Varying opinions have been expressed regarding the famous individual commonly known as Bluebeard, the most perfect model of cruelty that ever trod the earth.

«Charles Perrault, who, about 1660, had the merit of composing the first biography of this seigneur, made him an accomplished villain. He may, perhaps, have been prejudiced against his hero. He would not have been the first example of a poet or historian who liked to darken the colours of his pictures. I had long suspected that Bluebeard was the victim of a similar fatality»[1].

If Anatole France has questioned the veracity of the legend, suggesting that, like Macbeth, Bluebeard has been the victim of a slanderous history, I am persuaded, for my own part, that the celebrated wife-killer has been much misunderstood by Perrault, who was incapable of appreciating the grandeur of a pre-medieval character of folklore, and finished by consigning him to history as a mere ogre.

Through the analysis of the genesis of his myth, he will appear in a very different light, not only as a victim of bad exposure, but acting in self-defence and a person defending himself is often justified in killing.

The Breton Mystery

Ultimately the solution of the mystery dwells in a Breton Mystery, preserved in an 1863 edition, and entitled Sainte Triphine et le roi Arthur[2]. This popular drama combines three literary genres: the first two being Hagiography and Arthurian romances, both recognised as focal points of vernacular literary expression during the Middle Ages. The third is the legend of Conomark the Cursed, the historical monarch who reigned in the 6th century, over both the Domnonée Islands and Breton Domnonée, notorious for his inhuman cruelty.

Conomark (Cunomorus) seems to be the definitive model for Perrault's Barbe bleu.

In Medieval Hagiography, St. Tryphine, the daughter of Guerech, chief of the Venetii in Gwenea (White Grain Country), was the wife of the tyrant Conomark, a giant King of Keraës (Carhaix, Finistère, Cornouaille, Black Grain Country) who had already killed four of his previous spouses by poison, strangulation, fire and beating.

The chronicles relate that when Conomark set sight on Tryphine, his prospective father-in-law Guerech was not keen on the idea, so he let St. Gildas negotiate the marriage.

Afraid of what Conomark might do if his proposals were rejected, Gildas advised that the wedding go ahead. He would personally guarantee Tryphine's safety. The saint man gave the lady a silver ring which would turn as black as a crow’s wing when in mortal danger.

At first the couple was happy, but Conomark’s mood quickly changed when he discovered that Tryphine was pregnant.

The archetypal example of the tale is, of course, the myth of Oedipus,[3] even if traits of the story have been hidden or edulcorated by the Christian morals. Conomark had once been warned that he would be killed by his own son. Fearing the worst, he again plotted his own wife's murder.

Tryphine, meantime, had noticed her ring had turned deep blue black and knew that her life was in danger. So, during the night, she crept down to the royal crypt. She had heard gossip that it contained a secret passage out of the castle. But here she discovered five stone coffins in a black chamber, one empty and four full. To the Queen's horror, the ghosts of the dead immediately rose and revealed themselves to be Conomark's previous wives, who gave Tryphine the instruments of their assassination to help her defend herself, and she fled to the forest. Here she saw her father's hawk hunting and called to it to take her ring home. Unfortunately, it was not long before the King caught up with his wife. He found her hiding in a bramble bush, and coldly cut off her head.

Luckily Guerech received his daughter's ring and understood. He called for St. Gildas to fulfill his promise. Gildas travelled to Conomark's court where the hawk guided him to Tryphine's decapitated body. He could not believe the scene that greeted his eyes, but calmed himself and prayed for her safety. Miraculously, her body began to move: she sat up, picked up her head and replaced it to its rightful position. Thus cured, Tryphine returned to Broërec, where she gave birth to a son, and named him Tremeur (whom the Bretons call Saint Trever)[4].

Years later, on a trip to Pohër, Conomark was riding through the same forest where he had decapitated his Queen, when he came across some young lads playing. Asking one his name, he replied, "Tremeur, Sir". Certain this was his own son, Conomark instantly drew his sword, beheaded the poor boy and rode off back to his castle. The little martyr, however, picked up his head and followed his father. On reaching the castle, the walls crumbled and fell, crushing Conomark to death.

