Fertility Control and the Birth of the Modern European Fairy-Tale Heroine

Ruth B. Bottigheimer. Posted in Library

Between 1500 and 1700, that is, during most of the early modem period, girls’ and women’s roles in tale collections shifted dramatically in ways that set the stage for the emergence of the modern fairy-tale heroine. At the beginning of this period novella heroines held their own against a world brimming with antagonists, using mother wit to sustain their social and sexual independence. Two centuries later, girls had become frightened damsels, their mothers had retreated into the shadows, and maids and sisters who had formerly lent their mistresses a helping hand had disappeared. Since Alice Clark’s pathbreaking 1919 study, The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, historians and literary critics have more often than not attributed the kinds of changes I discuss here to the advent of capitalism. In turning to recent studies in women’s history, sex, sexuality, and family formation to attempt to decipher this remarkable and complex literary phenomenon, this essay represents a fundamental departure in efforts to interpret the status of historical literary heroines.

By the nineteenth century, the most influential body of popular tales, the Grimms’ collection, labeled a girl bad and a boy bold for one and the same deed (Bottigheimer, Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys). That curious polarization corresponded to social assumptions about gender in nineteenth- century Germany, as well as in Western culture as a whole in that period. The Grimms’ nineteenth-century German tales contrasted sharply with German tale collections of the sixteenth century, which — like French, English, and Italian medieval tale collections—show much less of the gender polarization that has become familiar in modem fairy tales. Sometimes, in fact, they manifest qualities opposite to modem ones.

In my exploration of the differences between medieval, early modem, and modem tale heroines I will describe the way in which sex and sexuality have been thematized, and then I will analyze how that treatment changed radically in the early modem period. Finally, I will incorporate what has been learned about the historical conditions that shaped real women’s experience in an effort to understand the relationship between historical women’s diminishing control over their own fertility and the birth of the modem fairy-tale heroine.

No one is likely to argue against the proposition that sex and sexuality, gender and gender roles are of central social significance, “omnirelevant circumstances of action” that vary from one culture to another. This phrase comes from Candace West and Sarah Fenstermacher’s article, “Power, Inequality, and the Accomplishment of Gender: An Ethnomethodological View,” but the point has been repeatedly and persuasively argued over the last few decades.

People are born biologically female or male. Close acquaintances as well as complete strangers incorporate that aspect of a person’s identity into their perception of individual people. The concept of gender is so deeply rooted in human awareness that the extent to which it conditions social expectations and emotional reactions long went largely unrecognized.

An ever-expanding number of publications, both scholarly and popular, on the subject of gender and gender roles has made these twin concepts so familiar a category that they need no footnote references. In this state of broad awareness, it’s not necessary to provide technical definitions for “sex” and “gender,” except to say that I subscribe to a conceptualization of sex as a biologically given and physically visible characteristic and gender as a socially constructed set of attributions that is recognizable as part of a highly elaborated semiotic system within communities.

The relationship between sex and gender has occupied men’s (sic) minds for millenia. Misogynistic Biblical commentators alluded to women’s penchant— beginning with Eve—for talking and sinning. In the last three hundred years dozens of tracts, more often than not Protestant, have been devoted to characterizations of the sexes and the hierarchically appropriate relationships between them. The pen, nearly always held by a male hand, inked directions for what women should and shouldn’t do and what constituted feminine and unfeminine behavior. Such were the descriptions, injunctions, and explanations of the German, Georg Brandes, in 1787, and they continued to characterize the genre into the twentieth century (Feyl). 1

How and why the female sex was verbally constructed as it was, and in particular why that happened so decisively between 1500 and 1700, is a tantalizing subject. In my view, European tale collections contain hints about the changing nature of femaleness and maleness and contribute to explaining the enormous differences that exist between Europe’s first modem fairy-tale heroines in sixteenth-century Italy and their descendants three and four centuries later.

Tale collections appeared, again and again, decade after decade, century after century (Clements and Gibaldi), some reprinted for centuries. Contemporary readers find occasional familiar stories among late medieval tales, but in two categories that at first glance appear unrelated, work and sexuality, readers far more often encounter alien attitudes and foreign practices. That is because, over time, fundamental alterations took place in the common understanding of the economic functions considered proper to women and to men at the same time that changes were taking place in defining the social categories of sex and sexuality.

