armenia, the story of the fairy Melusine and her family provides a wealth of descriptive detail about courtly life and the cultural importance of family and property. Supported by an excellent introduction and relevant, informative notes, this translation brings to light a book and an imagination that will appeal to students, general readers, and scholars.”

 

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Jean d’Arras’s splendid prose romance of Melusine, written for Jean de Berry, the brother of King Charles V of France, is one of the most significant and complex literary works of the later Middle Ages. The author, promising to tell us “how the noble and powerful fortress of Lusignan in Poitou was founded by a fairy,” writes a ceaselessly astonishing account of the origins of the powerful feudal dynasty of the Lusignans in southwestern France, which flourished in western Europe and the Near East during the age of the Crusades. The spellbinding story of the destinies of the fairy Melusine, her mortal husband, and her extraordinary sons blends history, myth, genealogy, folklore, and popular traditions with epic, romance, and Crusade narrative.

Preceded by a substantial introduction, this translation, the first in English to be amply annotated, captures the remarkable range of stylistic registers that characterizes this extravagant and captivating work.

“Part history, part fantasy, part romance, the story of Melusine—brought to life in this readable and lively translation—opens a window onto late medieval European chivalric culture, its refinements, its brutality, and its anxieties. Ranging from Ireland to Armenia, the story of the fairy Melusine and her family provides a wealth of descriptive detail about courtly life and the cultural importance of family and property. Supported by an excellent introduction and relevant, informative notes, this translation brings to light a book and an imagination that will appeal to students, general readers, and scholars.”
“The fourteenth century comes alive in this superb new translation of the classic French masterpiece Melusine; or, The Noble History of Lusignan. The work is packed with romance and adventure, by turns poignant and hilarious, and the author’s lively and inviting prose style is guaranteed to delight fans of historical fiction as well as students of all ages. This is by far the most lucid, authentic, and enjoyable English-language version of this enchanting fairy tale available today, and I expect it to be universally recognized as the definitive translation for many years to come.”
“The Mélusine of Jean d'Arras is a work of particular importance for its fusion of historiography and fiction, a work whose appeal was quickly acknowledged by the copying of numerous late medieval manuscripts, further recognized in the early days of printed books, and reconfirmed ever since by translation into many languages (Middle English, German, Spanish, modern French, etc.). The new translation is an excellent addition to this veritable library of Mélusines: a long-overdue version in modern English that is, moreover, grounded in solid scholarship. The translators’ introduction and extensive annotation of the text make it clear that their work has been prepared with an exemplary understanding of the narrative’s social and historical context.”
“This delightful translation of Jean d’Arras’s 1393 Melusine by two experts on the subject is sure to become the standard English version of this fascinating but not well-known work.”
“This excellent English translation, with its critical material, is extremely valuable from the literary and historical perspectives, and certainly gave me the pleasure and enjoyment the translators wish for readers of their work.”

Donald Maddox is Professor Emeritus of French Studies and adjunct faculty member in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Sara Sturm-Maddox is Professor Emerita of French and Italian Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

Introduction

Melusine; or, The Noble History of Lusignan

Prologue

Crossed Destinies: Melusine and Raymondin

Founding Lusignan

Raymondin in Brittany

Founding a Dynasty in Poitou

Urian and Guyon Defend Cyprus

Urian and Guyon: The Armenian Campaign

Antoine and Renaud in Luxembourg

Geoffrey Big-Tooth in Ireland

Crisis in the Near East

Betrayal, Fratricide, and Loss

Geoffrey in Northumberland

Raymond: Pilgrimage and Penance

Six Sons of Lusignan Defend Alsace

Raymond’s Noble Funeral

Epilogue I: The Knight of the Tower

Epilogue II: The Castle of the Sparrow Hawk

The Legacy of Lusignan and the Duke of Berry

Notes

Selected Bibliography

Index

Introduction

Completed in 1393, Melusine; or, The Noble History of Lusignan appeared during a period of European history marked by paradoxical extremes. On the one hand, there was widespread material dearth and suffering. As the fourteenth century was drawing to a close, Europe was still debilitated by the long aftermath of the Black Plague—which had begun in Italy in 1348 and rapidly swept across the continent, leaving in its wake a population diminished by nearly half—and for six decades France had been the theater of intermittent and costly military episodes of the Hundred Years’ War, which would continue for another sixty years. Despite these protracted upheavals, the cultural vitality of fourteenth-century France was flourishing in myriad ways, particularly in the domain of arts and letters. One need only cite the court of King Charles V the Wise, who reigned between 1364 and 1380: it became a center of intellectual inquiry in many domains, and the king’s burgeoning library, the Bibliothèque du Roy, housed in the Louvre and numbering more than twelve hundred volumes, would eventually serve as the initial collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

This period in Europe, characterized by Barbara Tuchman as “the calamitous fourteenth century,” was in France both “the worst” and “the best” of times. All the more appropriate, then, that the remarkable story translated here is a rich embodiment of paradoxes of all sorts. Among the most striking of these is the one immediately apparent in its title, Melusine; or, The Noble History of Lusignan, which presents the inherent generic incongruity of combining fiction and history in a single work. Melusine, as the late fourteenth-century reader might well have recognized, is a name associated in myth and folklore with a supernatural female creature, hence setting our expectations that a fairy tale of sorts is to ensue. On the other hand, its second component, Noble History, suggests that we are about to read a history of both the feudal domain of Lusignan and one of medieval Europe’s foremost families—whose renowned forebears were, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, among the most illustrious participants in the Crusades, and who long figured among the major players in the political fortunes of the Near East. And both expectations are abundantly fulfilled, for Melusine, born of a mortal father and a fairy mother, is indeed in Jean d’Arras’s work the founder of Lusignan, and her destiny together with the legend of the Lusignan dynasty constitute the subject of this masterpiece of fourteenth-century French prose.

Little is known about Jean d’Arras. He may have been a bookbinder and librarian in the service of Jean, Duke of Berry, son of King John II of France. In any case, his affirmation in the prologue that Jean de Berry was the patron who commissioned him to compose the work places him at the epicenter of artistic and intellectual life in late fourteenth-century France. The duke, like his brother King Charles V, was one of Europe’s foremost patrons of the arts; he, too, possessed a major library and commissioned sumptuous illuminated manuscripts, among them the celebrated Très riches heures du Duc de Berry. While the inventories of his estate contain no mention of Jean d’Arras, the author tells us that he composed the work at the behest of the duke and his sister Marie, the Duchess of Bar, following the authentic chronicles—“les vrayes coroniquez”—provided him by both the duke and the Count of Salisbury in England, and several other books—“plusieurs livres”—on the same subject. In addition to these alleged sources, we find in the prologue fleeting allusions to the Bible, to an unspecified work, or works, of Aristotle, and to folk traditions evoked by Gervase de Tilbury in his early thirteenth-century Otia Imperialia, and throughout the romance we find evidence of Jean d’Arras’s familiarity with a considerable range of medieval literature both Latin and vernacular. Otherwise he remains obscure except for his composition of Melusine, a work of mythic proportions and considerable historical interest that enjoyed widespread popularity through several centuries and continues to mystify and enchant readers today.

Melusine, Jean tells us in the prologue, is an account of how the noble and powerful fortress of Lusignan in Poitou was founded by a fairy. While the notion of the supernatural founding of the formidable citadel in west-central France was not our author’s invention, having already been attested around the beginning of the fourteenth century in the Reductorium morale of Pierre Bersuire, Jean d’Arras gives the fairy a name, details the extraordinary circumstances of the founding of Lusignan, and attributes to her the origin of its name. Having thus accomplished his stated objective, he goes on to develop the initial founding fiction into a much more ample genealogical romance featuring her progeny. This broadened scope reflects a long-standing trend in medieval Europe, where a strong interest in genealogy among feudal families during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries led to a proliferation of semihistorical genealogies alloyed with fictive forebears. The lineages of a monarchical or nobiliary dynasty were often traced back to an exalted, sometimes legendary ancestor, such as a descendant from the Carolingians or even a hero of ancient Troy. In some instances the glorious ancestor was, like Melusine, a female, whether mortal or supernatural, who had brought a new degree of prestige to the line. Such attributions were intended to add luster to the lineage but also to attest to its stable longevity, and this may well have been an objective of Jean de Berry in commissioning the Melusine of Jean d’Arras, much of which is a glorification of the far-flung Lusignan dynasty.

In the absence of precise information concerning the sources to which Jean alludes, we cannot fully assess the proportions of historical record and speculation, deliberate adaptation, or narrative invention in his account. Its fundamental strategy, however, is a manipulation of genealogy: while the fame of the Lusignan lineage had been achieved over several generations, beginning in the tenth century, and was in fact in its waning phase by the time the romance was composed in 1392–93, Jean d’Arras compresses elements of its dispersed historical record into an account of a remarkable first generation of Lusignan progeny. Some are heroes of the Crusades, others exemplars of well-wrought dynastic expansion. Along the way, as Emmanuèle Baumgartner observes, “fiction seems to toy with history so as to remodel it to the advantage of the illustrious lineage.” By the end of Jean’s narrative, all eight of the surviving sons of Melusine occupy positions of power and prestige: one is king of Cyprus and another of Armenia; two others are the rulers of Luxembourg and Bohemia; three hold noble domains closer to home; and the most prominent among them inherits the rule of Lusignan itself.

In this tale that begins as a founding fiction concerning a historical dynasty, the most problematic element is, of course, the fairy Melusine. In his prologue, Jean d’Arras directly addresses the perplexity he anticipates from his reader. He himself, he tells us, has heard of so-called fairies that assume the winsome form of beautiful women and marry mortal men, imposing an interdict that would preclude discovery of their secret. Rather than challenge the credibility of such lore, Jean evokes similar reports in the writings of learned clerical authors of how supernatural women intervene in the lives of mortals. While acknowledging that there are indeed many phenomena that, even when seen, defy belief, his opinion is “that the marvels which occur on earth and throughout all creation are eminently true, including those things said to be the work of fairies or of enchantment, and a variety of others as well” (M). He reiterates that conviction in the epilogue, where he endorses the human desire to know “what is real and true concerning things that seem incredible” (M). He assures his reader that he believes the story he has undertaken to tell, and throughout the text he reiterates truth claims in a variety of forms. Among the most remarkable of these is his attestation that in his own day, Melusine’s human footprint was still visible on the sill of a high window of the castle of Meurvent, where it was “inscribed” at the moment before her transformation into an airborne dragon.

The particular complexity of Melusine’s role, however, lies in the fact that she is not only a fairy–founder. Jean d’Arras gives her a story of her own, a destiny that plays out against the background of her connection with Lusignan, and in it both her fairy status and her corporeality are ambivalent. Both of these issues are established in the account of her origins early in the romance, which begins when a king in Scotland named Elinas weds a fairy, Presine, after promising her that he will never see her in childbirth. After he unwittingly violates this interdiction, he loses his wife and their three newborn daughters, Melusine, Melior, and Palestine. When the daughters learn of his misdeed years later, they muster their inherent supernatural powers to enclose him forever within a mountain, for which their mother assigns each of them a terrible punishment. Now we learn that had they not imprisoned their father, in time his seed would have drawn all three of them to his human condition and they would have lived out their lives until death as mortal women. Jean d’Arras’s story turns on the punishment of Melusine, the eldest, who is transformed into a dragon from the waist down each Saturday. Her only hope of escaping this chronic condition, as well as her fairy state in general, is to marry a man who will obey an interdiction against seeing her on that day; in any case, she will found a noble and illustrious lineage.

Thus, from the outset, we learn that Melusine’s fate is precarious, while that of her lineage is certain. For its founding, Jean d’Arras gives her a mortal spouse, Raymondin, whose own story is tinged by the supernatural. His father, a young nobleman who had fled his native Brittany, had encountered a fairy in the region of Forez, with whose aid he built fortresses and towns and settled the land. Following her disappearance, he married the daughter of the Count of Poitiers. One of their sons, Raymondin, accompanies his uncle on a hunting expedition during which the count, exceptionally well versed in astronomy, studies the skies and reads a strange adventure in the stars: if one of his subjects were to kill him at that hour, that man would later become the richest and most powerful of his line, and produce a distinguished noble lineage. During that same outing, Raymondin inadvertently kills his uncle while attempting to protect him from a charging boar, whereupon he flees in grief and in terror about what his own immediate future holds in store. When, soon thereafter, he meets Melusine in the depths of a forest, two singular destinies converge and the extraordinary story of the Lusignans begins.

It unfolds according to a narrative pattern, rooted in myth and folklore, that concerns the union of a human being and a fairy. Their bond is predicated on a covenant whereby the fairy promises her human partner love and prosperity as long as he respects the one taboo she prescribes; if he ever violates it, both she and the benefits she bestows on him are forever lost. Accounts of a similar nature are found in twelfth-century Latin and vernacular literature. Often such creatures do not appear in public, or play little or no role in the society of their chosen lovers; sometimes they even draw the latter with them into their otherworld. The beneficent fairy amie of the eponymous chivalric hero in the twelfth-century Old French lay Lanval by Marie de France is an example. The variant of this pattern in which the fairy marries the mortal and aspires to integration with the human world is a story type characterized by Laurence Harf-Lancner as the “récit mélusien,” or Melusinian tale.

Accordingly, Melusine agrees to marry Raymondin after receiving his pledge never to attempt to see her on a Saturday, and she promises in return to make him the most powerful man of his noble lineage, a project she carries out with remarkable zeal. She introduces herself to her husband’s world entirely on her own terms, through the sumptuous festivities she arranges for their wedding; she identifies herself as the daughter of a powerful king, and immediately wins universal admiration for her exceptional beauty and courtly decorum. She at once stakes out the familial domain in the Poitou region of southwestern France, on land conceded to Raymondin by his cousin the Count of Poitiers, and names her “marvelous” fortress “Lusignan.” One of her first projects is to enable her husband to recover and reallocate his paternal estate in Brittany, and his success restores the honor of his late father’s name and wins him widespread renown. During the ensuing years, Melusine becomes the mistress of boundless resources whose origins remain a mystery, and she directs the construction of towns and fortresses throughout the region while producing a substantial progeny of ten sons. A purveyor of lineal abundance, she is, as Jacques Le Goff remarks, “the fairy of the feudal imagination.”

Despite her exceeding beneficence and fertility, as a fairy–founder Melusine is problematic. From around 1200, as stories in the popular tradition concerning the union of fairies and mortals were adapted for incorporation into much larger works within the Latin clerical culture, they typically served as moralistic Christian exempla. For example, in Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium and Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia, cited by Jean in his prologue, the wife is invariably unmasked to reveal a demonic supernatural creature—a serpent or a fairy. Jean d’Arras attempts to offset or even to neutralize the negative characteristics typically featured in this sort of account. While he makes clear to readers that Melusine works in magical ways—springs appear overnight; a huge retinue is suddenly at her command; castles rise as if out of thin air; every festivity involves apparently inexhaustible riches and the bestowal of gifts of inestimable value—his portrayal contrasts sharply with the misogynistic depiction of the fairies, who, in the earlier clerical exempla, marry mortals and turn out to be malefic creatures. Indeed, following the account of her birth and the punishment meted out by her mother, her half-human, half-fairy, intermittently serpentine nature is all but forgotten. We find instead marked emphasis on her good works, her foundation of churches, and her full observance of Christian sacraments.

Jean nevertheless stops short of eradicating all traces of Melusine’s dark side. The monstrous corporeality imposed on her by her mother seems to be reflected in the conspicuous disfigurements on the faces of all but the last two of her sons, anomalies such as a single eye, or three eyes, or a lion’s hairy paw dangling on one cheek. Medieval writers sometimes construed physical deformities as signs either of a diabolical presence or of the mother’s misconduct, and certainly one of Melusine’s sons, the triple-eyed Horrible, is so violent and cruel that she herself orders that he be destroyed. But another son, Fromont, the furry blemish on his face notwithstanding, devoutly dedicates himself to a pious monastic life and vows to pray for the entire family. Meanwhile, Jean is frequently at pains to minimize the importance of the sons’ abnormal physiognomies: for the most part their facial flaws inspire amazement rather than repulsion, while their exceptional strength and courage are rewarded by universal admiration and acclaim. That Melusine’s last two sons lack these monstrous marks may well be intended to suggest her progress from an original fairy nature to the fully human state she so desires to attain.

Jean repeatedly portrays Melusine as a devoted, nurturing mother. She prepares her children for success: as first Urian and Guyon, then Antoine and Renaud determine to leave Lusignan to seek fame and fortune abroad, she speaks to them at length about proper religious observance, chivalric conduct, military strategy, and practical affairs. She also supplies them with the vast material resources necessary for their ventures to succeed, and even gives them magical rings for their protection; the latter, however, despite the expectations raised in the reader, are never used in their combats. It is by dint of their own surpassing courage and prowess, displayed in episodes of conquest and bride winning that owe much to medieval chansons de geste and chivalric romance, that they achieve positions of eminence and power: Urian and Guyon become Kings of Cyprus and Lesser Armenia (ancient Cilicia), respectively; Antoine becomes Duke of Luxembourg, and Renaud King of Bohemia. A substantial portion of Melusine is devoted to their exploits and to those of the redoubtable Geoffroy Big-Tooth—including his valiant expedition to assist his brothers in Cyprus and the Holy Land, as well as the swaggering bravado and physical prowess he displays in eliminating challenges to Raymondin’s authority by both renegades and giants.

It is not until after these triumphs that the taboo Melusine imposed on her husband finally awakens suspicion. One Saturday, Raymondin’s brother cautions him about her weekly absences, suggesting that they might be due to infidelity or to her being some sort of fairy. Filled with jealous anxiety, Raymondin surreptitiously observes her Saturday bath and discovers her semi-serpentine form. Though he registers no aversion, he feels deep regret for having broken his vow. Yet there are no immediate consequences except for his rage against his brother, since Melusine, who forgives him, does not reveal that she knows what he has done. Their life together continues smoothly until the fatal moment when dreadful news arrives and incites Raymondin to betray her secret publicly.

For this critical turning point in the romance, Jean d’Arras draws on an infamous episode of Lusignan history. A thirteenth-century lord of Lusignan, Geoffroy, Viscount of Chatellerault, engaged in extended conflict with the Church concerning abbeys in the Poitou and severely damaged that of Maillezais in 1232. In Melusine, Geoffroy Big-Tooth, whose protuberant tusk seems to betoken a savage and violent nature, becomes so enraged upon learning that his brother Fromont has joined a monastic community at that abbey that he sets it ablaze, destroying it along with the monks inside, Fromont among them. Raymondin is so devastated by the news of this catastrophe that he publicly excoriates Melusine as a “treacherous serpent” whose offspring could never come to a good end.