Conomark (fl. c. 540) is mentioned for the first time in the contemporary Historia Francorum (History of Franks; 4.4 and 5.19) by Gregory of Tours; he is listed as prefectus du roi des Francs in the Life of St. Tugdal, and in the 9th-century Breton Latin Life of St. Paul Aurelian, written by Uurmonoc in 884 (who describes him as Marcus, quem alio nomine Quonomorium vocant, 'whom by another name they call Quonomorius'), he is called ruler of 'different people of four languages', which may suggest that his territory included both Brittany and Cornwall.

In the Life of St. Gildas, Albert Le Grand describes him as Comte de Cornouiaille, un meschant et vicieux Seigneur ('Count of Kernev, a wicked and vicious lord').

Over time in Brittany, this historical figure degenerated into the literary trope of a wicked king[5]: Conomark may appear as a sensualist who collects wives, not as potential mothers for his heirs, but as source of pleasure for his own flesh: «a new Atropos, the primitive Barbe-Bleu seeks uniqueness, and the dynastic continuity is insured thanks to the thaumaturgic powers of St. Gildas»[6].

His desire to extinguish his own blood-line seems absolutely contrary to the feudal mindset; he is a tyrant who thinks not of life to come, but instead lives only the present.

Conomark, king arthur and The Oedipus-myth

It is noteworthy that traits of the Oedipus-myth survive into popular medieval retelling of Conomark story, that amalgamates Hagiography and pre-Christian pagan folk-tales. This is an important model-text for Bluebeard, and the emphasis must be placed explicitly on the prophecy,[7] since it clarifies the relationship between Conomark and King Arthur of the Breton Mystery. In fact, in Arthurian tradition, Arthur dreamed that his son would kill him, and as we know Arthur and Guenevere had no children.

Actually, the Vulgate Merlin (Prose Merlin), while at first mentions Mordred as the son of Lot and Morgawse (chapter 4), afterwards (chapter 10) shows that Arthur was his real father. According to later versions (like the Merlin Continuation, Post-Vulgate, and Malory's Morte d'Arthur), Mordred was the son of Arthur and his half sister Morgawse.

Thomas Malory's account of Mordred's treachery is the most well-known and influential version of the story. Malory popularizes an episode from the Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin, commonly called the "May-Day Massacre," in which Arthur heeds Merlin's prophecy that the child who will cause the downfall of his kingdom will be born on May-Day (the tradition beginning of summer among the Celts). All the babies were drowned[8] except for Mordred, because a good man saved him and took care of him until fourteen years later, when it was time to present him to the court. This little story appears at the very beginning of Arthur's reign, giving Mordred an understandable reason to hate Arthur.

In the same later versions, Mordred is set up as regent and given charge of the king's lands and household while the king and his knights are away besieging Lancelot.

Even the Queen is put under Mordred's authority. But Mordred sets up a Parliament and gets himself crowned king. He desires to marry Guinevere, though he acknowledges that she is his father's wife. He has some letters made as if they were from the battlefield, saying that Arthur died.

In the final scene between Arthur and Mordred, the fight lasts the whole day, and all of Arthur's faithful knights are killed. When Arthur finds Mordred he kills him, but not before he himself receives his tragic death-wound by his own son.

Certain narrative elements survive the loss of their original mythic matrix but then re-form into new clusters in a fresh configuration of the detritus of myth, shaped by new ideological (Christian) concerns. We can also identify some simple repeated oedipal narrative elements:

1) prophecy

2) the king attempts to kill his own child

3) the prophecy is fulfilled

4) the son loves his stepmother

4) final calamity.

The insertion of Arthurian material in later Breton popular tradition not only confirms that the legendary traditions rooted in Breton soil survived across the centuries, but it testifies that the relationship Conomark-Arthur has a common denominator: both kings dread their dangerous sons.

