The One Thing Historical Fiction Writers Ought to Know

The Gender-Genre Wars

In a recent issue of Writer’s Digest, literary agent Irene Goodman offered her advice on “16 Things All Historical Fiction Writers Need to Know.” Among them was the caution (?) that

“This kind of fiction requires high quality writing. It’s not like genre writing and it’s not something you can just dash off. It requires education, thought, and skill.”

Oh, dear. What “genre writing” could one be referring to where education, thought, and skill are not required?

Ms. Goodman further tells us that “In the last several years, historical fiction has focused mainly on women. That is starting to change. You still need that hook, though.”

Picture1

The fact is that many writers and readers of historical fiction are women. And women have written fiction ‘focused mainly on women’ for a very looooong time. They wrote women back into history in the ‘genre writing’ we today call romance. And it is romances in the broadest sense that serve as the foundation on which rests our current concepts of historical fiction.

 

Georgette and Me

Georgette and Me @ Osher

Since I have just finished my own little tirade on the subject of “Lesser Lady Novelists,” (those scribbling women who write for women), the statements perfectly illustrated my points: the old gender-genre war is alive and well.

 

And that is not an accident.

There is already a complex relationship between history as a subject and as literature, and that relationship is further ‘complicated’ by historical fiction often written by women for a female audience focusing principally on female characters.

What continues to surprise—ok, irks me—is that the many writers and the ‘literary world’ which ought to know something about the development of historical fiction readily jump on the bandwagon of rejecting the description of a story set in the past as ‘historical fiction’ lest that oeuvre be confused with, perish the thought, ‘romance.’
Wallace

That type of literature is dismissed euphemistically as ‘genre,’ and more routinely as ‘Mills & Boon, escapist, tosh, trashy, encouraging dangerous fantasies, middle class and middlebrow, chick-lit-in-corsets, bodice rippers, or as one reviewer on Goodreads put it, ‘lady novels.’

 

The dreaded specter of being mistaken for a ‘historical romance’ leads both male and female writers to declare that they are not writing historical fiction, they are writing fiction. That of course does not prevent them from saying something silly about what the history in their story is, isn’t, or ought to be which is then reported as a profound insight by ‘literary’ reviewers.

 

No wonder that Evan S. Connell hastened to assure the reader of his novel Deus lo Volt , Chronicle of the Crusades—

I think of this as a book about the Crusades, not an ‘historical novel’—a term that suggests imaginary experiences and unlikely conversations. Monologues and dialogues in the book are paraphrased or condensed from those in medieval documents. Every meeting, every conversation, every triumph or defeat, no matter how small, was recorded centuries ago. Most—indeed, nearly all—have been forgotten, removed from our sight, as Princess Anna notes in the epigraph.

Well, we could check to see what Princess Anna really said, but never mind. Obviously, McConnell protests too much, as do others, keen to separate themselves from ‘those novels.’
SlammerkinWhen The Washington Post Book World reviewed Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, its praise came with a condemnation of the other ‘genre’ on the novel’s cover page.

What a great read this book is: Think Forever Amber skewed with an elegant noir twist and informed by a high literary intelligence. Slammerkin is pulpy at heart, but …Donoghue ….elevated her racy story …close to art. This absorbing, bawdy novel gives new meaning to the term costume drama.

The Reading Group Guide at the back asks, “Should novels like Slammerkin be put in the category of historical fiction, or does that make them sound formulaic?”

 

Pass the smelling salts, Miss Scarlett

SetonSimilarly, in 2004, Philippa Gregory wrote an introduction to the re-issue of Anya Seton’s Katherine, first published in 1954. Gregory writes that reading Seton is ‘an escapist experience, but not in a derogatory sense,” and distinguishes between ‘high quality historical fiction and one that draws “…on long frocks and big hats, horse drawn carriages, and high jeopardy….”

 

Salts, please!
Are there degrees of escapism one can embrace as oppose to deplore? Isn’t what one considers ‘high quality historical fiction’ ultimately in the eyes of the reader?

Given the social context of this women-centered genre, according to an informative article about Seton, it is not surprising that Seton herself has called her works “biographical novels” and distinguished them from what she called a “standard costume piece or historical romance”—because her novels involved research into facts, dates, and places.

Ironically, despite her efforts, her novels remain shelved “among heaving bosoms and lantern-jawed rogues,” and therefore they “rarely received literary respect” even while they have influenced a number of contemporary writers.

The quotes, questions, and statements reveal a lot about the persistent efforts to distinguish ‘historical fiction’ from the Forever Amber types (remembers that one?), the pulpy, racy, and bawdy costume dramas, and formulaic women’s fiction.

That is unfortunate.

In one of the and earliest studies of popular culture, John G. Cawelti argues that ‘formulaic’ is a descriptive term which is not to be understood in the usual ‘derogatory sense’ that classifies literature on a snobby scales of approbation.

Cooper &Short

Similarly, current scholarship in popular culture and women and gender studies revealed those ‘romances’ to be a lot more complex than mere escapism and formulaic costume dramas of “… long frocks and big hats, horse drawn carriages, and high jeopardy.”

Gregory

If that is so, does that mean that in ‘historical fiction’ everyone goes about the world naked, on foot, and faces absolutely no jeopardy whatsoever?

In 1992, Jayne Ann Krentz (aka Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle) in a preface to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women puts it succinctly—

…society has always felt free to sit in judgment not only on the [romance] literature but on the reader herself….It labels the books as trash and the readers as unintelligent, uneducated, unsophisticated or neurotic. The fact that so many women persist in reading and enjoying romance novels in the face of generations of relentless hostility says something profound not only about women’s courage but about the appeal of the books.
These deal with moral and ethical issues surrounding women’s lives that remain very much at issue today; the sovereignty over one’s own body, legal and political personhood, economic and legal inequalities based on class structure and gender.

Isn’t that what historical fiction does? It remains a story of men and/or women shaped and surrounded by all those ‘facts, dates, and places’ we educated, skilled and thoughtful folks add to make our stories ‘authentic.’ And often, the clue to that is in the cover–or not.

Dunnett
So can we, at least as writers, be less snooty about our ‘genre’? After all, there are historians who consider what we write tosh and tripe for the middleblows—despite all those facts, dates, and places.

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Advice on How to Write Historical Fiction–Not

Writing is easy, writing well is less so.

Since I didn’t begin to learn English until I was 15 years old, it’s been an interesting and uphill struggle to put words on page. Every time I launch into prose, I hear Professor Henry Higgins berating me—

By right she should be taken out and hung,
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.

Therefore I felt a particular tingle of pleasure  (yes, I am that shallow) to encounter this “Sample Historical Fiction Dialogue,” contained in on-line advice on ‘how to write historical fiction.’

Sample of historical fiction dialogue

 

The posting reassures one that the advice is actually ‘expert reviewed’ by an “MFA candidate in Creative Writing.”

By the way, did anyone notice that there has been much ‘how-to’ and ‘advice’ offered lately on writing historical fiction ? A perusal of the ‘literature’—and I confess to have done my share—finds that some is  more ‘creative’ than others. More on that perhaps later…

So…given the fact that the ‘advice’ was vetted by an ‘MFA candidate in Creative Writing,’ I thought to turn it into a bit of ‘creative editing’ of my own. And yes, I am that shallow…

The words Hello I Am An Expert written on a red nametag or sticker for a consultant or other business professional to wear and solicit new clients and business for his firm or practice


 

 [The Story of a Dead Dog, Five ‘as’-es, and Maybe a Dog-headed Man and some Snakes]

“What in tarnation…” [our hero is a polite one for reasons to be discovered below] said Jack to himself [this can be omitted completely]  as [#1] he hurriedly to [oh dear] put his pants on [split? but excusable; still, why wasn’t he wearing pants? Wait for it…]  and buckle [tense, tense !] his holster around his waist.

His dog, Ranger, [since the dog is also named below, can omit the name, or vice versa] must have sensed something too as [#2] it [is the dog an it or is it a he or a she?] started barking, pawing at the door [comma?] trying to get out.  [One presumes he was trying to get out rather than in, in which case pawing at the door should be enough].

“Ranger, [yes, we know his name is Ranger] down boy [we now know it’s a he not an it] ,” shot Jack firmly [did Jack just shoot his dog, and ‘firmly’ at that?] as [#3] he tied a leash to Ranger’s [yes, we know the dog’s name is Ranger.…] collar. [Does Jack plan to drag his dead dog by the leash?]

“If a fight’s what they want, a fight’s what they’ll get,,” [no commas, not even two, please] he said as [#4] he finished up [Finished up what? The above action of tying the leash was a completed action] and stroked his furry dog’s head [so, Jack in fact had a dog’s head—which was furry. Or the dead dog was furry? Or the dead dog’s head was furry, as opposed to what? Mangy? Bald? Shaved? Dogs usually have furry heads, even dead ones, no?]

He reached for his shotgun [Who? Ranger did? Depends on whose furry head we are talking about, doesn’t it? ] and his wide-brimmed hat [to cover up his furry head?] before giving the cabin one last look-around [action sequence—first put on the hat, then look around]

Then, with a deep breath, he opened the cabin door and stepped outside [yes, one presumes he stepped outside. He wouldn’t have stepped inside, would he? In fact, we don’t need the ‘stepped’ at all]

The harsh midday sun shone bright [as opposed to shining darkly?] but Jack Preacher [head hop?] did not look away. [Was he staring at the sun?]

Ranger [yes, still Ranger even though he was shot previously and was presumably dragged out the door] barked at the riders [we gather then that Jack Preacher was looking at the sun since he had not noticed the riders until Ranger did, despite being shot], who seemed oblivious to the canine [as opposed to a feline? Since they were oblivious, were they deaf?]

The leash tugged at Preacher’s grip, [that is one magic leash] his fist all tensed up just like his jaw. [do you ‘tense’ a fist or do you ‘clench’ it? Can you ‘tense’ a jaw?]

“Gentlemen,” said Preacher, nodding his head to the mounted strangers [wasn’t he staring at the sun? Anyway, we know they were mounted because they were called ‘riders’]

“Jack Preacher,” said the rider on the right [whose right?] with a low grumbling [he just got there. Why is he grumbling about it? Was he saddle sore?] voice [did he say it ‘in’ a ‘rumbling’ or ‘grumbling’ voice?]. “I see that you are still above snakes.” [were there serpents about  the place and was Jack Preacher given to hovering above them?]