This dramatic revelation of her monstrosity casts a shadow over not only Melusine but her progeny as well. Acutely aware of the implications, she immediately attempts to forestall any opprobrium that might fall on them. So that they not be stigmatized “as the sons of a bad mother, a serpent, or a fairy,” she reveals her own parentage, King Elinas of Scotland and his wife, Queen Presine. She does not, however, disclose that her mother was a fairy, nor offer any explanation as to the origin of her own serpentine transformations. Her entourage responds to this poignant moment with spontaneous effusions of grief and sympathy that cast her as a much-loved and respected courtly lady. Nonetheless, her anguished farewell speech discloses her failed aspiration to achieve humanity, Christian burial, and thereby possibly salvation, and she declares that the outcome of her grievous penance and affliction remains in God’s hands until Judgment Day.

Despite Raymondin’s grief and remorse, Melusine’s departure is now inevitable. The moments of wonder and amazement that have marked her presence throughout the romance now culminate in her fearsome, awe-inspiring transformation into a dragon taking flight from a high castle window in the direction of Lusignan: “She circled the town three times, crying out pathetically and shrieking her wild laments with a shrill female voice. Everyone up in the fortress and the townsfolk below were utterly confused to hear a lady’s voice issuing from the mouth of a dragon” (M). Following this bewildering climax in an aura of hermeneutic strangeness, Jean d’Arras nevertheless completes his task of integrating Melusine’s story into that of the Lusignan dynasty. It falls to Geoffroy Big-Tooth—who, as Melusine had foretold, repents of his horrible deed—to confirm the royal origins to which she had so briefly alluded. While defending the beleaguered citizens of Northumberland against a savage giant, he discovers in the depths of a mountain the magnificent tomb of Melusine’s father, King Elinas, flanked by a lengthy text composed by her mother, Presine, recounting their family story.

Now aware of his lineal origins, Geoffroy is reconciled with his father, Raymondin, and Jean d’Arras’s account now focuses on these two men, the present and future lords of Lusignan. Raymondin makes a pilgrimage to Rome and receives papal penance for betraying his wife, then proceeds to the remote hermitage of Montserrat in Catalonia, where he finishes his life in exemplary piety and devotion. Geoffroy Big-Tooth, like his historical ancestor, makes restitution for his crime against the abbey of Maillezais, and he, too, embarks on a penitential voyage to meet the pope in Rome. After he and his brothers have accorded Raymondin a noble burial, Geoffroy succeeds him as Lord of Lusignan, thus ending the lengthy process of settling the first generation of Lusignan heirs into positions of power and prestige.

Whereupon Jean d’Arras proclaims the end of his “true story.” Yet he then adds that there is “more about Geoffroy,” and launches into an elaborate sequel redolent of the kind of merveilleux that had prevailed during the foundation of the fortress. Geoffroy discovers that some time after Melusine’s departure an enormous hand would emerge from the heavens once each year and seize the ornamental orb atop the Poitevin Tower, necessitating expensive repairs. To prevent further damage, he is told, Raymondin had agreed to pay an annual tribute to an unknown party. Outraged, Geoffroy does battle with the supernatural knight who comes to claim the tribute, and learns from him that it had been instituted to fulfill the papal penance imposed on Raymondin for breaking his vow to Melusine. Heeding the strange knight’s mandate, Geoffroy has a hospital constructed and a chaplaincy established to ensure the peace of his father’s soul.

At this point Jean d’Arras again announces the end of his work, then again defers it, in order to recount how an erstwhile King of Armenia had been attracted to a remote castle after hearing about its strange custom: any knight who could keep vigil there for three nights in the presence of a sparrow hawk would win the right to ask the lady of the castle for any reward he desired, save her own body; unsuccessful contenders became her captives. Although the young king did complete the vigil, he demanded only the forbidden boon. When the lady could not dissuade him, she angrily revealed that what he sought would violate not only the custom but a kinship taboo, for he was descended from Guyon, Melusine’s son, and she was Melusine’s sister Melior, living out the exile that her mother had long ago imposed on her. To punish his transgression, she summarily condemned his lineage to nine generations of progressive decline.

In Melior’s prophecy we can detect a hint as to why Jean d’Arras included this second epilogue. It opens with a reminder that the Kings of Armenia descend from Lusignan stock. Mention of the “savage beast” in the Armenian line who, according to Melior, is doomed to lose the kingdom, might readily have been understood by Jean’s contemporaries as an allusion to Léon de Lusignan, the exiled monarch of the kingdom of Armenia, who had ascended the throne in 1373 only to be deposed by the Mamluk Turks two years later. By 1393 Léon had been living for almost ten years in Paris, where he made numerous attempts to call public attention to the plight of Armenia, then under Turkish control, and to motivate a new Christian crusade into the East that would enable him to recover his kingdom. Convinced that the hostilities of the Hundred Years’ War were a major obstacle to mounting such an expedition, he actively sought to negotiate peace between France and England.

