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The Medieval Sleeping Beauty

By Danièle Cybulskie

Compared to the friendly fairy tales of today, fairy tales of the past can often be – well… grim. One of the stories that spurred my interest in the Middle Ages as a child was Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Set in the fourteenth century, filled with colour and stylized images inspired by the Middle Ages, it’s the classic story of a daring prince who battles evil to wake the sleeping princess with a romantic, chaste kiss. I’ve since read an early version of the Sleeping Beauty story from the actual fourteenth century, and it’s much darker than the modern version, although it does hold an interesting secret for those who love the stories of the Round Table.

medieval sleeping beauty - by Henry Meynell Rheam

In the epically long medieval romance Perceforest lies the story of Zellandine, a beautiful princess from Zeeland who is in love with a knight named Troylus from Royalville, Scotland. One day, Troylus hears that Zellandine has strangely fallen asleep while spinning, and hasn’t woken since. Troylus speeds to Zeeland to rescue her, and (after spending a week under a spell on a little side adventure) goes to the temple of three goddesses: “Venus, Lucina, goddess of childbirth, and … Themis, goddess of destiny” (p. 386; all quotes are from Nigel Bryant’s translation). Troylus prays to Venus to discover how to wake Zellandine, and is told, “When you pluck from the slit / The fruit that holds the cure, / The girl will be healed” (p.389).

If you’ve read medieval stories before, you probably know where this is going, but Troylus is oblivious enough to the goddess(es)’ message that he is sent on his way with some impatience. When Troylus reaches the high tower where Zellandine is sleeping, a mysterious messenger appears who also tells Troylus to “follow the urgings of the goddess Venus” (p.390) and who magically transports him into the massively high tower, promising to come back at midnight. Troylus climbs in the window and finds the beautiful Zellandine sleeping naked (naturally) in a fantastic bed. He leans in to kiss her (asking her permission first), and is reminded by Reason and Discretion that “no man should breach a girl’s privacy without her leave, and he certainly shouldn’t touch her while she sleeps!” (p. 391). Troylus hesitates, but then reminds himself of the healing power of kisses, and kisses her anyway. Zellandine does not wake up. Troylus, frustrated, rails against Venus for not telling him what to do, and Venus in her turn scolds Troylus for not getting her earlier hints: “You’re all alone with this beautiful girl, the one you love above all others, and you don’t lie with her!” (p.392) Troylus hesitates again, at which point Venus so inflames him that he does take Zellandine’s “right to the name of maiden” while she sleeps, startling at a sound she makes and “ready to act all innocent” (p.392) if she discovers him. Zellandine still does not wake up, and just then the messenger reappears to hurry Troylus away before he is discovered. Quickly, Troylus exchanges back the rings that he and Zellandine had traded long ago (perhaps a belated attempt at making his misdeeds into a marriage) and follows the messenger, who has conveniently turned into a bird to carry Troylus away.

Nine months later, the still-sleeping Zellandine gives birth to a baby boy, who, in search of his mother’s breast, suckles her finger instead. Zellandine immediately wakes up, and her aunt explains that, after Zellandine was born, she had made a feast for Venus, Lucina and Themis at the temple. Themis, outraged that she was not given a knife to eat with, cursed Zellandine so that “from the first thread of linen that she spins from her distaff a shard will pierce her finger and cast her into a sudden sleep, from which she’ll never wake until it’s sucked out” (p.409). Venus’ plan has indeed woken Zellandine through a long and twisted route, although the aunt never does explain why she didn’t bother to mention this curse earlier.

Eventually, Zellandine and Troylus run away together and marry, but Zellandine is shown to mourn her rape, even as she loves her husband. The baby, Benuic, stolen from the window by a half-woman-half-bird creature shortly after he wakes his mother, becomes a great knight, of course, and performs many great deeds.

In the Perceforest story lie the seeds of Sleeping Beauty as we know it: a supernatural woman angered at a perceived lapse in manners; a curse on the baby for its relatives’ misdeeds; a finger pricked while spinning; a deep sleep; a high tower; a sexual encounter in sleep. Given the centuries between, this story is remarkably similar, although the modern version is very sanitized. And what is the mysterious connection to the Round Table? Troylus and Zellandine, through their son Benuic, are the ancestors of King Ban, the father of “the most illustrious man in all the world” (p.412): Sir Lancelot.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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