The other riders all snickered menacingly [how did they manage to do that?] except the one on the left [whose left?], who seemed to be eyeing [was he or wasn’t he?] Jack’s rifle [shotgun?] with caution. The rider with the low rumbling [aha!] voice started again. [started again what? His horse? A car?]

“The auger sent us here, in case you were wonderin’,” [was it a Roman soothsayer or a drill bit that sent them?  If I were Jack, I’d be wondering myself] said the rider [is that the aforementioned rider? Then why mention him…again] as [#5] he spat on the ground.[‘as’ in talking and spitting at the same time?]  Jack noticed everyone else except him dismounting. [good for Jack to notice that everyone was dismounting except who? Who’s him? Was Jack dismounting? Was he dismounting from the snakes above which he continued to hover?]

“So,” answered Jack Preacher. [was there a question? I don’t remember a question; and isn’t that ‘so’ a bit too—now?]

All eyes were on him. [Are those the dismounted eyes?]

“Let’s dance.” [aha! The purpose of the visit is revealed at last!]

The End

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The Lusignans of Poitou

LofP

The recent developments in the Middle East revived academic and public interest in the West’s previous encounters with that part of the world. These events created something of a cottage industry of  histories and novels recounting the crusades, particularly the events surrounding the Third Crusade.

In that episode, everyone has their favorite heroes and villains. It also puts a twist on the adage that victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan…

Soft cover edition

…with different title

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Henry II of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart and “bad” King John are familiar figures to historians and fans of historical fiction, but their vassals, the Lords of Lusignan, are often forgotten—or more often portrayed as the villains in a medieval morality play.

Hardly surprising since the Lusignans, allegedly descendants from the half-serpent Mélusine, more than contributed to the turbulent and pivotal events in 12th and 13th century France, England, and the Holy Land. Not only did they repeatedly challenge royal authority, they managed to acquire crowns of their own through marriages to the heiress-queens of Jerusalem, founded the royal dynasty on Cyprus, ruled the Kingdom of Armenia, and became half-brothers and sisters of the King of England.

 Handsome, violent, treacherous, yet brave fighters and pious crusaders—and unfashionably faithful to their wives—the Lusignan lords of Poitou draw the writer and the reader into the triumphs and tragedies of medieval Europe and the beleaguered Byzantine Empire.

Who are these Guy(s)?

small faceAt Easter 1180, ‘against custom,’ Princess Sybilla of Jerusalem, the sister of the Leper King, “hurriedly” married Guy de Lusignan—because they had already shared bed and her brother had threatened to kill him.

Seven years later, with Guy wearing the crown matrimonial of Jerusalem, disaster struck the Holy Land when Saladín all but wiped out the Christian army under Guy’s leadership at the Battle of Hatin. The Christians lost Jerusalem, the Holy Cross, much of the Holy Land, and in the judgment of posterity, their already sketchy reputation, all in one swoop.

Professor Sir Steven Runciman wrote in A History of the Crusades regarding the marriage of Sybilla and Guy, described to her as a youth of extraordinary good looks and charm,

 “The King, her brother, protested in vain; for Guy, as anyone could see, was a weak and foolish boy. The Palestinian barons were furious to realize that they might have as their future king this youngest son of a petty French noble whose only distinction was his descent from the water-fairy Melusine.”

More recently, Prof. Jonathan Riley-Smith offered a rather different view.

 “If the nobles of the kingdom of Jerusalem really did think this, they could not have been more wrong. Guy and Aimary came from a remarkable family. They were related by blood to the counts of Tripoli and the king of England, and by marriage to the king of Jerusalem, and they had distinguished crusading pedigrees.”

In the previous hundred years, their father, grandfather, great-grandfatheMills.picturers and a horde of relatives took part in the First and Second crusades, and fought in Spain against the Moors in. In  fact, their father had been captured  in Syria and died a prisoner of the Muslims in 1164 (the ‘missing’ Hugh VIII).

As Professor Riley-Smith describes them, “The Lusignans were typical in that they could be at the same time ferociously aggressive in pursuit of rights or territorial ambitions and genuinely pious.”

One of the numerous Lusignans called Hugh (Hugh VI) was in referred to as Hugh the Devil by the monks of the Abbey of Saint Maixent with whom he was in constant conflict and repeatedly threatened with excommunication by Pope Paschal II.  His son led a “savage little war” against the duke of Aquitaine.

Not surprisingly, they also became, along with the usual Poitevin contingent of baronial malcontents, a thorn in the side of the Angevin, Plantagenet kings, and Capetian kings.

The Age of Heiresses:

Considering the Lusignans’ meteoric rise to prominence, their motto could easily be cherchez la femme since one fictional and a number of actual women were instrumental in elevating the men of this family to the positions they had ultimately reached.

It was their actual ancestress, Almondis of La Marche who created a nexus of family connections, thanks to the husbands she had married, not exactly in canonical succession:

  • Hugh V of Lusignan with whom she had two sons (Hugh VI was the elder)
  • Pons of Toulouse (three sons and a daughter)
  • Raymond Berengar of Barcelona (two sons)

She was apparently repudiated by Hugh V on the grounds of consanguinity, but in Prof. Riley-Smith’s opinion, it was because of her ‘overbearing’ personality and states that she was referred to as a ‘bolter,’ going from husband to husband.

She was murdered, supposedly by her stepson, Oct. 16, 1071.

 “Unknowns from Nowhere” ?

As the result of Almondis’s ‘bolting,’ almost everybody in this tale of the rise of the Lusignans, whether they be their opponents or allies, were related, including Richard the Lionheart and Sybilla of Jerusalem.

Prof. Riley-Smith therefore concludes, “whatever else they may have been, the Lusignans were not unknowns from nowhere.”

So…who are these Guy(s)?

Several specific events/incidents created the Lusignans’ reputation and laid the foundation of their historical and fictional depictions:

  • …the latest?

    The killing of Patrick, the earl of Salisbury in a Lusignan ambush in 1168

  • Their role in the King John’s losing the duchy of Normandy to King Philip of France in 1204
  • Their ‘guilt’ in losing most of the Holy Land to the Muslims in 1187 at the Battle of Hattin, labeled as one of the great disasters in history.
  • Their association with the most famous 39 clause of the Magna Carta,
  • Their contribution to the folklore legend of Mélusine

 

 

The Lusignans offer the sort of rabbit hole into which a historical fiction novelist can slide and happily wallow in the fascinating contradiction, and just plain silliness, that had become attached to their very name.

Sources:

Steven Runchiman, A History of the Crusades, voll. II (1951).

“The Crusading Heritage of Guy and Aimary of Lusignan,” in Cyprus and the crusades. Papers given at the international conference ‘Cyprus and the crusades’, Nicosia, 6–9 September, 1994. by N. Coureas and J. Riley-Smith. (Nicosia: Cyprus Research Centre and the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East, 1995)

 

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Starbucks, Mélusine and Me

 

hot chickThe ‘brew-haha’ that recently percolated over the 2015 Starbucks holiday cup reminded me of the ever-popular accusation that Starbucks’s logo depicting the legendary Mélusine is ‘in fact’ a demonic image.

Historically represented as a bare-breasted woman with the lower body of a serpent, fish, or a dragon, Mélusine is the French name of an ambiguous, female archetypal figure whose mutable nature continues to intrigue scholars—and in some cases alarm a certain portion of the population on this side of the Atlantic.

In an appropriately humorous response to the most recent Starbucks sillies, one imaginary interviewee opines: “Anyway, this new design is terrible all the way around. Except for that mermaid chick, she’s hot as hell.”

Melusine-paint

Melusine on a pizzeria in Lusignan

It was the ‘mermaid chick’ that caught my attention, on two accounts; first, because I was born in the former Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) where Mélusine has long been a part of folklore; second, her legend plays a role in my two historical novels, The Sixth Surrender and its sequel, The Serpent’s Crown. Both novels are set partly in a region of France from where the Mélusine legend emerged and with which she is associated.

In my novels, Mélusine has no connection to anything magical or paranormal. She serves as a metaphor for the real and fictional characters’ struggle to find their own identity, acceptance, and a measure of simple human happiness in the volatile and violent world of 13th century France and beyond.

So how did ‘the mermaid chick’ get to be a “Czech chick” as well? That is a great story…

&&&&

The first time I heard the name I was about five or six years old, standing by a wood stove when a fierce howl of winter wind came down the chimney. I recall to this day how I backed away, shivers down my back. I looked at my father and he smiled and said, in all seriousness, “That’s just Meluzína.”

At that moment, my child’s imagination conjured up a sad, gaunt woman in trailing a long, white, tattered gown, snaking around the chimney amidst great gusts of wind, her mouth open in a wail. I do remember that I felt sorry for her, for someone who cannot find the comfort of home and warmth and security.

I recall quite clearly that none of us had the urge to do anything more demonic than to throw another log into the woodstove, and to listen to the haunting sound outside in the snowy darkness. I didn’t know it then, but Mélusine had in fact been already domesticated, far from her own homeland.

&&&

The legend of Mélusine, a mysterious half-serpent woman and her marriage and progeny continues to draw a keen interest from students of history, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, literature, and mythology on both sides of the Atlantic. In literature, she popped up more recently in A. S. Byatt’s Possession.

A. S. Byatt

Although her anthropomorphic form may have originally sprung from a primal ‘collective unconscious’, in more recent historic times, the serpent, or worse yet, a female with a serpentine body, has become part of a different cultural consciousness.

In a fascinating study of the alteration—and demonization—of ancient symbols, The Alphabet versus the Goddess, the conflict between Word and Image, author Leonard Shlain, reminds us that “Western culture has long reviled the snake, associating it with evil and temptation. But at the dawn of civilization the snake was a positive symbol of feminine energy.” The snake—and the female—was also associated with the earth, nature, healing and wisdom, attributes which Western culture still has trouble acknowledging let alone accepting.

Shlain

Like Mélusine’s appearance, her name is also mutable and she has borne different names in different parts of the world. In contrast to some places, those living in Poitou, in the pays de Mélusine, unabashedly claim her as their homegrown patroness—although other regions of France claim her as well. From there, her legend has spread to Spain, Germany, England and Eastern Europe—and the U. S.

mermaidAn entry in The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets identifies Mélusine as the medieval version of the fish-tailed Aphrodite, with an ancient shire at Lusinia (modern Lusignan), named after her as “Lady of Light”. During the church’s crusades against the cults of love in southern France, Mélusine legend made her the mystic bride of Raymond, Count of Poitou. She married him on the condition that each Sabbath she must remained in seclusion in her bath. She there became a fish-tailed mermaid and spent the day in her bath.

