By Danièle Cybulskie
In medieval France, a type of story grew up amidst the epics and romances that was focused on pure entertainment: the fabliau. Like fables, fabliaux are short tales, although their purpose is not to teach morals, but rather to get a good laugh. Most of the time, fabliaux are lighthearted and lusty, but occasionally they stray into dark humour, like “The Snow Baby”.
Once upon a time, so the story goes, there was a merchant who traveled a lot. One day, the merchant set out on a long business trip. “He was gone for two whole years,” says the anonymous fabliard, “and while he was away his wife, with the help of a young man she knew, got herself pregnant” (p.17). This was thanks to “Love, which lies always in wait” (p.17), especially in fabliaux about merchant husbands. When the merchant returned and asked his wife about it, she replied:
Husband, once when I was looking out for you up there on the high balcony, all sad and sorrowful at your delay, I chanced to look up at the sky, and it being winter and the snow falling heavily, a little snow fell into my mouth. Before I was aware of it I swallowed it, and it was so sweet that from the little I swallowed I conceived this beautiful child. (p.18)
The merchant exclaimed that they were blessed by God, but “in his heart, he did not believe her story” (p.18). (Maybe someone had already told him about swallowing watermelon seeds.) The merchant bided his time until the boy had grown to be fifteen years old, at which point the merchant told his wife it was time he took the boy on a trip, to teach him about the family business. The wife was wary, but had no choice but to let her son go with her husband.
They merchant and the boy travelled to Genoa, where “the merchant sold the boy to a man who took him to Alexandria to sell him on the slave market,” writes the fabliard (p.19). The merchant then returned home to his wife, who (after myriad fainting spells) pleaded with the merchant to tell her what had become of the boy. The merchant replied:
It was on a hot summer’s day just about noon in the country where we were traveling, when I and your son went for a walk on a very high hill where the rays of the sun, which were very bright and burning hot, fell full on our heads. Alas, that walk cost us dear! For the boy, exposed to the full heat of the sun, all at once melted away. And it is no wonder that he did, for as we know he was made of snow.
Thus the merchant had his revenge on his faithless wife, the fabliard tells us, and his wife “had to drink what she herself had brewed” (p.20).
This type of dark humour isn’t typical of fabliaux in general (although the character of the lusty, cheating wife certainly is), but the story seems to have roots in conventional folk tales, and is itself the first instance of a popular type of baby-from-swallowed-object stories, according to Robert Hellman and Richard O’Gorman (p.20). Medieval listeners, it seems, would have appreciated the sinister wit of the merchant in the face of his cuckolding.
As the first snows begin to fall in the northern hemisphere this month, you may want to think twice about lifting your face up to catch a snowflake on your tongue. You never know what trouble you may end up getting into.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist