Medieval legend at Parthenay-le-Vieux (Dennis Aubrey)


We have written before about the lovely church at Parthenay-le-Vieux in the Deux-Sèvres region of France near Poitiers. The church is in private hands and appears to stand empty. It is certainly no longer consecrated and in use as a church. PJ and I both love it because of its great “bones” and the interesting sculptures that adorn the building. These sculptures and a recent discovery that we have made for ourselves prompt this post.

Side aisle of Église Saint-Pierre , Parthenay-le-Vieux (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by PJ McKey

One of the great local legends in this area centers around Mélusine, a water-nymph who marries a human being. The earliest written version of the story appeared in 1392. Jean d’Arras used popular oral tradition in France to create the Roman de Mélusine. He tells how “She became the fairy Queen of the forest of Colombiers in the French region of Poitou. One day, she and two of her subjects were guarding their sacred fountain when a young man, Raymond of Poitiers, burst out of the forest. Mélusine spent the night talking with Raymond, and by dawn, they were betrothed, but with one condition. Mélusine requested that Raymond promise that he would never see her on a Saturday. He agreed, and they were married. Mélusine brought her husband great wealth and prosperity. She built the fortress of Lusignan so quickly that it appeared to be made by magic. Over time, Mélusine built many castles, fortresses, churches, towers and towns, each in a single night, throughout the region. She and Raymond had ten children, but each child was flawed.”

Nave and west front of Église Saint-Pierre , Parthenay-le-Vieux (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by PJ McKey

“One day, Raymond’s brother visited him and made Raymond very suspicious about the Saturday activities of his wife. So the next Saturday, Raymond sought his wife, finding her in her bath where he spied on her through a crack in the door. He was horrified to see that she had the body and tail of a serpent from her waist down. He said nothing until the day that their son, Geoffrey-with-the-great tooth, attacked a monastery and killed one hundred monks, including one of his brothers. Raymond accused Mélusine of contaminating his line with her serpent nature, thus revealing that he had broken his promise to her.

As a result, Mélusine turned into a fifteen-foot serpent, circled the castle three times, wailing piteously, and then flew away. She would return at night to visit her children, then vanish. Raymond was never happy again. Mélusine appeared at the castle, wailing, whenever a count of Lusignan was about to die or a new one to be born. It was said that the noble line which originated with Mélusine will reign until the end of the world.” (Reference: D’Arras, Jean. Mélusine. Edited by A.K. Donald. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Tribner and Co., 1895)

Support for the local origins of the story can be found in that nearby forest of Columbiers. The church of the Église Notre-Dame de Colombiers has, in fact, a representation of Mélusine adorning one of the capitals.

Siren capital, Église Notre-Dame de Colombiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The legends attribute a relationship between Mélusine and the church Saint Pierre de Parthenay-le-Vieux. Popular tradition claims that she built the church in three nights. There are more solid references to Mélusine, however, than just legends. On one of the capitals appears a siren holding the two parts of her tail. Mélusine is often presented as this siren, and in conventional iconography she is often said to represent the duality of feminine sexuality and the female nature.

Siren capital, Église Saint-Pierre de Parthenay-le-Vieux (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

But on the tympanum, there is an even more interesting sight, one that we did not understand until we came upon the legend of Mélusine. One band of the ornamentation features a series of images of a woman in her bath, each with a different expression on her face. This can only be Mélusine herself.

Mélusine in her bath, tympanum, Église Saint-Pierre de Parthenay-le-Vieux (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

It is clear that Mélusine is an important reference to this church, and was so even at the very beginning. Local legends place the story of the marriage into the Lusignan family contemporary to the time that the Saint Pierre was built shortly before the end of the 11th Century. This makes it an interesting amalgam of Christian and pagan cultures. Perhaps the duality of Mélusine as demonstrated in the capital reflects this religious duality as much as the conventional reference to female sexuality.

9 responses to “Medieval legend at Parthenay-le-Vieux (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. What a fascinating tale — and observation of the melding of pagan and Christian cultures in this area! Interesting to see how it’s articulated in the church’s carvings. Thanks for the story (and lovely, descriptive images)!

    • Fascinating indeed. I was struck by the timing of the building of the church and the identification of the legend, which were simultaneous and well-established by the time that Jean d’Arras composed the tale. And Colombiers is only 30 miles from Lusignan, so the tale has a distinct geographic boundary.

  2. Brilliant and beautiful post, Dennis. I did a bit of web research on Melusine, and see that she was the stuff of legend throughout many centuries and in many countries. She was spoken of by such disparate personages as Martin Luther, Wolfgang von Goethe and Marcel Proust. Luxembourg issued a postage stamp with her figure on it in 1999. She was known under various names in countries from Scotland to Poland. But she does seem to be most famous as the troubling wife of the Comte de Poitiers.

    Many thanks! Your blog is amazing !!

    Elliott (elliottingotham.wordpress.com)

    • Viv, “serpent nature” – I loved that phrase to describe the darker part of humanity. If Geoffrey attacked the monastery and killed a hundred monks, I guess some explanation is needed!

  3. This is an extraordinary discovery to find a secular legend in stonework on a church portal at the transition from the Early to the Late Middle Ages. In a country where a term like “double entendre” is a part of daily conversation. Melusine evokes a number of double entendres, in her name alone worthy of extensive research. When my wife and I chose the name Melanie for out first child because it was for us poetic, we were little aware that our still sun-bleached daughter would have a dark name. Now, with a little more awareness, I am inclined to find Mel of Melusine to be somehow linked to mela (apple) as in Adam and Eve acting disobediently at the Tree, as mela is black or at least dark, or that sine is ‘without,’ or possibly ‘without sin,’ without darkness, as long as her husband has Faith, whereupon having doubted, he is rewarded with a being as a partner who is quite less manageable. In every Christian portal is a double entendre, a simplistic story for the simple and a deep moral statement for the prayerful and meditative. Great stuff, visually and symbolically, but I for one will let this one go, tarrying no longer and awaiting more informed comments than my compulsive speculations.

    • Darrell, it was a bit of a shock to realize that the archivolt sequence was of Melusine bathing. I don’t know about the derivation of mela-sine, but you are absolutely right about the double meaning of the portal. To think that this was – in those days – contemporary to the Lusignans, it was an extraordinary statement.

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