RCP unseen audience selection


RCP Unseen: audience selection

We asked you which object from our rare book, archive and museum collections you would like to find out more about.

This object will be changed every four months. You can take part and help us choose the next object by joining our Twitter campaign @RCPmuseum.

A winged serpent woman in a medieval headdress flies out of a castle window.

Jean d'Arras, Histoire de la belle Mélusine (‘History of the beautiful Mélusine’), Lyon, c.1487 (CN21860)

A winged serpent woman in a medieval headdress flies out of a castle window in this woodcut illustration. Her suspicious husband can be seen spying on her through a keyhole.

In European folklore and mythology, Mélusine is a female spirit of the fresh water in a sacred spring or river. She is a shapeshifter, usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down (like a mermaid). Her legends take place in the northern and western areas of France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

In this most famous of her legends, the young Mélusine seeks revenge on her father, locking him in a mountain after learning that he once wronged her mother. Her mother becomes enraged by Mélusine’s disrespect and condemns her to take the form of a serpent from the waist down every Saturday.

When Raymond of Poitou proposed marriage to Mélusine, she agreed on the condition that he never enter her chamber on a Saturday, so that she could keep her magical transformation a secret. He broke his promise and saw Mélusine in the form of a half-woman, half-serpent. Mélusine forgave her husband, but when during a disagreement he called her a ‘serpent’ in front of his court, Mélusine assumed the form of a dragon and flew off, never to return.

This book is known as an incunable, the technical term for any book printed in the earliest years of European book printing, before the year 1501. It is the most famous literary version of Mélusine tales, compiled by Jean d'Arras between 1382–1394 and later translated into English.

View catalogue entry for Histoire de la belle Mélusine (‘History of the beautiful Mélusine')

View digital version of Histoire de la belle Mélusine (‘History of the beautiful Mélusine’)

Download a colouring book of images from Histoire de la belle Mélusine (‘History of the beautiful Mélusine’).

Part of the exhibition 'RCP Unseen'. Explore further: