Archive for August, 2015

The Legend of Mélusine at the Château de Sassenage in the Dauphiné

August 28th, 2015

Further to my previous article, a host of ‘bonnes dames’, or fairies, seem to have survived the Christianisation of Gaul, continuing, in the imagination of superstitious locals, to haunt their grottos and springs.

Thanks to her association with the mighty Lusignan family and to the popularising of her legend by Jehan d’Arras, Mélusine is the name that has been given to many of them by default. At least three other great families claim descent from her (though Proust, who was clearly fascinated by the legend, adds a fictional fourth, the Guermantes), namely the Luxembourgs, the La Rochefoucaulds and the Sassenages.

Mélusine in her bathtub above the main entrance to the Château de Sassenage. The gyronny device to the left is of Bérenger, whilst the bars and lion to the right are of Sassenage. Identical arms were borne by the Lusignans and Luxembourgs.

Kinship with the Lusignans is suggested in their heraldry. All four bear for arms barry of ten argent and azure. The Lusignans, Luxembourgs and Sassenages have each added a red lion rampant with a golden crown, tongue and claws, whilst the La Rochefoucaulds superimpose three chevrons, that in chief couped, gules. Delightfully, there is a Mélusine de La Rochefoucauld in our own time, born in 1996.

The Sassenages, actual offspring of the counts of Lyon and Forez in the tenth century, were rooted far away from Lusignan in the Dauphiné, and took their name from the lordship of Sassenage, near Grenoble. As at La Rochefoucauld, there are impressive grottos nearby that Mélusine was said to inhabit, although she was said to emerge from the grottos of Sassenage, in dignified human form, three days before the death of the seigneur, as an obliging premonition (Léo Delaivre, Mère Lusine ou Mélusine dans la littérature et les traditions populaires, Arbre d’Or, Geneva, 2004, p.85).

It seems likely that the Sassenages had always claimed descent from the local fairy of the grotto, but that it was only after acquainting themselves with Jehan d’Arras’s work that they had attributed to her the name of Mélusine. The accepted version of events was that Mélusine must have fled from Lusignan to the Dauphiné, to re-marry there after the death of Raymondin and to found the line of Sassenage (Delaivre, Mère Lusine, pp.99-100). It would be interesting to know when they first adopted the arms of Lusignan, but that information is not to hand.

This stern Bérenger was a Knight of St John.

The Château de Sassenage was built in the 1660s, in white dauphinoise stone, close to the ruins of the medieval fortress. In a carving above the main entrance, Mélusine is depicted in her bathtub, alongside the arms of the Sassenages and the Bérengers. The family motto proudly asserts: Si fabula, nobilis illa est – ‘A legend, perhaps, but a noble one’.

The château today, though crammed with family treasures and a rich archive, is a rather forlorn place, left to the care of the ever-penurious Fondation de France in 1971 by the widow of the last Marquis de Bérenger-Sassenage. The adjacent suburb is singularly unlovely and has the desperate air of a zone artisanale. The once-magnificent park is maintained, but otherwise neglected. The house itself seems fossilised, a little cobwebby, apparently unrenovated in years (apart from the kitchen, where work is currently in progress), and peopled only by the spectral, sometimes alarming images of former Sassenages. Guided tours are offered by a courteous and knowledgeable curator.

A kindlier shade

Read my previous article on Mélusine at

The Legend of Mélusine: How the tutelary fairy of the Lusignans came to reign over Starbucks

August 27th, 2015

The fairy Mélusine - unacknowledged symbol of Starbucks Coffee

Once upon a time, a knight called Raymondin, who had been responsible for the death in a hunting accident of his uncle, Count Aymon of Poitou, was wandering alone, a disconsolate outlaw, through the forest of Coulombiers. Coming in the middle of the night upon a magical fountain, he encountered the beautiful Mélusine and her attendants. Mélusine promised that all would be well if he married her, and that they would found a great dynasty. A single condition was imposed: that he must never attempt to enter her chamber on a Saturday.

With Mélusine’s help, Raymondin raised the magnificent castle of Lusignan in only fifteen days. It perched on a steep, narrow promontory of great strategic significance, guarding the marches between Poitou and France. They settled there happily, and she bore him bore ten fine sons.