Human physiology has determined that in heterosexual sexual relations, a man penetrates the body of his female partner. 2 Anatomical penetration was long understood as active and male while being penetrated represented passivity and femaleness. That was both the customary and the normative vocabulary of sex and gender theory from 1700 onwards, and it remained an unstated principle throughout most of the twentieth century (R. Davis 52, 744-45,186). I would argue, however, that in historical terms it was not penetration in and of itself that defined passivity and femaleness, but the real-world consequences of that penetration. It was and is the impregnating potential of genital penetration that made it logical to equate penetration with passivity and to further equate passivity with femaleness and femininity.

Before 1500 sex, sexuality, and sexual relations as they were portrayed in tale collections had little to do with familiar gender roles. Historians have detected a seachange in attitudes towards sex and sexuality before and after 1500 (Briggs 277-338), and gender roles in tale collections both reflect and incorporate that change. The transformations were geographically irregular, temporally slow but unidirectional. Since approximately 1700 it has been the consequences of sexual relations, that is, a nine-month pregnancy and concomitant personal and economic dependence (Leapley 35-39,72) that determined an entire set of female gender roles (Dawson 102-04). A literary aspect, indeed a consequence, of this historical development was the emergence of the modem fairy-tale heroine.

Let us for a moment try to think our way clear of the conditions of twentieth-century Western urban society. Let us remember that except for a tiny minority of Europe’s population, conditions of daily life were grimly harsh in cities, towns, and country villages. Comforts such as heating or hot and cold running water that we achieve effortlessly by turning a knob or pressing a button required cutting, hauling, and chopping wood, removing ashes, hauling water, boiling it, and pouring it out. Most people lived at or near a subsistence level, which meant that either they worked for their bread or they died. Under conditions like these, it seems self-evident that a woman who wished her child to survive (and many did not!) had first to reorient her attention to that child (only the well-off farmed their children out to wet nurses) and then to comport herself in ways that would ensure the presence of a steady breadwinner and shelter-provider. Single motherhood meant social ostracism, even banishment; widowhood for most meant extreme poverty.
Let us return to the female protagonists of tale collections. What if no baby resulted from sexual congress? What if not only a nine-month pregnancy did not follow repeated sexual intercourse, but no pregnancy at all, or at most, a one-month pregnancy? That is, a terminated pregnancy? What if girls and women controlled their own fertility?

It was around 1700 that modem attributions of femininity took firm shape and led to the construct of a femininity that was regarded as normal until recently. Increasingly, evidence indicates that four and five hundred years ago women and men thought and acted in ways that differed profoundly from our assumptions and expectations about that past. Recent research suggests that up to 1500 or 1550, with the help of knowledgable midwives, women in much of Europe were able to control their own fertility to a very large extent (Riddle 117-19). 3 Between 1500 and 1700 that ability diminished; and after 1700 the principle forms of control left to women were either abstaining from sexual relations or spacing births by breastfeeding. In other words, Western European women gradually lost control over their own fertility between 1500 and 1700. Put another way, “[f]ecundity [...] right up to the eighteenth century, ha[s] marked the contrast between married love and love outside marriage” (Aries 133). That is, the physical consequences of sex, or “love,” as Philippe Aries gallantly expresses it, before or outside marriage could be controlled, and were controlled by many females.