In the Encyclopedia’s entry, it is “churchmen” who discovered her and either killed her or drover her from the castle. She returned each night to suckle her “children,” probably interpreted to mean the people themselves. She also served as a prophetess of death when she wailed around the ramparts of Lusignan castle, a king would die—or the lord of the castle.

In the numerous circulating versions of her story, Mélusine usually appears at a forest spring as a beautiful, ‘other-worldly’ woman who marries a mortal man on the condition that he will not see her in her Saturday bath. The association of Mélusine with water is not an accident; as Shlain reminds us, water is the symbol of femaleness. In their happy marriage, Mélusine helps her husband found a prosperous seigneurie and bears him several sons who strike out on their own to found their own kingdoms in various parts of the world.

Their happiness ends when her husband breaks his pledge of trust and peeks at her during her bath to discover that she has—a tail. With her secret discovered, she cries out, and condemned to remain in the form of a winged serpent or dragon, flies away never to return except appearing as a banshee to her descendants, or when the castle changes lords, announces their impending death by her mournful wail.

In the conclusion of her study, “The Role and Meaning of the Melusine Myth in Modern Narrative: a Jungian Perspective,” Laura Nannette Mosley wrote, “Views regarding [Mélusine’s] nature have run the gamut, from purely demonic to angelic messenger of God, but her ambiguity tends be a dominant factor in her make-up, which, in itself, has much to do with the wide range of interpretations we have encountered. It has become evident that how Mélusine is perceived has much to do with gender conceptions as they have developed (or not developed?)”

Melusine-bas

Melusine bas relief on tourist center at Lusignan castle

Mélusine then represents many things to many people—she is a metaphor for “that shadowy, secret, unsettling side of sexuality that a woman must carefully conceal if she is to preserve her happiness.” To others, she is used as a cautionary tale representing the mutability of character, fortune, fate, and the fragility of social hierarchy. To still others she represents “poignant stories of love and loss and enchantment.”

To me, the really interesting part is her role as a political allegory of the rise and fall of two dynasties, at two different times, and her subsequent absorption into the Czech folklore.

 &&&&

The Mélusine legend was already extant in the oral tradition of the 11th and 12th centuries when it was used to account for the ascension of the Angevins, particularly Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their famously infamous family.

In The Devil’s Crown, a history of Henry II and his sons, Richard Barber makes the point that in the Middle Ages the Angevins were linked to this legend of the beautiful, powerful, and unearthly lady. In a society that believed in a fixed social order, the legend served to explain to contemporaries that family’s rise to power.

As Barber puts it, the counts of Anjou, “noted for their fiery temper and ruthlessness, could only come from the devil, and so their line was traced back to a demon ancestress, wife of Geoffrey Greygown, one of the earliest counts.” This countess was naturally beautiful but refused to come to Mass and when held by force, she slipped out of her cloak and flew out the window with a terrible cry, never to be seen again.

In that context, Mélusine could be seen as a negative presence. Toward the end of the ‘calamitous 14th century, however, she emerges in a far more positive and interesting role than in the Angevin legend, this time associated with a different Poitevin family.

&&&&

Referring to the Angevins, Richard Barber pointed out that “[S]uch legends were not uncommon: the lords of Lusignan in Poitou, whose rise to power was similar to that of the counts of Anjou, had a demon ancestress called Mélusine. But they marked the family in question as something out of the ordinary run of mere mortals.”

Although today the lords of Lusignan, who had flashed briefly and magnificently upon the historical stage, are not exactly ‘marquee names,’ to their contemporaries they may very well have been “something out of the ordinary run of mere mortals.”

As Professor Riley-Smith describes them, “The Lusignans were typical in that they could be at the same time ferociously aggressive in pursuit of rights or territorial ambitions and genuinely pious.”

For those who see Mélusine as the Lusignans’ totemic ancestress, the origins of that family are equally murky. They emerged from the plains of Poitou somewhere in the late 10th, early 11th century and over the years they beat and browbeat lesser neighbors, married themselves into more powerful families, and became the kings and queens of Jerusalem, Cyprus, and Armenia. The main branch of the Lusignan died out in 1308; the Armenian branch continued until 1375 when Leo VI was dethroned and died in 1393. Their longest rule in the Lusignan kingdom of Cyprus lasted until 1473 when Venice claimed it.

Melusine-detailThe Lusignans were not shy about linking themselves to this ambiguous creature. The image of the winged Mélusine, tail and all, mouth open in a cry, stares down from the church of Notre Dame et Saint Junien, built in Lusignan by Hugh IV, le Brun cca. 1024. Some ascribe the Lusignans’ armorial bearing of silver chevrons on blue (burelée d’argent et d’azur) is intended to imitate her tail scales.

One historian explains that “[T]he significance of the attempt by the Lusignans at linkage with a supernatural being has to do with Mélusine’s origins as a Celtic deity. For the inhabitants of Poitou—Pictavia—land of the Celtic Pictones in pre-Roman times—Mélusine was the anthropomorphic representation of the sovereignty of the land whose right and privilege it was to recognize and form union with the legitimate ruler of the territory.” Others point out that Mélusine refers to “mère [mother] Lusine” from which the Lusignans derive their name, among other suggested derivations.

