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  • Ruth B. Bottigheimer (bio)

As Etienne van de Walle notes, my principal thesis is that women's loss of control over their own fertility coincided with, underlay, and may well have been responsible for a modern literary category, the female protagonist for whom pregnancy represents a moral and a mortal threat. The category exists in many genres, but it is of particular significance in discussions of the origins of the modern fairy-tale heroine.

In light of van de Walle's listing of pregnant heroines in medieval and early modern tale collections, I need to amend the statement which he called into question. His examples are very useful for my continuing work on the relationship between the consequences of sexual relationships and the literary genre of fairy tales. I'd also like to continue the exchange by commenting on texts he cited that I was able to locate quickly.

It strikes me that the existence of pregnancy in an individual medieval or early modern tale or in real life in the Italian Renaissance does not necessarily indicate that a woman failed to or was unable to control the consequences of sexual intercourse. On the contrary, a woman who provided sexual service outside of marriage could often parlay a sexual relationship resulting in a live birth into valuable financial support from a socially or financially superior lover. The well-known sixteenth-century Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco, whose several children by a merchant of means yielded her a long-term income, utilized this strategy with considerable success. Galileo Galilei eventually found a respectable husband for the beautiful but socially undistinguished mother of his three children.

Literary out-of-wedlock pregnancies often suggest a wily use of pregnancy to achieve financial ends. Poggio's facetia 1, which van de Walle cites, can be understood in this manner:A wife who believes her long-absent fisherman husband to be dead feathers her nest with love, money, and a child from another man. When her first husband returns after five years, she explains each fine addition to their formerly impoverished household as an instance of God's grace, including a bonny four-year-old boy, all of which the credulous fisherman [End Page 131] welcomes joyfully and reverentially. (Readers should remember that in the early 1400s when Poggio wrote, "marriage" was a far more loosely construed institution than it became 200 years later.)

Verbal pregnancies, such as those in jests and fabliaux, form part of eternal locker-room bawdry. Take another of Poggio's tales that van de Walle mentions, facetia 244, in which a Venetian prostitute, asked which nationality's sexuality most pleases her, replies, "Venetians. Their pricks are so long (tam longo sunt priapo) that their wives get pregnant even when their men are overseas." Much the same sentiment underlay Poggio's tale 241, in which a Florentine merchant in Genoa, asked why his children were so much handsomer than Genoese children, explained that his own children had but one father, while the Genoese children, whose fathers were so long absent on the high seas, had many. Such vulgarly trenchant characterizations of the behavior of women in other cities functioned as an integral and popular part of civic rivalries. That could extend to men's stupidity, as in Poggio's six-liner (facetia 225) about the man from Gubbio who castrated himself to find out if his wife was virtuous. (Poggio was a Florentine.)

Poggio, a liberal humanist, spent his life as a layman serving the Roman curia. His peers were intellectuals, and he composed his facetiae for a Latin-reading public, although many of his sources must have been vernacular ones. He generally exempted intellectuals from his rough mockery, but he easily ridiculed a (Florentine) merchant, like the one in facetia 122, who—absent for twelve months—returned home to find his wife in the process of giving birth. Perplexed, he asked a knowledgeable neighbor if a twelve-month pregnancy were possible. No fool she. She replied, "Of course. Your wife saw an ass just after she conceived, and so, like the ass, she took twelve months to gestate," an explanation that greatly relieved the poor fellow.

In all of these...


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