In Melusine Jean d’Arras may well have envisaged that his detailed depictions of the adventures of Urian, Guyon, and Geoffroy Big-Tooth in the Holy Land would lend support to Léon’s cause by reminding readers that generations of Lusignans had participated in the Crusades. In fact, the line had achieved its greatest prominence during the twelfth century, when several members of the dynasty distinguished themselves in campaigns in the Holy Land. Hugh VII of Lusignan died on crusade in 1148; Hugh VIII, captured in Palestine in 1164, died there while in Muslim captivity. Both the latter’s nephew Geoffrey and Hugh IX participated in the Third Crusade. Hugh VIII’s youngest son, Guy of Lusignan, married the elder sister of the “Leper King” Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, one of the four Christian kingdoms established in the Near East during the First Crusade. Guy de Lusignan was crowned King of Jerusalem in 1186, reigning there only briefly before Saladin conquered the city in the following year. In 1192 he purchased Cyprus from the Knights Templar, who had acquired it from its conqueror, Richard the Lionheart. Following Guy’s death, his brother Amaury ascended the throne of Cyprus, and between 1197 and 1205 he was King of Jerusalem as well.

Jean’s account is rich in historical markers, but while some of them point to the early Crusades, many others are evocative of campaigns that took place much later, during the fourteenth century. There are also errors of fact—for example, it was Guy of Lusignan, not Urian, who acquired the rule of Cyprus—and campaigns are contextualized with considerable disregard for chronology and a liberal use of anachronisms—for example, the Master of Rhodes and his crusader knights with whom Urian and Guyon coordinate their attacks on the Saracens no doubt evoke the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, but that order, founded in 1099, did not move its headquarters to the isle of Rhodes until 1309. Yet, while the potentially historical echoes remain extremely tenuous, the ostensible focus remains on the earliest generation of Lusignans at the time the mighty fortress was allegedly founded by Melusine. Léon de Lusignan’s loss of the kingdom of Armenia is only cryptically evoked in Melior’s prophecy in the episode at the Sparrow Hawk Castle. Moreover, there is no mention at all of the most recent Lusignan who had been widely celebrated in Europe, Peter I of Cyprus, who crossed Europe between 1362 and 1364 seeking to rekindle flagging support for a new expedition to the Holy Land. A flamboyant figure, Peter was warmly welcomed in princely courts and won many adherents; he led a short-lived retaking of Alexandria in 1365 and was celebrated by the century’s greatest poet, Guillaume de Machaut, in the Prise d’Alexandrie.

Jean de Berry’s claim to Lusignan was not based on direct transmission of the patrimony from its founding family. Following the death of Guy de Lusignan without a male heir in 1308, King Philip the Fair had annexed the fortress to the crown of France. In 1356 Jean de Berry was named Count of Poitou by his father, Jean II the Good, King of France, but he lost his claim to it that same year following the disastrous French defeat in the Battle of Poitiers; in 1360 the Treaty of Brétigny accorded Aquitaine, including Poitou, to the English. That region was soon again hotly contested, and after the reconquest of Poitiers in 1372 by the famed French commander Bertrand du Guesclin, Jean’s brother Charles (now King Charles V) reinvested him with the title of Count of Poitou, though Lusignan was still in English hands. Jean undertook to repossess the powerful fortress, finally succeeding in 1374 after a lengthy siege and a massive investment of his prestige and resources.

According to widespread popular belief in the region, however, any legitimate claimant to Lusignan had to be a descendant of Melusine. Significant in this regard was Bonne of Luxembourg, wife of King Jean II and Jean de Berry’s mother, who was the daughter of Jean of Luxembourg, the King of Bohemia and a Lusignan descendant. That relation helps to explain the considerable attention devoted in Melusine to the adventures of the fairy’s sons Antoine and Renaud in Luxembourg and Bohemia, following the triumphs of Urian and Guyon in the Holy Land. The marriages of these youths to the heiresses of Luxembourg and Bohemia, subsequent to their noble defenses of just causes in both regions, would have served to remind contemporary readers of an honorable establishment there of Lusignan rule. They might also have enhanced the prestige of Melusine’s patron, Jean de Berry, by reviving the memory of his grandfather Jean de Luxembourg, also a learned prince and generous patron—Machaut’s “bon roy de Behaingne” —and a warrior who defended both Christianity and France: he took part in campaigns led by the Teutonic Knights against the Lithuanians, who, not yet Christians, were regarded as infidels, and he died a heroic death supporting the French cause at the Battle of Crécy against the English.

