April 21, 2003

Award-winning books bring poem to masses

By Eric Rangus

On the bookshelf in Matthew Morris’ Oxford College office sits a print of a majestic, medieval French castle. Above it hovers a gold dragon. The dragon’s name is Mélusine; the castle is the ancestral home of the Lusingnan family, which ruled France in the late 14th century.

The original painting is in Paris, in a prayer book that belonged to the Duc de Berry, a member of the Lusingnan family—his brother was King Charles V of France, his nephew would later be Charles VI.

Morris has never seen the original, but his interest in the print was strong enough to drive the last 30 years of his research.

Mélusine or Le Roman de Parthenay is a 7,000-line epic poem written by a French cleric named Couldrette. It is one of the most captivating tales in French cultural history and for centuries it has been unavailable to an English-speaking audience.

That has changed with the publication of Morris’ book, A Bilingual Edition of Couldrette’s Mélusine or Le Roman de Parthenay. It translates the poem from Middle French into English for the first time. Published in tandem is a critical edition, aimed at scholars of medieval literature. Both books received the Adele Mellen Prize for contribution to scholarship.

The 408-page critical edition contains not only the poem in its original language, but also research on the history of Mélusine and of the time period, a comparison of the prose and poetic versions of the story and patronage behind them, as well as some writing on the language.

The 574-page bilingual edition is obviously more accessible to the lay person. In addition to the poem, it contains a detailed history of its origins as well as the time period. Both editions also contain essays from other scholars about Mélusine.

Morris’ first translation of the poem, from parchment to paper in Middle French took him the better part of four years to complete, from 1973–77. He didn’t begin work on an English translation until much later.

Middle French is not a widely known language. No modern Frenchman can speak or read it—Morris said the language it most closely resembles is Catalan. Therefore, the critical version of Morris’ book can be used by only about 500 medieval scholars in the United States and maybe 2,000 others worldwide.

The narrowness of that audience led Morris to translate the poem into English, not only because a wider range of medieval scholars could utilize it but also so people in other disciplines (Morris listed women’s studies as one example; Mélusine, who is part woman, is most certainly powerful), could study the work.

“Putting it in English opens it up to the entire world of scholars in the United States,” said Morris, associate professor of humanities at Oxford.

The story of Mélusine touches on politics, religion, culture and many other subjects. The painting of Mélusine the dragon was commissioned in order to tie the powerful mythical figure closer to the French royal family. In fact, the royals claimed to be descendents of her. The population at the time was Celtic in origin and ready to believe such a story.

A prose version of the Mélusine story was written as well. About 10 years later, a French lord who opposed the king commissioned Couldrette to compose a poem about Mélusine. Again, the underlying motivation was political. If the opposition claimed Mélusine, perhaps that would give them an advantage.

The myth of Mélusine was, in fact, so powerful that soldiers opposing the king would not attack the castle depicted in the painting because Mélusine protected it. That poem is what Morris discovered and translated.

The works were remarkably popular in their time (20 hand-written parchments of the poem exist—Morris has seen about half of them), but when the medieval age ended, so did Mélusine’s influence.

Morris said Mélusine and the rest of Middle French literature was ignored during and after the Renaissance. The language itself was for the most part eliminated. Much of the literature, like Mélusine, remains, though, scrolled onto parchments, never having seen a printed page.

After lying dormant for centuries, Mélusine was rediscovered in the 1800s during the age of the Romantics. “They went back to the passion and territoriality of their medieval ancestors,” Morris said. The story is now seen as a classic of French literature.

Morris, who is on sabbatical from Oxford, will spend much of the summer working on a translation of the poem into modern French. Surprisingly no such translation exists.