Jean d’Arras and Couldrette: Political Expediency and Censorship in Fifteenth-Century France
By Matthew W. Morris
Postscript, Vol.18-19 (2002)
Introduction: The romance of Melusine is one of the most intriguing monuments handed down to us from the Middle Ages. The legend behind it concerns the Lusignan family of France and Cyprus, who claimed to be descended from Melusine, a fairy of Poitou, whose origins hark back to her status as a Celtic deity representing the sovereignty of the land, and whose role it was to choose and form union with the rightful ruler of the land.
The first recorded mention of the legend dates from about 1340. The tale itself was not incorporated into literature until 1393 when Jean d’Arras composed the first Melusine romance in prose. His version was followed almost immediately by Couldrette’s poetic version in 1401. Both versions of the tale relate the story of the “other-world” lady, Melusine, who marries a mortal, helps him to found a seigneurie, and bears him ten sons who go forth to found kingdoms and duchies of their own. In the end, Melusine is betrayed by her husband. Against injunction, he spies upon her and sees her frolicking in her bath, a beautiful woman from the waist upward, a serpent from the navel down. He denounces her, then regrets his action, but too late; she must depart. Taking the form of a winged dragon, she flies away, never to return except as banshee to her descendants or when the castle changes lords.
The numerous extant fifteenth-century manuscripts of both versions (13 for the prose; 20 for the poetic) testify to the great appeal of these romances to readers throughout France during the late Middle Ages. Shortly after the appearance of Jean d’ Arras’s and Couldrette’s tales, the Melusine story spread rapidly to Germany, England, and Eastern Europe.
As the fifteenth century progressed, demand for the two versions steadily increased. To meet the demand in France, editions of Jean d’ Arras’s prose version began to appear very soon after the introduction of the printing press in France (1470). The first of these appeared in 1478; seven other editions of this version appeared before the end of the fifteenth century.
Outside France’s borders, demand for printed editions of the romance was just as pronounced. In fact, the very first printed edition of the Melusine was that of Couldrette translated into German and executed in Germany in 1474, four years before the first French prose edition. At least two other editions of this German translation appeared in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. In all, twenty-eight editions of the German version (based on Couldrette’s poem) have appeared since that 1474 edition.
In addition to the German Melusine, translations of the story into other languages attest to the Melusine’s aesthetic quality and ability to attract universal audiences. Among the many translations of the romance, there were early Melusine editions in Flemish, Danish, Czech, Spanish, Swedish, English, Dutch, Icelandic, and Russian. These attest to the universal interest in this poignant tale of love and enchantment.