Lusignan blazon

Lusignan blazon

Sources indicate that the central elements of the Mélusine legend—and its connection to the lords of Lusignan—appear in written form as early as the beginning of the 12th and 13th century. Unlike their even more fabled and convoluted successors, those narratives are much closer to the historical facts: “…the fortress of Lusignan was founded by a knight and a fairy from whom the kings of Jerusalem and Cyprus, the counts of la Marche and of Parthenay were descended.”

Some 300 years later, Mélusine received a resurrection in a literary tradition that emerged during the political struggles of the Hundred Years War (1336-1433), and the attempted revival of the crusades by Leon de Lusignan of Armenia. It was at that point that she first acquired her connection to the Czech lands.

&&&&

In the late 14th century appear two versions of what is generally called Le Roman [Le Livre] de Mélusine ou [La Noble] Histoire des Lusignan. One version became incorporated in 1393 into a ‘romance’ written in a prose style by Jean d’Arras. His Roman de Mélusine was written at the behest of the Jean, Duc de Berry and his sister Marie of the House of Luxembourg—which claimed descent from the lords of Lusignan.

Shortly thereafter, in 1401, Mélusine appears in a poetic version by someone called Coudrette (various spelling).

Both of these presentations form a part of political propaganda when the French tried to conquer Poitou/Aquitaine, and the English tried to hang on to the remnants of the domains brought to Henry II by Aliénor of Aquitaine. In these later versions, Mélusine and her link to the Lusignan family are again used to legitimize one dynasty’s territorial claims over another’s. And here is where real history becomes more solidly entwined with the legend.

Jean de Berry and Marie de Luxembourg were the grandchildren of John of Luxembourg, the Blind King of Bohemia—much later Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. The son of the Holy Roman Emperor, John of Luxembourg became the king of Bohemia by his marriage in 1310 to Elizabeth Premysl, the daughter of the last king of Bohemia. Their daughter, Bonne of Luxembourg, was Jean de Berry’s mother.

John of Luxembourg turned out to be a bad husband and a bad king who spent the kingdom’s wealth on foreign adventures—like championing the cause of the French, and the eventually victorious Valois kings, who sought to regain Poitou from the English.

Unlamented by his subjects, John of Luxembourg died fighting on the French side at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. Bonne de Luxembourg married John, the heir of Philip VI of France. Bonne died in 1349, a year before her husband became king as Jean II. Their children included Charles V of France, Louis d’Anjou, Jean de Berry and Marie de Luxembourg.

The death of John of Luxembourgh

On the brighter side, John and Elizabeth founded a dynasty which ruled Bohemia from 1310 to 1437 and produced one of the more spectacular medieval rulers in the person of their son and Bonne’s brother, Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor (1316-1378). He is the man behind Charles University in Prague, the St. Vitus cathedral, and the Charles Bridge; Emperor Charles also spent some years of his youth living in France at the court of his uncle, the king of France.

By contrast, the version of Mélusine presented by Coudrette was commissioned by Guillaume de Parthenay (the name varies) a powerful Poitevin baron and ally of the English, and a strong adversary of the French during the Hundred Years War. He is described by Matthew W. Morris as “among the fiercest of the rebel French barons determined to end Valois rule: The Parthenays of Poitou.” William of Parthenay also belonged to one of the collateral branches of the Lusignans.

CIMG0541 - Copy

Parthenay, view of ramparts

As is common in history, it is an ironic twist that 14th century Poitevins defended their ties with the English when some 300 years earlier they had fiercely resisted the imposition of Anglo-Norman system of governance which Henry II, Richard, and John Plantagenet attempted to impose on them.

Alas, in 1374 Jean de Berry captured from the English the Lusignan fortress, the largest fortification in Poitou. Although some twenty years later he nearly lost it, along with Poitou, the region fell permanently to the French crown. In the famous prayer book of Très Riches Heures de duc de Berry, there is a wonderful illustration of the castle of Lusignan as it may have appeared to contemporaries, including the presence of Mélusine as a flying dragon around the ‘Poitevin tower.’

Riches Heurs--cropped

As a result, in the 14th century the versions of the Mélusine legend fused the elements of actual history of the Lusignan clan in Poitou, Cyprus, the Holy Land, and in Armenia in order to legitimize the territorial claims of the Luxembourgs and the Valois against the English—or of the English against the French. They also linked the Luxembourgs’ succession to the Bohemian throne via the Mélusine legend of their Lusignan ancestors.

In the Jean d’Arras narrative, which freely blends facts with eye-popping stories of marvels, Mélusine and her husband have several sons who are described brave and resourceful warriors and good husbands and fathers, even though they are monsters in appearance—a fact which their wives don’t seem to notice or mind.

Since those deformities could have led credulous 14th century readers to conclude that the Lusignans (and therefore the Luxembourgs) had a demonic ancestry, the author has Mélusine exhort her sons to Christian behavior, and to demonstrate repeatedly her Christian faith and piety. Some students posit that besides championing the Luxembourgs’ claim to the pays de Mélusine, d’Arras aimed to underscore to his contemporary audience the Church’s lessons in redemption.

