One of my favourite scenes from the Middle English Melusine comes just after Raymondin has been convinced by his brother to break the promise he made to his wife to never see her on Saturdays. Melusine has been cursed to turn into a half-serpent on Saturdays and she can only attain salvation if her husband agrees to never see her or to denounce her in public.
Up until this time she has been a model of virtue, overseeing their lands with justice, supporting the Christian community by building churches and monasteries, and raising their ten sons well. But one Saturday, Raymondin’s brother passes on a rumour that Melusine is having an affair and in a fit of jealousy Raymondin goes to see her. He makes a hole in the door to her chamber and sees her in the bath, serpent tail and all.
What do you expect at this point? Shock? Horror? Revulsion? But no, Raymondin is instead immediately struck with remorse. He banishes his brother from the castle for causing him to betray his wife, and then laments, ‘Alas, Melusine, of whom all the world spake well, now have I lost you for ever. Now have I found the end of my Joy… Farewell all my joy, all my comfort, and all my hope.’ He is so distraught that he spends the night in anxious grief.
And yet, Melusine returns to him at dawn on Sunday as usual. She knows he has seen her, but she knows also his remorse and repentance. When she gets into bed he sighs with ‘great suffering of heart’. Melusine holds him and asks, ‘My lord, what aileth you, are you sick?’ and then comforts him, saying, ‘Worry not, for if it please God you shall soon be whole.’
Raymondin answers, ‘By my faith, sweet love, I feel much better for your coming.’ You can almost hear the relief in his voice.
You might not think love is rare in medieval romance, and it isn’t, but it is unusual to see it in married couples. Medieval romance tends to focus on the lovers before they get married, rather than afterward, and often the woman in the couple is already in a loveless marriage. In Middle English romance the married couples who stand out who are still in love with each other are Sir Orfeo and Heurodis (in Sir Orfeo) and Melusine and Raymondin (in Melusine). Rarer still is the level of tenderness seen here in Melusine, both here and later when the curse takes Melusine away from her family. After Melusine has been cursed to stay in the form of a dragon until Judgement Day, Raymondin retreats to a hermitage, where he spends the rest of his days praying for Melusine’s salvation.