In his book Pèlerinages de Bretagne (Paris, Ambroise Bray, 1859), Hippolyte Violeau reports that in 1850, during the repairs of the chapel of St. Nicolas de Bieuzy, some ancient frescoes (from the late Middle-Ages) were discovered with scenes from the life of St. Tryphine: (1) The marriage; (2) the husband taking leave of his young wife and entrusting to her a key; (3) a room with an open door, through which are seen the corpses of seven women hanging; (4) the husband threatening his wife, while another female is looking out of a window above; (5) the husband has placed a rope around the neck of his victim, but the friends, accompanied by St. Gildas, arrive just in time to rescue the future saint. Interestingly, the vignette for Bluebeard in the first edition of Perrault's Stories resembles the popular iconography of female martyrdoms.

Consequently, if the story of Gilles de Retz, the sadistic child killer, is connected by tradition with that of Bluebeard, it is probable that both arise simply from their association with St. Tryphine's story as depicted in the frescoes which cover the wall of the church of St. Nicolas de Bieuzy.

In the 19th century, Émile Souvestre collected many folk-tales in which Conomark's story is mixed with elements of the Bluebeard tale.

As it has been said, the pragmatic necessity of both Conomark and Arthur of killing innocents is justified by the prophecy that they would be murdered by their own sons.

Variant versions of a myth may show changes in surface meaning, but the structure and basic relationships often remain constant. In medieval French literature, the conventional plot of courtly love focuses on the figure of the Queen, who is often accused of adultery. In the Breton Mystery too, Queen Tryphine is accused of committing the crime of infidelity and she occupies a parallel position of the two female protagonists of the most famous love triangles of medieval literature: Guenevere and Iseut.

Conomark’s son by another name ?

Now, our analysis is not complete until our attention is centered precisely and primarily on a gravestone with epitaph (assigned to the mid-sixth century) near Castle Dore in Cornwall.

The still legible inscription carved in two vertical lines on the stone reads: "Drustans hic iacit, Cynomori filius"[9] (Here lies Drustan, son of Cunomorus).

If this information is trustworthy, and taking it in conjunction with the real history of King Conomark (Cunomorus), it could show that the man commemorated on the stone was effectively the son of an important person called Mark. He could be equated with the legendary Tristan, nephew and heir of King Mark, on the assumption that the original relationship between the two men, father and son (as Arthur and Mordred), had been altered to uncle and nephew in order to make the story more acceptable to Christian ears.

What is of interest to us is the fact that Béroul, 12th century author of a Tristan romance, locates the residence of "li rois Marc" at a place which he calls "Lancien"[10]

Lancien has been identified with a place in Cornwall called Lantyne, just two miles from Castle Dore.

Radford[11] wrote: «The probability that the Marcus dictus Quonomorius is to be identified with the man named on the stone is converted into a certainty by the identification of the Golant peninsula as the scene of the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult». However, it might be the case that the remark about Marcus Quonomorius, in the 9th-century Life of St. Paul Aurelian, was somehow due to knowledge of the inscription; and it may also be that the inscription is partly responsible for Béroul's localization of the legend of Tristan and Isolt nearby at Lantyan, and not at Tintagel as with other authors.

If that were so, then the stone would still be of significance for providing the earliest evidence of the name Tristan. Alternatively, it could reasonably be claimed that the inscription constitutes evidence that the legend of Tristan, as localized in Cornwall, was attached to a historical figure of the 6th century, Conomark, who had survived in traditional memory.

The late Welsh Ystoria Trystan also identifies King Mark as a ruler active on both sides of the Channel, as Conomark apparently was and one of the Welsh Triads informs us that Mark of Cornwall was the father of Tristan.

