Les Très Riches Heures, March
Jean-Claude Mühlethaler
(University of Lausanne)


Lusignan stands for a mighty Poitevin family, who first opposed the dukes of Poitiers and later the Kings of both France and England. The Lusignans are famous for having spread their power around the Mediterranean at the time of the crusades: some members of the family became Kings of Jerusalem, others of Cyprus and even of Armenia. But the ruins of the imposing fortress between Poitiers and La Rochelle particularly remind us of the legendary ancestor of the family, the fairy Melusine. Indeed, this mysterious creature has continued to fascinate people throughout the ages, from medieval poets to modern readers. 

In 1393, Jean d’Arras completed his Roman de Melusine, a prose narrative commissioned by the duke Jean de Berry, King Charles V’s brother. Around 1401, the author known as Coudrette also chose to narrate the story of Melusine, the famous fish-tailed Poitevin fairy creature; he chose to write in verse, rather than in prose. Coudrette’s version, especially, sheds light on connections between the Lusignans and the sires of Parthenay, his patrons. The fascination with Melusine at the end of the 14th century certainly is puzzling: one senses History under the veil of Legend. Indeed, both versions do glorify the dominion of the Lusignans, in both Occident and Orient, thanks to the narrative of the fairy’s sons’ conquests. From this point of view, the episode involving the fire at Maillezais – the abbey destroyed and later rebuilt by Geoffroy à la Grand Dent – is of utmost importance because it relates to the conflict between Geoffroy de Lusignan and this mighty institution in the thirteenth century. However, the historical underpinnings of both versions do not explain why Jean d’Arras and Coudrette should champion a family whose hour of glory has long passed: having been driven out by his subjects, Léon de Lusignan, the last King of Armenia, had died during his exile in Paris in 1393.

Both imaginative texts make more sense when read with recent history in mind. In 1369, Charles V had given the territory of Poitou – under English dominion since the treaty of Brétigny (1360) – to his younger brother as an appanage. Consequently, Jean de Berry undertook the reconquest of the domain, laying siege to Lusignan in 1373. The fortress is stoutly defended by John Cresewell, whose testimony Jean d’Arras mentions at the end of his narrative; the English captain acknowledges having seen Melusine, as a “serpente”, announcing that it is time to return Lusignan to its legitimate owner. Significantly, Jean de Berry counted himself as a descendant of this noble family through his mother, Bonne de Luxembourg. Art thus serves Politics: aided by Le Roman de Mélusine, the duke can consolidate his claims over Poitou (which had been threatened by the 1392 negotiations between Charles VI and Richard II of England). Such claims are consolidated by Les Très Riches Heures, illustrated by the Limbourg brothers for Jean de Berry in 1414: the illumination for March, featuring the fortress of Lusignan, actually features a dragon flying over the main tower; this is Melusine, the very founder of the fortress! The presence of this fairy is not accidental or merely decorative, since Henri V was demanding Poitou as a condition of peace with the French at this time. 

Church at Lusignan

Guillaume Larchevêque, Lord of Parthenay, acts similarly to Jean de Berry when ordering a Roman de Mélusine from Coudrette. The commissioner had first supported the English, but then had changed sides during the siege of Lusignan. Can one read the failure of the English knight at Mount Canigou, where Melusine’s sister Palestine guards the treasure, and the death of Geoffroy à la Grand Dent, who has left to undertake the same adventure, as echoing to the Franco-English rivalry? Coudrette then concludes his narrative by an exaltation of Christian values that can be read as a demand to the belligerents to remember their common values and make peace. Nevertheless, the ideal of the crusade develops in both narratives as the exploits of Mélusine’s sons in the Orient and Eastern Europe are depicted. The holy place has to be reconquered, as requested by Léon de Lusignan and Philippe de Mézières – the preceptor of Charles VI and former chancellor of Pierre I de Lusignan, king of Cyprus, whose assassination (in 1369) is hinted at in the last few pages of the prose narrative. As worthy sons of Mélusine, the fairy who founded churches all over Poitou, Geoffroy and his brothers are depicted as defenders of Christianity. While Jean d’Arras’ text concludes by recounting the Lusignan’s decline and leaves the concluding words to History, Coudrette’s Canigou adventure enables not only a celebration of the Parthenay, but also the hope for a revived spirituality. There is no need to say that the defeat of the Christian army against the Ottomans in Nicopolis in 1396 enhances the importance of this renewal. Accordingly, the mysticism of the ultimate crusade under the aegis of the last Emperor, seen to inaugurate a thousand years of happiness, may be interpreted thus: at the beginning of the end of Time, Lusignan stands in the very heart of World History. 


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Harf-Lancner, Laurence, « Littérature et politique : Jean de Berry, Léon de Lusignan et le Roman de Mélusine », in Histoire et littérature au Moyen Âge, edit. Danielle Buschinger (Göppingen : Kümmerle Verlag, 1991), p. 161-171.

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Wahlen, Barbara, and Mühlethaler, Jean-Claude, « Dépasser le modèle arthurien : Geoffroy la Grand’ Dent, chevalier de la fin des temps ? », in 550 Jahre deutsche Melusine – Coudrette und Thüring von Ringoltingen / 550 ans de Mélusine allemande – Coudrette et Thüring von Ringoltingen, edit. André Schnyder and Jean-Claude Mühlethaler (Bern : Peter Lang, 2008), p. 343-362.