The stakes were thus very high for Jean de Berry at the time he commissioned a work recounting the founding of the fortress and celebrating the glorious deeds of Melusine’s sons. In the early 1390s, the years when Jean d’Arras was composing Melusine, he was again obliged to defend his patron’s lordship of the Poitou region. Both France and England were weary of war, and a negotiated reconfiguration of long-disputed Aquitaine reemerged as the major issue in the attempt to reach an enduring settlement between them. One of the critical pieces of the geographical puzzle was the Poitou, and Jean de Berry’s diplomatic involvement in seeking a resolution that would retain that region for the French was particularly intense during the peace negotiations at the Council of Amiens in the spring of 1392.

Jean de Berry’s claim to Lusignan is succinctly formulated at the end of Melusine. The fortress, writes Jean d’Arras, has passed from hand to hand until it has come, “by right and by the sword,” into the hands of his patron (M 000). At the end of the romance Jean de Berry, who had retaken Lusignan from the English, is identified as its rightful lord and Melusine’s heir, and Jean d’Arras in fact makes her the official arbiter of this attribution. Presine had proclaimed that Melusine would appear at the fortress she had founded each time it was about to change hands, and now Jean cites several eyewitness reports that she had indeed appeared at Lusignan, both as an airborne dragon and in human form, shortly before the English ceded it to the Count of Poitou in 1374. Jean thus blends reminiscences of the historical past and the present, consolidating myth and pseudo-history into a fiction accessory to the political designs of Jean de Berry.

In late 1393, only a few months after the completion of Jean d’Arras’s Melusine, Léon de Lusignan died in Paris. Less than a decade later, a certain Coudrette composed a romance in octosyllabic French verse, the Roman de Lusignan; ou, Histoire de Lusignan, for Guillaume Larchevêque, the Lord of Parthenay. Larchevêque had been a prominent supporter of the English claim to the region and had for a time held Poitiers for them before he returned to the French side in 1372; he later seconded Jean de Berry’s efforts to retain lordship of Lusignan. Now, through Coudrette, he affirms that he, too, descends from the Lusignan line, through Thierry, Melusine’s youngest son, the heir of Parthenay, an “incomparable” ancestor to whom Coudrette devotes a lengthy panegyric later in the work.

Coudrette does not explain if and how his text is related to that of Jean d’Arras. In terms of content, however, this second Lusignan romance very closely resembles Jean’s Melusine. It differs primarily in the omission of several parts of Geoffroy Big-Tooth’s story, among them his adventures in the Holy Land and in Austria, his pilgrimage, and the story of the “Knight of the Tower” in the epilogue. On the other hand, at the end of Coudrette’s work the episode set in Melior’s Sparrow Hawk Castle is followed by an account of the fate, mentioned only in passing by Jean d’Arras, of Melusine’s other sister, Palestine, in the mountain of Canigou. There, as her mother had decreed, she watches over her father’s vast treasure until a knight of her lineage shall conquer it. The successful knight, Jean d’Arras writes and Coudrette repeats, will avail himself of the treasure and use it to deliver the Promised Land. After many valiant knights have attempted and failed to do so, Geoffroy Big-Tooth determines to undertake the adventure, but he dies before setting out, leaving his lands to his brother Thierry, and the foretold conquest of the treasure and the Holy Land by a Lusignan remains unfulfilled. Following an encomium of Thierry and his lineage, Coudrette reports the death of Guillaume Larchevêque in 1401, and then lavishes praise on the latter’s son John, who has succeeded his father as the author’s patron. This exaltation of the young heir of Parthenay is a celebration of genealogy—he descends from Melusine through his father and, through his mother, from the royal line —and his wife is of a noble line that traces back to the time of Charlemagne. Coudrette is perhaps suggesting here, as Laurence Harf-Lancner points out, that a Lusignan may yet be the instigator of a new and glorious crusade.

During the later Middle Ages and continuing through the Renaissance and beyond, Melusine once again became a prominent figure in folklore and popular culture. She also flourished after the advent of printing. Jean d’Arras’s Histoire de Melusine was first published in print in Geneva in 1478, and by 1597 there were twenty-two known printed editions. During the late fifteenth century Melusine’s popularity also began to soar among readers of other languages. This accrued to the longevity of Coudrette’s version as well: a Swiss translator, Thüring von Ringoltingen, completed a German prose adaptation in 1456. The Historia de la linda Melosina, translated from Jean d’Arras’s version and published in Toulouse in 1489, was among the earliest chivalric romances printed for a Castilian public. An anonymous Middle English translation based on Coudrette appeared near the end of the century; another, based on Jean d’Arras, appeared around 1500. In France around 1520, an editor carefully divided Jean d’Arras’s work into two independent romances, L’Histoire de Mélusine and L’Histoire de Geoffroi à la Grand Dent, suitable for purchase as a set, and six editions of the latter appeared between 1530 and 1597. During the seventeenth century, numerous editions of Mélusine were published in the popular subscription series the Bibliothèque Bleue de Troyes, and in 1869 Alfred Delvau published both works in his collection of romans de chevalerie.