John Leland, the 16th-century antiquary, came to Castle Dore to examine the stone and he was able to read a vertical line inscription. It stated "CUM DOMINA CLUSILLA", which could have meant with Lady Clusilla. This Clusilla (or Ousilla) could be an Irish name and if, as Leland claimed, the inscription really was on the stone, then it could have been the equivalent of the Cornish name of Eselt (Iseut). It is quite likely that the fragment bearing the inscription has broken off the stone.

It is noteworthy that in the Prose Tristan, Mark's character deteriorates from a cuckold to an emphatic villain. He rapes his niece and (as a genuine Barbe bleu) then murders her when she gives birth to his son.

In earlier versions of the story Tristan dies in Brittany, far away from Mark, but in the Prose Tristan, Mark stabs Tristan while he plays the harp for Iseult under a tree. This version of Mark's character was popular in many late medieval works, including the Romance of Palamedes and Sir Thomas Malory's La Morte d'Arthur.


Summarizing, we have gathered the following information regarding the ancient models for Perrault's ogre Barbe bleu: Conomark (just like the legendary king Arthur) has been told that his son will destroy him (and that is what happens in the end). So, careless of the principle of genealogical continuity, he is forced to kill in order to survive. This constitutes the foundation of the King's behaviour in the folk-tales of Sainte Tryphine. Nevertheless, to our great surprise, the Breton Mystery has a happy ending: Tryphine is not killed and her son, the legitimate heir of Arthur, future king of the Breton homeland, brings with him the promise of a fully temporal royalty.

After having been transformed into «a Barbe-Bleue and the persecutor of his wife, Arthur is redeemed by Tryphine's sacrifice as a would-be martyr (...) the Arthurian dynasty is henceforth assured: ending with this image of the family trio readying themselves to ride triumphantly through the streets of the city».[12]

The elements of myth are meaningless in themselves, and only gain significance through the relation with each other. It is not therefore the formation of the narrative that is significant, but rather the underlying structure of relations that determines the real meaning of a myth.

Removing the most essential building block of Conomark's legend (the prophecy) the Breton Mystery has enhanced Good; Perrault has trivialized Evil, darkening the colours of the tale: in his Barbe bleu only black, gothic elements survive, and the black grain country, the ring that turns dark blue, the black chamber, will all flow together in the deep blue beard of the ogre.

[1] Anatole France, Les septes femmes de barbe bleue, Calman-Lévy, 1926; The Seven Wives Of Bluebeard and Other Marvellous Tales, 1909, reprint Wildside Press, 2008.

[2] François-Marie Luzel, Sainte Triphine et le roi Arthur, mystère breton, Quimperlé, Paris/Nantes 1863.

[3] King Laius hears of a prophecy that his own son will kill him, so he gives the order that the baby be taken away to a mountain and be left to die. Oedipus is rescued, the drama that ensued is known.

[4] His latin name is Tremorius, aka Tréchinor, Trémel, Trémeur, Trémorel, Trimorel, Treveur, Triver, Tromeur and Trimoël.

[5] Cf. the role of King Arthur in the Life of Saint Cadoc.

[6] Brigitte Cazelles, Arthur as Barbe-Bleue: The Martyrdom of Saint Tryphine, Yale French Studies, Number 95 (1999): 134-51; 137.

[7] An essential element of the story that will be lost in Bluebeard.

[8] In the Ur-myth of Oedipus, the hero was called Oedipais: "child of the swollen sea." He was so named because of the method by which his birth parents tried to abandon him -- by placing him in a chest and tossing it into the ocean. The mythic topos of foresaking a child to the sea or a river is well attested, found (e.g.) in the myths of Perseus, Telephus, Dionysus, Moses, and Romulus and Remus.

[9] Courtenay Arthur Ralegh Radford, "Report on the Excavations at Castle Dore," Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, n. s. vol. I (Appendix, 1951), p. 117.

[10] Béroul, The Romance of Tristan, ed. A. Ewert, 2 vols (Oxford, 1939) l. 1155 etc.

[11] B. Cazelles, Arthur as Barbe-Bleue, cit., p. 118.

[12] Cazelles, p. 146.

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