The Snow Child: a black humor medieval folktale
In medieval France a few different type of story was told as an alternative to the fairy tales or the popular fables, know as “Fabliaux”, in French, with a simple and linear plot. Focusing mostly on tales of commoners, they often treated adulterous wives and husbands, and their purpose was to make the listeners laugh.
Often anonymous, they were written by “jongleurs” (minstrels, medieval European entertainers in northeast France) between c. 1150 and 1400, and they are generally characterized by sexual and scatological obscenity, and by a set of contrary attitudes, contrary to the church and to the nobility. Several of them were reworked by Giovanni Boccaccio for the Decameron and by Geoffrey Chaucer for his Canterbury Tales. Some 150 French fabliaux are extant and an example is “The Snow-child”, a widespread European folktale, found in many medieval tellings.
As story goes, a merchant lived with his wife in their cottage by the shore. Their’s was not an easy life, for his voyages kept him away from home many months at a time. One homecoming following a particularly long and arduous voyage, lasted two years, the merchant was greeted by his wife and an infant child. He was surprised, but not especially pleased, to see the newborn baby, as he had been at sea for nearly a year.
The wife countered the husband’s inquiring look with an explanation.
“No, it is not your son,” she admitted. “It’s a miracle boy, a Snow Child!” She continued, “One winter’s day while returning home from church I slipped on the ice and fell into a snow bank. Nine months later I gave birth to our Snow Child. Is he not a wonder!”
The husband had to admit that the child was a wonder, for he had no color. His hair and his skin were a bleached white. The merchant exclaimed that he had been blessed by God but, in his heart, he did not believe in history, even if he seemed to accept the new family member.
Many voyages and seasons later, it was on a hot summer’s day, the merchant, announced to his wife that he would be going to market in the next village. “I’ll take the Snow Child along for an outing,” he said.
The merchant arrived back home that evening, but he was alone.
“Where is our son?” asked the anxious mother.
“Something terrible happened,” responded the husband. “We were walking across a broad meadow in the hot sun, and he …,” the husband faltered. “And he melted.”
The tale first appears in the 11th-century Cambridge Songs. It also appears in Medieval fabliaux, and was used in school exercises of rhetoric. A Medieval play about the Virgin Mary has characters disbelieving her story of her pregnancy citing the tale.
In any case, it seems that medieval listeners greatly appreciated the merchant’s black humor in the face of his wife’s adultery, which turns him from being a victim to becoming a cynical executioner!