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Fairy Tale Fest: Fairy Tales in Context

2011 May 4

Okay, it’s probably not a hugely shocking revelation to point out that stories are influenced by the social conditions surrounding their writing. As a general principle this is pretty obvious. However, more specific examples and details may be slightly less obvious, so what we’re going to do here is take a look at the differences in the role of female characters between 15th and 16th century fairy tales, and the changes in society at the same time. Hopefully this will be both interesting and illustrative.

Begin the Béguinage

In the late middle ages (and please note that I am by no means suggesting the late middle ages were a good time to be in, I’m just covering some things that would become unavailable in later centuries) there were several avenues by which a woman might live independently. Béguinages offered something akin to the male guild systems, a community by which women might live collectively and pursue a trade, functioning much like convents but without the whole “retiring from the world to pursue a life of spirituality” element.

Many small industries were dominated by female crafters at the time, particularly the production of votive candles, and the brewing of beer (which, prior to increases in production scales in the 1500s was mostly a home industry).

Lastly, at the opposite end of the scale to the beguinages, there was the sex industry. (This is not to suggest that independent woman meant prostitute in the late middle ages, as some people often imply. See above for counter-examples.) Disclaimers aside, municipally sanctioned prostitution was both common and acceptable in the latter part of the 15th century, and provided one route to an independent life.

…the courtesan was not a phenomenon on the margin of society, but one of its essential components… and constituted an important stage in the diversification of social roles and of labour.

-Achillo Olivieri, Eroticism and Social Groups in Sixteenth-Century Venice

By the mid-16th century, much of this had changed. Economic conditions had all but eradicated the béguinage; the production of goods had switched to a male-dominated large scale industry; the rise of Protestantism had seen the closure of many convents; and socially acceptable sex-work was done away with by changing religious mores and the increasing prevalence of syphilis (the “French evil”) and other STDs as public health threats from 1493 onwards. The Renaissance may have improved overall quality of life, but in many ways it proved a step backwards for the opportunities of Western European women.

Meanwhile, in the world of fiction…

So, that’s how society changed; what do we see happening in fiction over the same time period? In pre-16th century work we find heroines taking on roles the Grimms would later depict as “bad for a girl but bold for a boy”. We see, in an early Catalan variant of The Waters of Life, an adventurous princess succeeding where here brothers have failed, winning out through bravery and compassion to restore her home. In the fabliaux of France and Italy we see female characters taking the lead in stories that range from the bawdy to the obscene, which reflect the assumption that of course women will sometimes take the initiative.
Even moving away from the fantastic and magical tales we find similar characterisations in more serious works such as that of Madonna Lisetta in Boccaccio’s Decameron.

Photo by Flickr user Mrs eNil, shared under a Creative Commons Licence. A landscape of blue sky and green grass with a large medieval, fairy tale idyllic, grey stone castle tower with a pointed roof to the left of the picture.By the mid-16th century the characters were beginning to take the forms that would be most recognisable to most modern readers. Here we see the shift from the active, protagonistic female character to the passive, receptive object to whom fairy tales happen.

Straparola’s magic tales, dating to 1553, deliver a mixed message on sex and gender. The older tales in the collection stay fairly true to their roots, but the newer ones show female characters who must fear men, who must fear the consequences of associating with them. No longer do they take the lead, instead they are there to be won, as with the story of three brothers who rescue a princess and fall to arguing over who should wed her. She doesn’t get a say in the matter.

If Straparola’s collection shows the transition, Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone (1636) gives us the conclusion. By this point all the stories reflect the new order of things. Female characters are there now almost entirely to receive the actions of the male leads, without much choice in things themselves. A large portion of Basile’s tales revolve around unwanted and involuntary pregnancies. This tone continues all the way through to at least the early 19th century, and provides the link to the next point of this post.

And now, speculation!

Right, this next bit is somewhat more speculative: There is some research suggesting that up until around the start of the 16th century women had a good deal of control over their fertility (check the further reading section at the end here for more details). Between 1500 and 1700 this ability substantially declined, leaving women far more susceptible to the consequences of sex. We can suggest a few reasons for this decline: Firstly, there was the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487, which branded midwifes who provided abortifacients as witches, and lead to witch-hunt panics through Western Europe. At the same time there was the rising tension caused by the Protestant Reformation, which saw increased conflict between Reformers and Counter-Reformers, and lead to both the Protestant and Catholic churches being increasingly zealous in order to demonstrate their own faithfulness.

There are arguments (see particularly Ruth Bottigheimer’s essay Fertility Control and the Modern European Fairy-Tale Heroine available in this anthology) that the change in the role of the fictional woman and the change in real life control over fertility are utterly bound together. The real dangers of sex became the over-arching dangers of the fairy-tale plot, the imprisonment in towers, the kidnappings, captivity, and general disempowerment. Thus the tales of the Grimms, in which “men act, women are acted upon.”

…old concepts took on a new force and came to dominate… Women in tale collections no longer survived by their wits… Instead, their bodies became vehicles of “honour” and “dishonour”.
– Ruth Bottigheimer

So yes, the overall point here is that considering the representations of gender in fairy tales is not quite so simple as just going “Cor, Disney/Grimm/Perrault were a bit crap at gender, eh?” There are myriad other factors that go into the formation of a story, as hopefully this (incredibly brief) overview of some has demonstrated.

Other stuff on vaguely related notes that’s worth reading:

2 Responses leave one →
  1. May 4, 2011

    Brain-ticklingly interesting, thank you.

    Also potentially connected is the fact that Medieval women had more access to education than post-Renaissance women. Medieval noblewomen in particular were quite often the literate parties in a marriage in charge of households, accounts, correspondence and so on, but the influence of religious communities in providing education to non-elite women was also extremely important.

    In later Protestant societies education of women was left up to the good offices of the male head of the family, and was extremely hit and miss, with a gradual shift that culminated with Rousseau and his influential and explicit recommendation of withholding all liberal education from female children. For a striking example compare the erudition of e.g. Elizabeth I to the semi-literate ignorance of Queen Anne some 100 years later.

    So on top of losing control of their lives & bodies, women also lost control of their stories, as education and access to the literary world of Renaissance Europe were denied them.

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