The Melusine of Jean d’Arras is found in ten manuscripts dating from the fifteenth century. Our translation is based on the earliest of these, housed in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris, as edited by Louis Stouff. Arsenal 3353 was produced not long after the completion of the work itself, most likely during the first quarter of the fifteenth century. It is the best and most complete exemplar, and has also served as the base manuscript for two more recent editions. In the manuscript thirty-six colored drawings effectively divide the romance into thirty-five chapters, each introduced by a rubric.

When Jean d’Arras completed his Melusine in 1393, French prose was nearing the second century of its sudden and vigorous flourishing that began around 1200, and the so-called Middle French period had been in full swing for over a century. Jean’s decision to offer a prose rather than a verse account of the Lusignan dynasty reflects a long-standing tendency, already in evidence in some of the earliest French historical texts, to prefer prose as a medium for purportedly historical narratives.

While Jean often strives to cultivate a sense of the historically informed account, the text also presents a number of issues to be addressed by the translator intent on providing an accurate translation that is also accessible to a modern reader. We have, of course, standardized the varying spelling of many names. Because Jean’s use of extended passages of direct-discourse dialogue is sometimes awkward by modern norms, we have converted occasional brief utterances from direct to indirect discourse. We have eliminated some of the numbingly repetitious apostrophes that frequently punctuate dialogues, “Sire!” being one of the most frequent among these, used even in harsh exchanges between a Christian warrior and a Saracen foe. We have also reduced the redundancy occasioned by the descriptive rubrics that accompany the illustrations in the Arsenal manuscript.

Another issue concerns the remarkable semantic richness implicit in certain Middle French words. A prominent example found throughout Melusine is the use of words relating to wonderment and the marvelous, especially the noun “merveille,” its verbal form “merveillier,” and their variants. More generally, as is the case in much Middle French writing, the limited range of words and phrases Jean uses to describe the inner life of characters is sometimes disconcerting when this narrow lexicon is called on to evoke a wide variety of mental and emotional states. While the original audience, with different habits of reading or of listening, could have been expected to supply the implicit nuances according to the narrative context, for a modern audience the paucity and apparent monotony of these terms may at times seem to flatten the rich complexity of human emotions with which the author invests this extraordinary story. For our own readers, we have attempted to capture or suggest some of these nuances by recourse to the far richer variety of synonyms available in modern English.

Jean’s prose also bears the earmarks of stylistic tendencies prevalent among writers of his day. Readers of late medieval French texts in prose are well aware that some of its finest exemplars cultivate a dense and intricate style, and Jean’s Melusine is no exception. His descriptions frequently unfold in convoluted syntactical structures with cascades of subordinate clauses, intricate turns of phrase, and accumulations of synonyms, all of which present the translator with a considerable variety of options. Within a spectrum of possibilities marked at one end by unwavering fidelity to the original vocabulary and syntax and at the other by recourse to a “literary” style remote from the norms of late fourteenth-century French, we found neither of these extremes desirable. A slavishly literal translation may paradoxically read like a travesty of the original, while an eclectic, self-consciously “aesthetic” rendering may seem more evocative of some subgenre of the modern or postmodern novel. In our translation we have striven to steer a middle course. For the most part we have retained the sentence structures of the original, modifying them only in order to increase clarity or capture a meaning or nuance more precisely. Jean d’Arras does not divide the text into chapters, but to facilitate the reader’s progress we have introduced a number of headings, listed in the table of contents to identify major sections of the story.

Finally, a further word needs to be said about Jean’s cultivation of stylistic registers. Among these the reader will likely note the high, sententious style of the prologue; the flexible conversational styles that vary in tone and decorum according to the gender, social status, and emotional state of the speaker; an oratorical, periodic style deployed for public addresses before military assemblies; the sober, didactic style of Melusine’s counsel—the chastoiements—which she delivers to her sons on two occasions, prior to their respective departures for foreign venues; the epic exaltation of the splendor of battle pageantry and, in contrast, the brutal depictions of carnage; the lengthy, heated vituperatio whereby Raymondin upbraids Melusine and excoriates her alleged serpentine nature; and, of course, the pathetic, elegiac qualities of the latter’s many poignant lamentations that ensue from that one fatal spousal tirade. In sum, a hallmark of Jean’s prose is his effective use of a variety of stylistic variations. Our engagement with them has immeasurably increased our pleasure as translators of his prose, and their richly nuanced qualities will, we trust, also enhance the reader’s enjoyment of this masterpiece of late medieval narrative.