Slips of the Tongue

Historians set great store by what people heard in the past, but what about those things they misheard? 

If the shoe fits: Cinderella and the Glass Slipper, illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1919.

After being sacked as secretary of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in 1682, Charles Perrault decided to dedicate the last years of his life to literature. At first, he threw himself into the so-called Querelle des Anciens et des Moderns, a heated debate about the relative merits of classical and contemporary literature. But despite winning great acclaim for defending the superiority of his own times – in Le Siècle de Louis le Grand (1687) – he quickly tired of such weighty matters and started casting about for something lighter. He eventually settled on fairy tales, then more in vogue with adults than with children. Encouraged by the success of his earliest efforts, he set out to assemble as many traditional stories as he could and rewrite them in a more ‘modern’ way. Some he knew from memory; others he encountered in books, such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron; and others still he gleaned from talking to friends and neighbours. The result was the Histoire ou contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales from Past Times) – also known as Contes de ma mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose).

First published in 1697, this contained 11 stories, eight in prose and three in verse, each rounded off with a suitably improving moral. The most striking was ‘Cendrillon’ (Cinderella). It was, of course, not a new story; but what made Perrault’s version remarkable was that it was the first time Cinderella was depicted wearing glass slippers.

Today, almost everyone knows Perrault’s retelling of the Cinderella tale – even if they have never heard of Perrault himself. Thanks in no small part to Walt Disney, it has become almost definitive. But its most distinctive feature – the glass slippers – might have been a mistake. Almost a century and a half after the publication of Perrault’s collection, Honoré de Balzac turned to reflect on Cinderella’s footwear in his novel Sur Catherine de Médicis (1830-41, rev. 1846). Unable to understand why the poor girl should have worn something so peculiar, Balzac speculated that Perrault must have based his tale on oral testimony and had misheard pantoufles de vair (squirrel-fur slippers) as pantoufles de verre (glass slippers).

It was an elegant theory; but it has often been challenged by modern scholars. Although it is not implausible that Cinderella may have had squirrel-fur slippers in an earlier version of the tale, folklore specialists have pointed out that the word vair was already fairly archaic by the late 17th century and is unlikely to have been used in a story – least of all in Paris. Besides, in the fantasy world of fairy tales, it is not so odd for someone to wear glass slippers. After all, there are plenty of examples of glass mountains and even glass bridges; so why not glass shoes, as well?

But Balzac’s theory nevertheless highlights an important point. Although historians have long recognised the utility of studying how things may have been heard in the past, it can sometimes be just as revealing – if more difficult and potentially more dangerous – to examine how things were misheard.

Sound is a fragile thing. When we speak, our voices can only be heard a certain distance away and some letter sounds carry better than others. Around 30 years after Balzac completed Sur Catherine de Médicis, the German linguist Oscar Wolf demonstrated that, whereas the letter a can be clearly distinguished from 260 paces away, the letter h can only be heard from 12 paces. As a result, it is all too easy for some letter sounds – such as f and th – to become confused and for one word to sound like something different. Fan can become than; pen can become pan; and near-homophones, such as Balzac’s vair and Perrault’s verre, can be almost impossible to tell apart. But when we mishear something, we are not just mistaking one word for another. Consciously or unconsciously, we are also running through all the possibilities in our brains and deciding what might make the most sense in context. What we mishear thus says as much about our expectations of what we think someone should be saying as about anything else. Since those expectations are conditioned not only by our grasp of linguistic norms, but also by our wider social, cultural and even political concerns, the historian can use examples of mishearing in the past to gain an insight into attitudes and beliefs that might otherwise remain hidden.

Take Christopher Columbus. On 23 November 1492, he wrote in his journal that he had spotted an island (or possibly a cape) in the distance, which the natives on board his ship called Bohio and which they said was inhabited by ‘cannibals’ (Caniba). This observation was later to spawn a long-standing association between the people of the Antilles and the consumption of human flesh. But Columbus had actually misheard the tribal name Carib. Naturally, he had no idea what this meant at first; but he quickly remembered that Marco Polo had written about certain people on the Andaman Islands who feasted on men and who had ‘heads like dogs’. Since Carib could easily be conflated with the Latin word for ‘dog’ (canis), he assumed that the people of Bohio must look just like the Andaman Islanders – and that they shared the same culinary tastes. It was an absurd connection to make. But it nevertheless illustrates the extent to which Columbus’ encounters with the New World – and even the routes he followed – were conditioned by his reading of the fanciful tales of medieval travellers.

Or take the French Marshal Jacques Leroy de Saint Arnaud. When Louis Napoleon launched his coup d’état on 2 December 1851, Saint Arnaud – in his capacity as minister of war – was in charge of directing military operations. Despite suffering from a heavy cold, he quickly occupied several strategic positions around Paris. But his illness got the better of him. Just as a crowd of people was starting to gather in front of his barricades, he started coughing. When he caught his breath again, he is said to have muttered ‘ma sacrée toux’ (‘my damned cough’) under his breath. His soldiers, however, misheard this as ‘massacrez tout’ (‘massacre everyone’) and proceeded to do so. Assuming it is not apocryphal, this bloody tale is telling. It shows that Saint Arnaud’s troops not only expected that their commander might well order them to kill unarmed civilians, but also assumed that it would be a perfectly legitimate thing to do. As such, it testifies not only to the uneasy relationship between soldiers and citizenry at the beginning of the Second Empire, but also to the limits of military ethics – or lack thereof.

Perhaps most intriguing – and least well known – is the example of General Paul Ély, who served as the Chief of the French Defence Staff for much of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62). At the peak of the conflict, in May 1958, France was convulsed by the so-called Algiers Crisis. Fearing that the newly appointed prime minister, Pierre Pflimlin, would not defend the colony as vigorously as they wished, a number of senior French generals staged a coup and demanded that General Charles de Gaulle be named president. Within days, the rebels had captured Corsica and plans were afoot to invade France itself. As Chief of the Defence Staff, Ély had to prepare for the worst. He needed all the help he could get. But one of his first steps was to have one of his most loyal commanders, Air Force General André Martin arrested as a mutineer. At their last meeting, Martin had mentioned a recent visit he had made to Bonn, but Ély had misheard this as Bône – a département in Algeria – and concluded that Martin must have joined the rebels. If Ély had been thinking straight, he would undoubtedly have realised his mistake; but that he was willing to believe that someone as trustworthy as Martin would have admitted to complicity in the coup testifies to the atmosphere of panic in the highest echelons of the French military – and to the perceived weakness of the bond between the general staff and the organs of government. As such, Ély’s slip provides a fascinating insight into the fragility of the Fourth Republic – and into the lack of cohesion within the army itself.

But there are nevertheless limits to how far historians can use mishearing to study the past. That written accounts can sometimes play up auditory errors too much hardly needs saying. As in Shakespeare’s plays, ‘witnesses’ are often all too ready to suggest that a person may have ‘misheard’ sometime, either to save him/her from opprobrium, or to shoulder him/her with blame. More worrying, however, is the danger that historians may see auditory mistakes where there are none and draw all kinds of wild conclusions as a result. As Balzac shows, it can be tempting to explain something unusual or unexpected in a text as the product of mishearing, even if there is not a shred of evidence to support it. Provided the sources are approached carefully and sensitively, however, ‘mishearing’ can be a tremendous lens through which to view the past.

As Prince Charming found in Perrault’s tale, it all comes down to whether the shoe fits.

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His next book, Humanism and Empire: The Imperial Ideal in Fourteenth-Century Italy, will be published by OUP in March.