Historical Forces and Changes in Women’s Status

In the late Middle Ages, options had existed for a woman to live and to support herself on her own. A woman of virtuous life and good habits, whether poor or rich, widowed or never married, might eschew (re-)marriage and join a béguinage. Such communities had existed at least since the early twelfth century, originally housing daughters of urban patriciates. By the late twelfth century they sheltered impoverished women, and gradually they became places for gainful employment, with parallels to the male-centered guild system (Wehrli- Johns 16, 26-27). Widespread in northern Europe, beguinages could be found in large numbers in the Rhenish towns of Mainz, Strasbourg, Basel, and Cologne, where there were well over a hundred (Schmitt), as well as further east in Germany (Hamburg, Bremen, and Lubeck), throughout the Low Countries, in France in Paris and in Marseilles, as well as in scores of French commercial centers in between, such as Cambrai, Lille, Douai, Arras, Bethune, and St. Omer (McDonnell 82-87, 270-77; Le Grand 10-13). In a béguinage a woman lived in complete safety and with relative freedom and personal independence, as satirical verses by Rutebeuf make clear (Le Grand 21). Many béguinages disappeared during the economic boom of the late 1400s, but the institution reappeared in the 1600s.

Img Fertility

Илюстрация на Dora Polster към "Хвойновият храст" от Deutsche Märchen gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm, ed. M. Thilo-Luyken (Ebenhausen bei München: Langewiesche-Brandt, 1916; n.p.: Brentano's, n.d.)


At the other end of the spectrum was the sex trade, another important avenue to economic independence. Even very small communities had officially protected places for fornication outside lawful wedlock. Often constructed at municipal expense and frequently managed by widows or wives of craftsmen, they were stocked with pate, wine, and servants. All levels of male society frequented the prostibulum publicum, especially at their zenith between 1440 and 1490 (Rossiaud). In the Venice of Giovanfrancesco Straparola, the “courtesan was not a phenomenon on the margin of society, but one of its essential components [...] and constitute [d] an important stage in the diversification of social roles and of labour” (Olivieri 95-96). Moreover, for Venetian girls and women “eroticism [was] one of the numerous instruments for the creation of capital” (Olivieri 96). But the “French evil,” worsening economic conditions, and eventually effective strictures against birth control changed the availability and commodification of childless sex. Easy access to municipally and socially sanctioned sex outside marriage dwindled beginning in 1490-1500 in France, somewhat later in Venice. Such radical changes in long-accepted sexual practices must have been accompanied by equally radical changes in public perceptions of sex and sexuality. In any event, attitudes in popular tale collections changed, and the heroines of fairy tales embodied the result.

When Joan G. Kelly considered the question “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” she concluded that women had instead “experienced a contraction of social and personal options” (20). Consider, for example, that celebrations peculiar to women’s lives were downplayed in the course of the 1500s, that women’s participation in lay female confraternities came to be forbidden, that women were forbidden to travel unaccompanied, that many crafts in which women had previously predominated, such as the making of votive candles (Wiesner, “Nuns, Wives, and Mothers” 14, 20, 23) or brewing ale (Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters 77-78), diminished dramatically in the 1500s. In terms of choosing between marriage to man or God, the distribution of convents’ property and the dispersal of female religious in Protestant-ruled areas eliminated a vital refuge for women. At the same time trials and executions for witchcraft began their two-hundred-year reign of terror for marginal individuals, the majority of whom were women. Reading against the grain we must conclude that before 1500 women, or at least many women, had belonged to a confraternity, had been active in the money economy, or had lived in relative emotional and intellectual independence in a convent or béguinage.

Popular practice in the late Middle Ages had offered women opportunities to express themselves piously. The church itself provided female role models such as the Virgin Mary and her mother Saint Anne within the Holy Family, within the life and governance of convents, and among its pantheon of saints (Jacobsen 51). That, too, changed with Europe’s successive religious Reformations, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic. In addition, “[t]he Lutheran Reformation brought with it an emphasis on women’s place in the home” in Germany (Karant-Nunn 40) as well as in the Nordic countries (Jacobsen 47).

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries some women had held membership in women’s guilds in Paris and Cologne (Herlihy 162). Others had belonged to men’s guilds as wives or as widows (Bennett and Kowaleski). A few hundred years later, however, the guild system excluded women almost entirely. After 1500 the generally lower capitalization of women’s businesses worked even more to their disadvantage as markets became increasingly long-distance and capital-intensive. Inferior in status, women’s businesses were also generally restricted to the home (Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters 145-157, esp. 146, 148). As Merry Wiesner puts it in a translation of sixteenth-century language, a “masterless” woman was increasingly denied the ability to support herself after the Reformation (Wiesner, Working Women in Renaissance Germany 1-2, 8, 149-85).