D’Arras also introduced two of Mélusine’s sons, Antoine and Renaud, to provide a direct connection to the Luxembourgs and the Bohemian crown. In subsequent versions, Antoine’s and Renaud’s stories are usually omitted, but they play an important role in establishing dynastic territorial claims because d’Arras has Antoine marry the daughter of the Count of Luxembourg, and thereby gains that position, and Renaud marries the daughter of the King of Bohemia. Antoine and Renaud and their brothers further gain fame in the Holy Land, Cyprus, and Armenia as defenders of Christianity, a story line which incorporates the Lusignans’ own crusading heritage in that part of the world.

As a result, the Mélusine legend, removed from the pays de Mélusine, ties together the histories of the Lusignans of Poitou, Jerusalem, Cyprus and Armenia, and the Bohemian Luxembourgs.

&&&

From there to…there:

Recent research by Professor Martin Nejedlý of—where else—Charles University—traces the Mélusine legend to the Czech Republic where the ‘mermaid chick’ becomes a ‘Czech chick’.

Nejedly

M. Nejedlý, Medieval Myth of Meluzine

Mélusine received what Nejedlý calls her ‘second life’ thanks to the translation of Coudrette’s work into German by Thüringem von Ringeltinge in 1456. In 1555 the work was printed in translated form in the Czech language, and thereafter enjoyed 300 years of popularity in various editions. These versions, however, lost or omitted its former historical and genealogical connections to the Lusignans and the Luxembourgs since their story was no longer relevant to succeeding rulers.

 

In the late l8th and early 19th century, Mélusine gained entry in the catalogue of regional folklore as one of the malevolent folk deities and “…the former ancestress of the Luxembourg dynasty became a creature country folk as a rule feared. She was capable of destroying roofs or flying down the chimneys into the living room. Most often she evoked gloomy and ill-boding atmosphere.”

As a result, Dr. Nejedlý concludes, “Meluzína became a common name for the wail and cry of the wind, and in that sense, the word has become an inseparable part of the Czech language, still relevant in the 21st century.”

Not surprisingly as well, as had happened in France, the legend also blended with Czech regional traditions which took numerous forms, becoming in many instances a fairy tale about a beautiful maiden with happy, sad, or bittersweet endings. She continues to appear in children’s fairy tales. She gives her name to mountain peaks (Melusine Peak, 1,097 m) appears in legends attached to certain castles and natural rock formations, and continues to be associated with springs and wells, forests, and nature.

Meluzina_gesamt

Meluzine Peak, wiki commons

As a result, in the the 21st century, the ‘mermaid chick’ lives not only as a logo for an American coffee company; she also lives, and quite happily, far away from her homeland from where the long dead Luxembourgs borrowed her and where for centuries she had protected the lords of Lusignan.

So next time you are inclined to go to Starbucks for a bit of ‘satanic latte,’ raise the cup and think about the Luxembourgs of Bohemia and the Lusignans of Poitou instead.

Select Sources:
Richard Barber, The Devil’s Crown, a history of Henry II and his sons (BBC 1978; publication to accompany the TV series).

Laura Nannette Mosley, “The Role and Meaning of the Melusine Myth in Modern Narrative: a Jungian Perspective” Ph. D. dissertation, University of Georgia, 2012

Melusine of Lusignan, Founding Fiction in Late Medieval France, ed., Donald Maddox & Sara Sturm-Maddox (U. of Georgia Press, 1996).
Mathew Morris, “Jean d’Arras and Couldrette: (sic) Political Expediency and Censorship in Fifteenth-Century France,” Postscript, v. 18-19.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, “The Crusading Heritage of Guy and Aimery of Lusignan,” Cyprus and the Crusades, Papers given at the International Conference “Cyprus and the Crusades”, Nicosia, 6-9 September, 1994.

Available in Czech only, but trust me. 🙂

Dr. Martin Veselý (PDF)

Medieval Myth of Melusine 

 

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…on to Fontevraud Abbey (Pt. III)

Fontevraud Abbey:

What can one say? The tombs of Henry II, Richard, Isabelle d’Angoulême and Aliénor (dare one be on first name basis with that lady?)

 It rained. The countryside is somewhat rolling hills with fields and a few forested areas. The abbey sits in somewhat of a dip and one has to walk through a narrow passage from the parking lot to get to it, go through the modern,  well-stocked visitors’ center (I checked out the books, of course), and there it was, right in front of you.

Amazing. And it stopped raining and the sun peeked out.

The place wears well its almost ten centuries.

The interior with its surprisingly light, soaring space and cupolas reduces one to size, compelling humility and piety, if one is so inclined. Some people describe it as ‘lacking in warmth and intimacy,’ but I was awe-struck by it.

The tombs that used to cover the bodies (destroyed during the French Revolution) are set in the middle of the nave; people leave flowers by Aliénor’s effigy.

The place is sizeable with major alterations and additions made over the centuries. The famous kitchens date to the 12th century, as do parts of the abbey church, all set among gardens of lush greenery.

It is easy to forget that the place served as a prison from l804 until the 1960s, housing over the years political prisoners and otherwise. Rooms were carved out of the large spaces to house some 1,000 inmates,  resulting in the consequent destruction of the interior features.