Raymondin discovers Mélusine's secret by peeping through a hole in the door: from a late-fifteenth-century edition of Jehan d'Arras's 'Le Roman de Mélusine' in the Bibliothèque nationale de France

One Saturday, however, Raymondin’s jealous brother persuaded him to spy on her, hinting that she might be seeing another man. Mélusine was innocently bathing, but, to Raymondin’s horror, her lower half had been transformed into that of a serpent or fish. With an anguished cry she assumed a different form, that of a dragon, and flew out of the window, never to return.

The fairy Mélusine was nevertheless to be proudly claimed as their ancestress by the later lords of Lusignan. Her line included the crusader kings of Jerusalem, Cyprus and Armenia, and the four sons of Hugh de Lusignan, Count of the March, by Isabella of Angoulême, the widow of King John of England. The favourites of their half-brother, Henry III, the Lusignan brothers – William, Aymer, Guy and Geoffrey – were hated by the English and expelled from the kingdom in the rebellion of 1258, having encouraged Henry in the belief ‘that a prince is not subject to law, and so justice itself was banished beyond the boundaries of the realm’ (Annales Monastici, Rolls Series 36, I, pp.463-4, cited in Clanchy, England and its Rulers, London, 1983, p.222).

The town and castle of Lusignan, the favourite residence of Jean, Duc de Berry, depicted in his 'Très Riches Heures' in the calendar entry for March. Mélusine, in the form of a dragon, hovers over the tower that bears her name

The direct line of the Lusignans expired in 1314 with the lady Yolande, who in 1308 had sold her estates to King Philip IV of France. It was thus as a part of the royal demesne that Lusignan was acquired by Jean, Duc de Berry, to whom the Limbourg brothers dedicated their Très Riches Heures (c.1412 – 16), the finest surviving specimen of French gothic manuscript illumination. In a famous depiction in the manuscript of Lusignan, which had become the duke’s favourite residence, Mélusine in the form of a dragon can be seen to hover over the tower that still bore her name, within which the spring that was sacred to her still flowed. Meanwhile, Duke Jean’s secretary, Jehan d’Arras, had been entranced by the ‘spinning yarns’ of the local women, which had inspired his Roman de Mélusine (c.1382 – 94), the earliest literary version of the legend.

According to an entry in La Chronique de Saint-Maixent, the castle was actually built in the mid-tenth century by Hugh II ‘the Kind’, Lord of Lusignan, no doubt on the site of a Roman oppidum. Naming their town after their general, ‘Lucinius’ or Licinius, the Roman colonisers had adopted the tutelary fairy of the spring and had called her mater Lucinia, ‘mother of Lucinia’, as a nod to their chief, Gallo-Roman divinities being invariably called ‘Mother’. The medieval lords of Lusignan had in turn adopted the cult of the fairy who reigned on the rock where they had built their castle (Léo Desaivre, Mère Lusine ou Mélusine dans la littérature et les traditions populaires, Arbre d’Or, Geneva, 2004, pp.18-19).

Julius Hübner, 'Die schöne Melusine', 1844

Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France from 1547 to 1559, visited Lusignan and was fascinated by its myths, quizzing the elderly local women as they came to do their washing at the spring. They swore to her that Mélusine was often to be seen there, still beautiful in her widow’s weeds, majestically gliding along the pathways or furtively bathing. If one were only able to catch sight of her of a Saturday, one would see her serpent’s tail.

The castle played an important role in the Wars of Religion and was besieged in 1574, after which it was largely demolished, but the legend endures at Lusignan, whose inhabitants are called Merlusins, and where special cakes called ‘Mère Lusines’ are, or used to be made. The town is certainly still known for a type of confectionary called ‘Raymondins’ (Desaivre, p.51;

It would be appropriate if such cakes were to be sold at Starbucks, the American coffee-house chain, founded as a single store in Seattle in 1971 but now with 22,551 outlets in 65 countries, which – unwittingly, it seems – has adopted a representation of Mélusine as its logo.

Woodcut illustration of Mélusine from 'Das Buch von einer Frawen genant Melusina' (1480), reproduced in Cirlot's 'Dictionary of Symbols' (1971 - the year that Starbucks was founded)

The company’s earliest design of a crowned, bare-breasted mermaid with two tails has been ingeniously traced to a woodcut in Das Buch von einer Frawen genant Melusina. This is a translation of Jehan d’Arras’s Roman de Mélusine that was printed in Augsburg in 1480. ‘When we were originally looking for a logo for Starbucks in 1971’ – reads the official version – ‘we wanted to capture the seafaring tradition of early coffee traders.’ To this end, one of the founders ‘pored over old marine books until he came up with a logo based on an old sixteenth-century Norse woodcut’.