All of the tendencies outlined in the previous paragraph were exemplified in the brewing business. Women—single, widowed, or married—had dominated the craft in the Middle Ages, but with the widespread introduction of hopped beer, brewing was reorganized along largescale lines of production and distribution in which single women and widows rarely found a place (Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters esp. 83; N. Davis 187-89).

Like brewing, clothmaking had also slowly evolved from a medieval woman’s craft to a late medieval joint enterprise in which both men and women participated to an early modem male-dominated industry (Herlihy 185-86). Outside the domestic economy, it became increasingly difficult for women to become either equal economic partners or economic partners with equal rights with their fathers, sons, or brothers, or even independent entrepreneurs among their male peers (Shaw 248-53).

Sexual diseases, such as syphilis (Arrizabalaga, Henderson, and French 34-36, 123, 129-30; Foa 26-45), became public health problems and complicated the social and sexual congress of women and men from 1493 onward (Frascatoro [1547] in Rosenberg 370). These profound changes made themselves felt in the lives of girls and women and provided the force for shifts in girls’ and women’s gender roles. 4 The extent to which any individual girl or woman experienced these changes depended on her religion (Catholic or Protestant 5), her family’s social class, and her residence (urban or rural). The literary significance of the changes discussed here is that as plots caught up with daily life they also marked the beginning of a radical change in the kinds of stories that were retailed to a popular readership.

Gender Roles and Pregnancy in Brief Narrative Texts

If we subject pre-1550 narrative texts to gender-based analysis, unanticipated gender roles emerge. Take, for example, the late twelfth-century Alexandras, in which Queen Thalestris of the Amazons appears before Alexander the Great and asks him, an exemplary male, to impregnate her to produce a genetically superior heir (Townsend 137). The Middle English poem Cleanness celebrates and endorses heterosexual loveplay as God’s own design (Keiser esp. 65-79). These treatments of sex and sexuality as a social trope differ recognizably from their guises between 1700 and 2000!
What underlays such fearless sexuality? Was the astonishing lack of progeny among famous lovers a fictional trope? Or did it correspond to couples’ actual experience? If that is so, should we conclude that unauthorized intercourse led to few (or no) social or economic consequences? Is it possible that unlegitimated sexual congress might not bar a woman from providing her own sustenance or practicing a craft (Wiesner, Working Women in Renaissance Germany)? If this were the case, then a woman might comport herself physically and psychologically in a manner that contemporary women have relearned only in recent decades.

Where might we begin in a search for alternative gender roles, ones that preceded the formulation of the modem fairy-tale heroine? French fabliaux, a beloved and widespread narrative form in English, French, Italian, and German in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries (Noomen and van den Boogard; Montaiglon and Reynaud; Muscatine) illuminate old gender roles, even as we recognize that they thrived on fixed tropes. Fabliaux were brief versified stories whose content often centered on body parts and body functions (Bums 31-70; Nykrog 3-19). Were these stories funny because their language broke taboos (Beyer 101-04)? Was their delirious obscenity the result of “the inability of language to name the sexual relation” (Leupin 83)? Did the fabliau ironize (Gaunt) a publicly acknowledged and jolly sexuality (Muscatine 164), which Boccaccio (1353) more politely named “dulcet kisses and amorous embracements and delightsome couplings” (1: 290)? Or was the fabliau a burlesque form that parodied courtly epics (Nykrog)? Developed in the high Middle Ages around 1250, elements of fabliau content in both prose and verse remained a strong presence all over Western Europe for over four hundred years (Hines 250-76).

Fabliau content speaks volumes about social assumptions. In “The Fisherman on the Seine Bridge” the first sentence prepares listeners for the story’s conclusion, as its French original baldly states:

Quar jone fame bien peüe
Sovent voudroit estre fotue. (Muscatine 121)

The verse says, rephrased, that it is precisely a well-brought-up young woman who often wants sexual relations. This arresting opener initiates a story about a young wife who takes a lover because her husband spends too much time fishing. The narrator not only accepts the wife’s behavior but presents it as a necessary response to domestic neglect. Other characters in the story similarly lay blame squarely on the husband, who, instead of fishing, should have been satisfying his wife.

