Fairy Tales, Old Wives and Printing Presses

Ruth Bottigheimer argues that the survival of our best-loved fairy tales owes more to popular print tradition than to fireside story-telling passed down through the generations.

Talking animals, magic numbers, supernatural creatures, and fabulous transformations have drawn children and adults into fantastical narratives for millennia. From the late Middle Ages onwards, one plot in particular dominated these tales in Europe. Rooted in medieval romances, this centred on a prince or princess who had been driven from the royal hierarchy, forced to flee palace or castle, suffer discomfort and danger, before experiencing a reversal of fortune enabling them to marry back in to royalty and regain royal birthright. Such tales, typically, formed part of a lengthy verse romance; scores of them were circulating in the 1400s.

In 1551, the Venetian Gian Francesco Straparola (c.1480-c.1555) published Le Piacevoli Notti (The Pleasant Nights). Scattered through the book were stories  – whose plots had already proved popular in print and in the piazza – about princes and princesses fallen on hard times whose sufferings ended when they regained royal status. One such was ‘Guerrino’, a prince who freed a caged wild man whom his royal father had captured, resulting in Guerrino having to flee his father’s rage. The story ends well for Guerrino, however, when after a series of adventures he ends up marrying the Princess Potentiana and inheriting the kingdom of Sicily.

Straparola’s ‘restoration’ stories were accompanied by others with an entirely new plot. These new stories told of a poor boy or girl who, with the help of magic creatures (fairies or other), end up rich and married to a royal partner. One of these rags-to-riches tales in Straparola’s collection was ‘Costantino Fortunato’, about a poor boy, a princess, and a talking cat who cleverly brought about their marriage. We can call these ‘rise’ tales.

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