Poitou – Mélisende's ancient homeland

Poitou – the grain bowl of Europe (Author photo)

In Double Identity, Mel’s surname – des Pittones – is based on the Pictones, a Celtic tribe in ancient Gaul, a tribe that gave its name to Poitou in western France. And her family has been settled in the area for hundreds and hundreds of years.

So it was extremely tempting to make her surname (as translated into English) ‘Melisende of the Pictones’.  Oh, the fun of being the mistress of one’s book universe! 

So, Poitou, Mel’s home… 

Poitou is much mentioned in medieval literature, history and historical fiction but it was a royal kingdom a thousand years before Eleanor of Aquitaine’s time!

Yes, it’s Celts and  Romans again…

The Gauls were a group of Celtic peoples of Continental Europe in the Iron Age and the Roman period (roughly from the 5th century BCE to the 5th century CE). Finally conquered by Julius Caesar in the 50s BCE, the Gauls became more or less assimilated into Gallo-Roman culture. 

Caesar mentions the inhabitants of the central western part of Gaul/France as ‘Pictones’.  Pliny (1st century CE) called them ‘Píktones’  and Ptolemy (2nd century CE) and Ausonius (4th century CE) called them ‘Pictonici’. They are also known as ‘Pictavi’ from the 2nd c. CE, in the Notitia Galliarum and in Ammianus Marcellinus’s Res Gestae (4th century CE).

The city of Poitiers, recorded as ‘urbis Pictavorum’ ca. 356 CE, ‘Pictavis’ in 400–410, ‘Peitieus’ or ‘Pectievs’ in 1071–1127, and the region of Poitou are named after the Gallic tribe.

What else do we know about the Pictones?

They minted coins from the end of the 2nd century BCE and like many Celtic tribes practised organised farming, skilled technology and produced high quality artistry. They traded withe the rest of Gaul, sometimes further afield, and with the British Isles from the harbour of Ratiatum (Rezé), which served as an important port linking Gaul and Roman Britain. The region was known for its timber resources and Caesar depended on their shipbuilding skills for his fleet on the Loire. 

Politically, the region was governed by the royal Celtic system. Duratios was king of the Pictones during the Roman conquest, but his power waned thanks to the poor skill of and strong rivalry between his warrior chiefs. However, the Pictones frequently aided Julius Caesar in naval battles, particularly with the naval victory over the Veneti on the Armorican peninsula.

Pictones coinage ca.1st century BCE

Collaboration or survival strategy?

The Pictones had felt threatened by the migration of the Helvetians toward the territory of the Santones  to their south and supported the intervention by Caesar in 58 BCE. Though fiercely independent, they collaborated with Caesar, who noted them as one of the more ‘civilised’ tribes. Nevertheless, 8,000 Pictones went to aid Vercingetorix, the chieftain who led the Gaulish rebellion in 52 BC. This understandably divided the Pictones and the region suffered various uprisings, especially around Lemonum (Roman name for Poitiers). This was later quelled by legate Gaius Caninius Rebilus and finally by Caesar himself.

The Pictones benefited from Roman peace, notably through many urban constructions such as aqueducts and temples. However, apart from the elite classes who even sent the odd senator to Rome itself, they were not Romanised in depth. 

What was Pictones home territory?

From place names, coin finds and early church records, it would seem that territory of the Pictones before the Roman conquest stretched over the current départements of Vienne and Deux-Sèvres, i.e. Haut-Poitou and possibly the southern part of the Vendée. The rest of the Vendée was very probably territory of the Ambilatres. Early suggestions that their territory reached  as far as the south bank of the Loire along its entire western course before the Roman conquest have been largely abandoned. However, after the conquest, the territories occupied by today’s three départements formed a single unit which lasted until the French Revolution, i.e. more than eighteen centuries.

A strategic place

Poitou, a rich and fertile farming  region, although sure of its identity is an area of transition: the  langue d’oc meets the langue d’oïl, slate roofs meet Roman tile roofs, the north meets the south. The Poitou Gap (Seuil du Poitou) is where the Paris (north east) and Aquitaine (south west) sedimentary basins meet and  the ancient mountain ranges Massif Armoricain (north west) and the Massif Central (south east) separate.