In other fabliaux authors state that sexual relations are as important as eating and drinking 6 and that they should give pleasure to both partners. 7 Many stories rest on an assumption evidently shared by the audience that in lovemaking women will take the initiative, 8 and that furthermore it is self- evident that a woman will abandon a husband who has lost his male member, or use of it, no matter how it has happened. 9

For contemporary readers it is perhaps surprising that fabliaux, which speak so much of sexual intercourse, say so little about babies. It is a phenomenon that the noted American fabliau scholar Charles Muscatine noted and commented on (Muscatine 131). Everything suggests that far from being limited to the French, this Gallic childlessness existed throughout the leisure reading public of Western Europe.

Additional examples may be necessary to persuade readers of the broad validity of my observations. One famous textual descendant of crude country fabliaux were Giovanni Boccaccio’s refined urban stories. Within his Decameron plots, “utmost delight” recurs repeatedly between ardent Guismondas and willing Guiscardos, yet their unwed intercourse never produces pregnancy. One hilarious example is Pampinea’s story (4.2) about the lecherous Brother Alberto:

Berto della Massa, an Imola “man of lewd and corrupt life,” had thieved, pimped, forged, and murdered until he had to flee his hometown. Making a new life in Venice as a Franciscan priest named “Brother Alberto da Imola,” he lived in conspicuous austerity and wept loudly at the altar, his pious habits soon making him a trusted counselor throughout the city. As an old reprobate, he was a knowledgeable and indulgent confessor. Consequently, he was most sought-after, in particular among women of the highest rank.


One day he rebuked the beautiful but featherbrained Madonna Lisetta da Ca’ Quirino, for her vainglory, but secretly he plotted how he might seduce her himself. Ten days later he came to her with the news that the Archangel Gabriel had beaten him mercilessly for disparaging her “celestial charms,” had lamented that heaven with all its glories was as nothing since he’d seen her and that he’d die for love unless he could visit her. This heavenly report immensely flattered the silly woman, who immediately agreed that the archangel should come the next day and that he should borrow a human body from Fra Alberto so that she too would have pleasure.


“Fra Alberto paid her many visits in angel-form, without suffering any hindrance,” until she boasted to a neighbor that her angelic lover performed “better than my husband [...] and comes very often to lie with me.” (My paraphrase; quotations from Boccaccio 1: 305-311)

It is worth pausing to consider Madonna Lisetta’s conduct and its consequences. From the Decameron's telling, it is evident both that she enjoyed a longterm liaison with the “archangel” and that he was not her first lover. Despite the length of their dalliance, neither babies, pregnancy, nor fear of pregnancy spoiled their amorous pleasure.

With respect to its nonexistent pregnancies for unmarried lovers, Brother Alberto’s story is typical for the Decameron. In England Geoffrey Chaucer’s band of pilgrims similarly told one adulterous (but childless) adventure after another in the Canterbury Tales, which was equally true of fifteenth-century literary descendants such as Cent nouvelles nouvelles (ca. 1460). 10

Faced with these fourteenth- and fifteenth-century stories from England, France, and Italy, one has to inquire whether Western and Southern European peoples knew something of which stalwart northerners had no inkling. It would appear, however, that people north of the Alps were just as informed as were their neighbors to the south and west, for adulterous German heroines enjoyed their lovers for long periods of time without producing little Tristans or baby Isoldes, while Guinevere and Eufame refused motherhood equally successfully in their liaisons (McCracken 38, 43). 11 Cuckolded husbands and cheated wives exist aplenty. An active female sexuality is thematized, but pregnant adulteresses don’t exist.

It should come as no surprise that tales told in medieval collections differ in content from theologians’ tracts and priests’ sermons. The historian Jean-Louis Flandrin contested the easy assumption that church teachings accurately reflected social practice in the Middle Ages. After all, tale collections were not sold amongst choirstalls in churches but in bookstalls in marketplaces. Like all merchandise, they were saleable only if they offered stories that contemporaries wanted to read, stories that fit their life and their experience and made them laugh.

