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Reviewed by:
  • Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies
  • Maria Teresa Agozzino (bio)
Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies. By Jan M. Ziolkowski. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. 500 pp.

In this beautifully crafted and handsome tome, Jan M. Ziolkowski, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Medieval Latin at Harvard University, presents an innovative assessment and analysis of hitherto unexplored Medieval Latin folk [End Page 322] narratives. With thorough international perspective and intellectual contextualization, Ziolkowski masterfully historicizes and politicizes oral and literary tale collecting, style, transmission, transcription, and the role of wonder, while tackling dominant conceptions and common misconceptions.

Latin folktales have been overlooked largely because they fell through the cracks of working definitions and classifications, a process that is seeded in the late tenth to early thirteenth centuries. So prominent were wondrous and miraculous motifs that they were co-opted by religious genres (cf. hagiography). There were no specific corresponding genres for secular or nonreligious wonder tales and motifs, which hid out in literary forms such as poetry, verse, and fabula, until after the Enlightenment, when they would be relegated to the nursery and find new life as fairy tales.

The book is divided loosely into two parts. The first half (introduction, six chapters, and conclusion), throughout which Ziolkowski weaves his indefatigable scholarship and erudite exposition, is followed by appendixes of primary textual data in translation, extensive notes, a formidable multilingual bibliography (from which Francisco Vaz da Silva’s 2002 Metamorphosis: The Dynamics of Symbolism in European Fairy Tales is curiously absent), a general index, and concluding with a numerical listing of tale types and motifs. While chapter 1 provides an overview and discussion of folktales in Medieval Latin poetry (and reads as an extension of the introduction), subsequent chapters focus on the narrative life of a particular text that survives in medieval, Latin, and later classic fairy-tale forms: a late tenth-century poem with Jonah and Pinocchio associations; an early eleventh-century poem with Red Riding Hood allusions; an eleventh-century version of Little Claus and Great Claus; a version of The Turnip Tale from around the twelfth century; and The Donkey Tale (also ca. twelfth century).

In investigating sources and diachronic transmission and diffusion, Ziolkowski is interested, not in a futile search for Ur-forms, but in meanings, associations, and cultural implications. He explains his heavy reliance on the Grimms as a factual necessity. For example, among the many nuggets, Ziolkowski suggests that William R. Bascom’s “any time,” “any place” of folk narratives, which often manifest themselves in medieval tropes (princesses, dwarves, and castles, etc.), is precisely because the texts have medieval antecedents. Inspired in part by the German Romantic movement and by their idealization of the medieval period, the Grimms’ research, which would forever change the nature of fairy tales and fairy-tale scholarship, “was rooted in the languages, literatures, and religious beliefs of the Middle Ages” (23).

Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales has broad and cross-disciplinary appeal and belongs on the shelves of medievalists, folklorists, historians, Latinists, narratologists, philologists, and comparative and literary critics alike. Although [End Page 323] a high level of shared knowledge is assumed, this book does not exclude all but a specialized academic audience.

In bringing Latin folktales back into the fold, Jan M. Ziolkowski has effectively done for medieval folklore studies what his endower did for Romanesque art. In this seminal work, the ways in which tradition and transmission in the Middle Ages are understood are forever enhanced. In short, Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies is a milestone.

Maria Teresa Agozzino
American Folklore Society/The Ohio State University
Maria Teresa Agozzino

Maria Teresa Agozzino, PhD Folklore and Celtic Studies (UC Berkeley), is an associate director of the American Folklore Society and adjunct professor in the English Department at Ohio State University. Her research interests and publications center on folk belief, calendric customs, Wales and the Welsh diaspora, Arthuriana, and the history of folkloristics.



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