????????????????????????????????????In going over the place, I discovered fragments of frescoes that have been recovered, including the feet of Raymond of Toulouse and the coats of arms of several Plantagenets.

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Because of the many changes, the queen-duchess would have recognized only a few features of this place where she took the veil before her death on April 1, 1204 (or thereabouts)—but I could not deny its impact on me. Aaaahmezing!

Could this lovely carving next to the entry be her in her youth?

A few comments–I don’t consider myself a philistine when it comes to modern art, and since the abbey now must partly pay for its keep, I understand that it offers exhibit space as a cultural center.

However, when we visited, the cloister garth had a ‘exhibit’ installation which I at first thought was construction scaffolding. It was a monstrous series of wooden walkways that filled the whole garth, and frankly, looked like a fist in the eye. Moreover, since it rained (as I guess it does in that part of the world), the planking was slippery and the words “major liability suit” sprung to mind of one from this side of the pond. The artist’s purpose, apparently, was to replicate the way the prisoners used to walk up and down the stairs of the abbey….

My question is this: since there already are real stairs that the prisoners really walked on, what’s the point of putting up that monstrosity to depict it? I had expressed that sentiment to a visitor (who was a Frenchman) and the young man rolled his eyes and shook his head—my reaction exactly.

Another installation was in the nuns’ dormitory—a barn-like room with wooden rafting on what would be the second floor. I would love to have seen the workmanship of the rafting (I think it was l6th or l7th century), but the place was dark—not just dark, pitch black.

Once my eyes adjusted, I noticed that the artist hanged from the ceiling a curved line of what looked like long neon tubes that emitted sort of reddish light without actually lighting up whatever there was underneath on the floor.

Good thing I stopped and saved my shins because in the middle of the floor were what looked like wooden barges, painted or draped in black. I couldn’t tell. It looked like I had stumbled into the departure lounge to Hades—interesting, I suppose, but all I thought about was that those red lights are perfect to give someone who suffers from epilepsy a seizure. Can you say “major liability suit”?

After trooping around for several hours, we departed just as it began to mist, very gently. For the rest of the road to Chinon, we dwelled on Fontevraud’s historical life. Like I said—altogether amazing.

                     Crest of abbess Mathilde, playing her part in The Sixth Surrender as well.

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…on to Parthenay (Pt. II)

Parthenay:

We breezed past Saint Maixent-l’École to get to Parthenay, again approached via a fairly flat ground. Parthenay has a population of about 10,000 and I worried, of course, about driving down a maze of streets to find the hotel, but this time, we drove right up to it.

CIMG0544Hotel St. Jacques is named, like most of the place, after St. James since Parthenay sits on a secondary pilgrim route to Campostella, a mere 1,492.2 km to go.

The hotel showed wear and tear of its age, but the staff was very pleasant, the room adequate, the bathroom clean, the breakfast good enough to send us off exploring.

It rained, intermittently again, but it was not cold, just muggy. Armed with umbrellas and rain jackets, we explored. The majority of the little shops and restaurants in the historical parts of the city were closed for the season—of course, but that meant we could enjoy the rest of this is amazing place.

Parthnay--view from citadel-cropParthenay is much bigger than I had ever imagined. At one time it was surrounded by three walls and considered impregnable.  Like Lusignan, it sits on an outcropping of granite overlooking a sharp bend of the Thouet river.

Its medieval past is well preserved in the town with its steep, narrow  streets, the timbered houses, little side streets, the remains of pilgrims’ inns and shops and houses of wealthy weavers, and several churches of limestone.

Parthenay--along bastions-crop

We got lost, and ended up walking out of the old town to the base and then hiking along the river plain, with the remains of the ramparts on which Parthenay sits above us.

St. Jacque's gate along Thouet river-cropIt started raining steadily and so we hiked across a narrow footbridge across the river to get to the other side of the valley and figure out where the heck we were. I was freaking out about crossing the bridge, but had no choice. It turned out that the look from the other side of the valley was worth the momentary terror, and we had subsequently returned there to explore that medieval ‘suburb’ of Parthenay, including the medievally-inspired gardens (Jardin Férolle).

Thankfully, more of Parthenay’s citadel and fortifications are preserved than of Lusignan’s, and several are outstanding structures. The most famous is the ‘beaked’ St. Jacque’s twin gate at the old bridge spanning the Thouet, and the similarly constructed gate to the fortress.

Parts of the fortifications and the gates were rebuilt over the centuries, but this place is so wonderfully evocative that I borrowed all of it for my description of Parthenay—“historical” Puritans be damned.

The lords of Lusignan and the lords of Parthenay intermarried, so Parthenay also forms part of Pays de Mélusine (“Mélusine country”).  We weren’t looking for her, we really weren’t, and yet—

CIMG0555We happened to stumble upon a lovely B&B (which we intended to stay at in the first place, but that’s another story…). M. Yvan Pied graciously allowed us into the “Le Grand Logis” on Rue Ledain—what a wonderful, charming place with a lovely garden overlooking the valley and the fortress on the opposite side of the valley—and a garden with a crystal clear spring where Mélusine is supposed to reside.

 So perhaps she meant me to find her after all….

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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….

Lusignan:

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.

 

Image

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.

Image
To be continued…. 

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