Story plots also had to make sense without interpolated explanations. The plots in these tale collections testify to sexual activity among women and men, both within and outside the marital bond. Their stories include spirited heroines who marshall their friends and their wit to evade the consequences of the sexual transgressions, of which they are fully conscious. 12

The period during which the modem fairy-tale heroine — and fictional heroines in general—took shape, 1500-1700, is now upon us. As befits a transitional period, sixteenth-century tale collections send mixed messages about sex, sexuality, and gender. Giovanfrancesco Straparola’s magic tales (1550-53) are exemplary for the genre, particularly since they exerted so lasting an influence on the form and content of European fairy tales.

Straparola took most of his tales from earlier Italian tale collections, and these retold stories maintain the old values concerning men, women, and sexuality. But a handful of his tales were new creations, the first modem European fairy tales (Bottigheimer, “Straparola’s Piacevoli notti”). In examining these tales with an eye to the heroine’s sexual exposure, pregnancy under other characters’ control and the fear of such a pregnancy leap off the page. In the first story of the second night, the long-childless Queen Ersilia is impregnated by three mischievous fairies as she lies sleeping in the garden, and her mud- besmeared pigskin son takes a wife who is pregnant soon after the wedding night. In another tale of magic Pietro the Fool (3.1) impregnates a ten-year-old princess by simply wishing it. The unexpected sight of the fairy-tale hero Fortunio in her bedchamber (3.4) makes Princess Doralice shout in terror as if wild animals were tearing her to bits. “I have not come to despoil you of your honor,” Fortunio assures her (Facetious Nights 1: 352). The lost honor that Princess Doralice fears is the same that Marmiato the miller suspects in another tale when he finds three abandoned babies (4.3) and concludes that “some noble lady had committed this crime to hide her shame.” In a fairy tale, the fifth story on the seventh day, three brothers rescue a princess, but can’t decide which should have her; she, apparently, has no choice in the matter. And finally, when Dionigi (8.5) materializes magically in Princess Violante’s chamber, he lays his hand on her young barely swelling breasts. She would have screamed in terror but he covered her mouth. He had not come to shame her, he explains, and she begs him to respect her honor.

In Straparola’s tales of rags to riches through magically made marriages, the balance has tipped in favor of men. Men act on women’s bodies. In these stories, women no longer scheme to admit men to their beds. Instead, boys and men intrude their bodies into the private space of terrified girls or women.

By the time Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone was published (2 vols., 1634-36), all of his stories, not just a handful as was the case with Straparola, reflect a changed world. His entire collection of stories hinges on a pregnancy in the frame tale that follows a girl’s first sexual congress with her royal husband. What’s more, Basile’s stories describe further pregnancies, above all, unavoidable ones. For instance, the ninth story of the first day regales listeners with a dragon’s heart that causes reproduction on every hand: the big bed gives birth to little beds, the great stool to little stools, and the cook, the queen, and her maid all give birth too! The first story of the second day, “Petrosinella,” concerns a pregnant woman. The next story has a no-fault and no-fear sexual relationship between Nella and her princely lover, but the following one returns to involuntary pregnancy when the narrator notes that “some students say that in Spain mares had been known to become pregnant by the wind” (The Pentamerone 1:149).

Literary examples like those in Basile’s Pentamerone continue into the eighteenth century, whose increasingly urbanized and bourgeois society Jurgen Habermas characterized as divided into two spheres. One was masculine, public, dominant, held to be rational and to exist on a higher intellectual plane; the other was feminine, reserved, natural, contained, and subservient, considered irrational and close to nature, which meant, among other things, exposed to the risk of pregnancy, whether wished for or not.

One of Germany’s most famous eighteenth-century pregnancies was that of Goethe’s Gretchen. Impregnated by Faust, she descends into madness, kills her child, and is herself executed for infanticide. And yet Renaissance Faustbooks have no pregnant Gretchens. Why, we must ask, was it only with Goethe’s Faust that the heroine’s belly swells? (One inevitably thinks here of the Grimms’ earliest version of Rapunzel with its tightening bodice!)