Because it’s a strategic access between the north and south of France, the area in and around the Seuil du Poitou has been the site of many battles and disputes, not least between the English and French. 

  • Battle of Vouillé (507) victory by the Franks led by Clovis against the Visigoths
  • Battle of Poitiers (732), victory by the Franks led by Charles Martel against the Moors
  • Battle of Poitiers (1356), which actually took place at Nouaillé-Maupertuis, victory by the English led by the Black Prince against the French led by Jean II who was taken prisoner
  • Battle of Moncontour (1569) defeat of the Protestants led by Admiral de Coligny by the royal army commanded by the Duke of Anjou.

Nouaillé-Maupertuis (Battle of Poitiers 1356) today

Forward in time

After Roman rule disappeared, several peoples migrated to, and settled in, Poitou: Taïfales, Angles, Sarmates; it was, however, the Visigoths who united it with their kingdom of Aquitaine in the 4th century until the battle of Vouillé (see above).

In 778, Charlemagne instituted the county of Poitiers with its first count, Abbon. They went on to establish a principality from the 9th century which extended between the Loire and Pyrenees, under the name of Aquitaine.

At the beginning of the eleventh century, the Count of Anjou, Foulque Nerra, waged unrelenting wars against the counts of Blois, Brittany and Poitiers. Many times victorious over his adversaries, he enlarged Anjou by conquering Maine, Touraine and seized the Mauges. Once again Poitou lost territory.

Château de Lusignan, Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry

Despite various dynastic marriages including that of Eleanor of Aquitaine with King Louis VII of France, her annulment and remarriage with Henri II of England, Poitou was determined to retain some autonomy. Poitevins/Poitevines are an independent lot! The Poitou nobility demonstrated this through numerous revolts: first against the King of England in 1173-1179, 1188 and 1194; then in 1219-1224 and 1242 against the King of France. Right up to the end of the Middle Ages, the Poitou nobility was active in all protest and rebellion against the central power of the king.

Just as a side note, one of those ‘local’ families was the house of Lusignan, founded according to legend by Mélusine and Raymondin, and which provided several kings of Cyprus and Jerusalem.

Religions at war

In the sixteenth century, the Reformation in the shape of the teachings of Calvin took hold in Poitou particularly in the countryside. Poitou was strongly pro-Protestant (Huguenot) during the wars of religion (1562–1598) and suffered badly (sieges of Niort, Poitiers). Under the Edict of Nantes, discrimination against Huguenots was temporarily suspended but this measure was repealed by the French crown.

Unsurprisingly, as a consequence, significant numbers of Poitevins emigrated to New France in Quebec. I saw many surnames common in my area of the Deux-Sèvres peppered throughout Quebec and Montreal during my trip there in 2015. A little spooky, but a vivid reminder of real events in the past.

Après la révolution

In 1790, when France was reorganised administratively during the French Revolution, Poitou was divided up into the départements of Vendée, Deux-Sèvres and Vienne, although some former Poitou parishes were integrated into new communes of neighbouring départements.

But if you ask my neighbours in 2020 what part of France they come from and quote their département at them, most say almost with indecent haste, Mais je suis poitevin!

And my new heroine, Mel, for all her sophisticated Paris schooling and service abroad in the French Army, is very much a daughter of her region.

A Poitou farm today (Author photo)


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. Double Pursuit, the sequel, is now out!

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

2 comments to Poitou – Mélisende’s ancient homeland

  • Reading this was a lovely trip down memory lane. I spent four happy years in Poitiers and am still friends with people I met there. It’s also where I met my husband. Also Eleanor Roach, one of whose books is an edition of Coudrette’s Roman de Mélusine. And yes, La Fée Mélusine is much in evidence right across the Poitou region. Whenever I see wisteria, it reminds me of her, carved on so many castle walls, the greyish stone adorned with delicate mauve blossoms. I’ll be looking out for your story, car je suis aussi Poitevine.

    • Alison

      I’m so pleased you enjoyed this glimpse into Poitou which revived good memories. It’s much mentioned by medievalists, but I was fascinated by the earlier history.
      Oh, Melusine is everywhere. I *almost* gave her name to my heroine, but then shivered and felt the fairy’s presence… It would have seemed disrespectful. 😉

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