In fact, there is no such thing as a ‘Norse’ woodcut from that period. It seems more likely that he had lighted upon J.E. Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols (English edition, 1971), in which the German woodcut is reproduced. It is almost identical to the prototype design for Starbucks. See

It is thrilling to discover that an ancient legend, the inspiration for artists over the centuries, has such currency and prominence in the modern world. Mélusine is not a nautical mermaid, but is associated with an inland spring, so for Starbucks to acknowledge her now would be to spoil their own ‘founding myth’.

The original Starbucks logo appears to have been directly copied from the illustration in Cirlot's book

Having a Saint for an Uncle: The Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard (Haute-Savoie) and its Family

August 11th, 2015

The 'improvements' of the artist Comte René de Menthon in the 1880s seem almost too 'Disney', but he was determined to adapt an austere fortress for modern living

What is there not to like about the Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard? The craggy twelfth-century fortress (the name in Celtic means ‘rock bound’) of the mighty Menthon family, set on a platform high above Lake Annecy; three great stone-and-mortar towers with Sleeping Beauty turrets (added by the artist Comte René de Menthon in the 1880s), all jumbled around an inner courtyard (which, regrettably, was reduced in size by the same Comte René, albeit in the cause of adapting the castle for modern living); an ancient chapel (first mentioned in 1262); an austerely splendid library stuffed with rare pre-Revolutionary volumes – the Histoire des Sires de Salins and the Senatus Dolani, inherited from the Richardots of Dôle, caught my eye – old parchments with royal seals and incunabula; ubiquitous heraldry; a Grand Salon with stupendous views over the lake and a vast hooded fireplace, surmounted by one of the many inscriptions here of the family’s cri de guerre (‘Toujours Menthon, Partout Menthon’); fine family portraits and a gorgeous Tapisserie des Gobelins; a lady’s chamber sealed for warmth with a remarkably verdant set of Aubusson tapestries; the highly atmospheric Salle des Pèlerins, on the first floor of the tour du lac, still equipped with its great fifteenth-century oak dining table, where meals were prepared and consumed by all the members of the household, along with any pilgrims who happened to be passing this way; and, most satisfyingly, an eponymous family in occupation since at least 1150 (when they are first documented), though they may well have been in possession since the ninth or tenth century; a family which credibly claims St Bernard of Menthon, the patron saint of mountaineers, as a member, and the castle as his birthplace in 1008; one that was as powerful as it was prestigious, its dependencies reputedly stretching in the thirteenth century from the shores of the lake at Talloires to the very gates of Geneva; one to which, moreover, I am connected in various ways, having a double descent (through Viry, Montjoye, Klinglin and Faletans) from a sixteenth-century Hélène de Menthon (who assuredly would have dined at that great table in the Salle des Pèlerins), and even closer cousinship through the barons de Klinglin, a line that diverged in the eighteenth century. This, for me, is castle heaven!

The urbane Comte Bernard de Menthon had already softened the lakeside aspect of the castle, installing in 1740 the salle à manger and Grand Salon

‘Uncle’ Bernard

It was the ambition of the young Bernard de Menthon to become a monk, but his parents had other plans, pledging him in marriage to a lady of the house of Miolans. On the eve of their wedding, he had slipped out of the window of his chamber and fled to Aosta, where he took orders.

As Archdeacon of Aosta, he later founded the hospices of the Grand-Saint-Bernard as refuges for Alpine travellers, who were the constant prey of marauding Saracens and brigands. St Bernard’s hospices revolutionised Alpine travel, allowing the development of commercial and pilgrim routes between France and Italy. He died in 1081 but has given his name to the enormous dog, first bred by the fifteenth-century ‘canons of Saint-Bernard’, that, with a barrel of cheering liquor tied to its neck, used to rescue travellers buried in avalanches.

Lake Annecy from above seemed irresistible. It was only a short drive to Balmettes where we immersed ourselves in its waters - said to be the cleanest of any lake in Europe.