On to Lusignan, Parthenay, Fontevraud and Parts beyond, Pt. I

A bit belated post, but here it goes.

The lesson: research is often wet rather than dry….


Of course, it had to rain; intermittently, but it rained, a wet autumn for GB and western France.

ImageWe survived the dozen round-abouts to get past Angoulême while I screamed ‘you missed the exit!’, missed the first turn off to Lusignan, but got it the next time via D-7 and D-742, given the French idiosyncratic road numbering intended to bedevil tourists.


ImageThe approach to Lusignan is across flat, fertile farm land with no hill in sight—one would expect a hill for a castle to be built upon, but one would be wrong. We breezed into Lusignan, after another wrong turn, of course. It was later afternoon and the rain broke. Parked on the plaza and hoofed it past recent excavations and saw a most welcoming sign: Toilettes. Free & clean. Merci, thoughtful residents of Lusignan!

ImageWent down the street past an impressive church, Notre-Dame et Saint Junien, founded in 1042 by Hugh IV, opposite his castle—which no longer exists. It was leveled in 1575 during the Wars of Religion; in the XVIII century, the intendant of Poitou, count de Blossac created a promenade with trees and a lovely garden—but no substitute for the castle, if you ask me.

ImageThat structure sat on a promontory overlooking the steep valley of La Vonne over which now runs a railroad viaduct. That of course explains why the Lusignans built their castle there—atop the natural defense of an escarpment.




ImageNo one was around to stop us, so we slid down a wet, grassy slope to get to the bottom of it. We walked around the walls of what must have been at one time a very impressive edifice indeed. Nothing but the foundations with parts of the battlements remain, but all of it made my heart pound faster and not just from the climb.








This is the place!



With the castle gone, the residents of Lusignans (pop. about 3,000) developed a sort of cottage industry around the spirit/sprite/fairy/serpent-woman Mélusine, the legendary ancestress of the Lusignans who was suppose to conjure up the castles of Lusignan and Parthenay, and castle all across Poitou (there are different versions of the story…)..

ImageThe image of Mélusine—fish-tailed and bare breasted—occupies the façade of the cultural museum at the entrance to the promenade, as well as the face of Hugh IV’s church. I was happy to finally spot her after visiting the rather dark interior.



ImageMélusine, her legendary progeny, and her depictions in medieval sources also created a cottage industry for academics–but that’s another story. The residents of Lusignan recently put up a statute of Mélusine’s most redoubtable son, Geoffrey Big Tooth (Geoffroy la Grand’Dent) on the promenade. I make no comments about its esthetics, but here it is.

We had to leave early since we intended get to Parthenay before dusk, but we did return to Lusignan on our return trip; this time the sun came out and we hiked around in pretty warm weather, exploring the bits we didn’t get to see the first time.

Thank you, Mélusine, for the lovely send-off.

As fascinating as this folk tale is (Mélusine has her counterparts in other parts of Europe, including the Czech rep.), my view is that it proves that no matter what century, some people will believe anything. Alas, my interest is not in the legendary, but in the once ambitious and powerful family that was rather proud of its unsettling ancestry.

To be continued…. 

About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
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