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  • A Comment on Fertility Control and the Fairy-Tale Heroine
  • Etienne van de Walle (bio)

Fairy-tale studies are made especially interesting by the controversies that inevitably accompany them. Accordingly, Marvels & Tales will publish Critical Exchanges between readers and authors. Concise, professional responses that augment, develop, or constructively challenge the substance of essays published in the journal may be submitted to the editor. Responses should be double-spaced, submitted in hard copy and on diskette, be limited to one thousand words or less, and must contain no footnotes or other apparatus. The author whose work is the subject of the response will be given the opportunity to reply. The editor maintains the right to reject or edit any response.

Ruth B. Bottigheimer's paper on "Fertility Control and the Birth of the Modern European Fairy-Tale Heroine" (14.1 [2000]: 64-79) covers some of the ground that I have examined in a forthcoming paper (van de Walle). I will not address her main thesis here, i.e., that girls' and women's roles as heroines in tales shifted between 1500 and 1700. Rather, I will discuss her argument about the alleged cause of this shift, namely that before 1500 or 1550, women in Europe were able to control their fertility, and that this skill had progressively disappeared by 1700. I will limit my comments to short tales during the period between 1150 and 1600. There are indeed references to birth control in these tales.

Bottigheimer claims that "pregnant adulteresses don't exist" (73), but this is not quite true. It is one of the presuppositions of this literature that births occurring to married women would generally be integrated in the family of their husbands, and that adulterous liaisons would leave few traces. In no. 225 of Poggio Bracciolini's Facetiae (ca. 1450), a jealous husband castrates himself [End Page 128] to have a fail-safe way to ascertain the virtue of his wife. There are many tales where the husband has been absent for more than nine months and finds a pregnant wife or a child when he comes back. Bracciolini's facetiae 1 and 122 are of this type. Facetiae 241 and 244 are, respectively, about the Genoan and Venetian children conceived while their seafaring fathers were away. Attempts to abort are prompted by the return of a husband after a long absence in tale 52 of Matteo Bandello (1513-16) and in a tale of Giovanni Sercambi (ca. 1400), "De dishonesto adulterio et bono consilio." There are even a series of tales where adulterous children are the motif. For example, in a story attributed to Petrarch, a woman on her deathbed confesses that only her first child out of twelve is from her husband; the tale is very popular and retold in several fifteenth- or sixteenth-century collections, for example in Les cent nouvelles nouvelles (Champion), Le parangon de nouvelles (Anonymous), and Hans Sachs's Schwänke.

It is true, as Bottigheimer points out, that the fabliaux say very little about babies. This "Gallic childlessness" (72) is mostly the fact of unmarried women: there are children in married households, and even one example ("Le vallet qui d'aise a malaise se met") of a young couple that is utterly ruined by its improvidence and the large number of children that result from an early marriage (Noomen and Van den Boogaard); no birth control for them! There is at least one fabliau about a clerk who impregnates a young girl against her will ("La pucelle qui voloit voler").

There are other literary genres contemporary of the fabliaux where children are born outside of marriage. In "Milun," one of the lays of Marie de France, the heroine is impregnated by her lover and delivers in secret. There are several medieval miracles that narrate cases of incest or the plight of pregnant nuns, who are miraculously saved by the Virgin Mary (Méon). Some of the women have considered abortion. "La pucelle qui se ferit au ventre d'un couteau" (Kunstmann) has been made pregnant three times by her evil uncle and guardian, who provided her twice with abortive oils; the third time, she struck her womb with a...


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