In the nineteenth century, the weaknesses ascribed to women also characterized the majority of German or German-influenced tale collections. That was above all the case with the Grimm collection, where “strong” or “speaking” women were defined as “wicked” (Bottigheimer, Grimms’ Bad Girls and Bold Boys 51-80). Most girls and women suffered, and suffered far more than male characters in similar tales. Condemned to years of silence, numerous heroines had to wait out their exile in a wilderness, their clothes slowly rotting away.

Why did Grimms’ girls suffer? In part because popular “knowledge” willed it so. The proverb was “Manner tun, Frauen leiden” (men act, women are acted upon). 13 The proverb meant that women are passive, but the word “leiden” allows a second meaning, “suffer,” and it was more often than not understood in the latter sense, and was justified from pulpit and podium as the just consequence of Eve’s folly.

Once the majority of early modem women had lost control over their own fertility, old concepts took on a new force and came to dominate sexual discourse. Women in tale collections no longer survived by their wits and had sexual pleasure along the way. Instead, their bodies became vehicles of “honor” and “dishonor” (Ferrante; Cavallo and Cerutti).

Coincident with women’s loss of fertility control was the emergence of the new literary genre, fairy tales. As the genre developed towards its modem form, two notable changes occurred in their plots. Men became a danger to women, and newly disempowered women cowered in fear. They had lost their wits, quite literally. The dangers that men posed sexually were generalized into a fairy-tale world in which women suffered wicked abductors, relentless captors, long captivity, and increasing isolation. In short, the modem fairy-tale heroine was born.

 

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This article is a substantially revised and expanded version of a plenary address to the German Folklore Society, Marburg, 1997.

Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2000), pp. 64-79. Copyright © 2000 by Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI 48201.

Notes

1 A rare exception among German Protestants were the enlightened and sympathetic views of Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel, Über die Ehe (1774) and Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Weiber (1792).

2 In all cultures, whether American, Moroccan, Mexican, or German, the penetrating partner is recognized as the “male” participant, the one penetrated as the female, a distinction that remains whether the sexual pair consists of a man and a woman, two men, or two women. See Trexler, as well as any number of studies of prison culture.

3 There is a remarkably widespread assumption that women did not or could not control their own fertility then or later. See, for example, Dawson 108, with reference to Baroness von Zay.

4 In a 1992 essay, “Medieval Women, Modem Women,” Judith Bennett argues against the idea of major changes in women’s work experience between 1350 and 1600. While acknowledging her thought, I want to stress that literary evidence corroborates the historical narrative of change in women’s economic status in this period.

5 I do not consider the lives of Jewish girls and women in this context, because there is at present no evidence for their participation in the production or the consumption of secular tale collections in Italian, French, or German in the late medieval or early modem period.

6 “Bovin de Provins” (Muscatine 121).

7 “La Dame qui aveine demandoit” (Muscatine 122).

8 Muscatine 123.

9 “Le Pescheor seur Saine” (Muscatine 122).

10 One exception is a husband’s murderous revenge on an illegitimate child in no. 19, “The Snow-Baby.” Only in Matteo Bandello’s Novelle (1554-73) does abortion appear, and then reportedly at the request of Lady Ippolita Sanseverino. See Clements and Gibaldi 176-77.

11 It is important to take contraception and abortion seriously as a set of practices whose results are evident in literature. Otherwise one is led to needlessly recondite theorizing. McCracken, for example, understands the adulterous queens’ not producing children as a “sterility” that she characterizes as “sexual containment.” She comments as follows: “The ritualized sexual containment of the queen is both an isolation and a penetration, simultaneously a closing of her body to other men and an opening to her husband” (52).

12 Clements and Gibaldi tell a different story by citing an unidentified 1350 passage: “young ladies hold their amorous flames hidden [...]” (Clements and Gibaldi 181). In my view this passage antedates and previews changes that will emerge two centuries later.

13 For one example among scores, see Ewald, where for boys religion meant “tun,” for girls, “leiden” (1: 263).