By Kathryn Walton
Fairy tales look very medieval. They feature princesses, dragons, castles, knights, and quests just like many texts from the medieval world. So does that mean that fairy tales are medieval? The answer is more complex than you might think.
The Medievalism of Fairy Tales
Popular culture tends to imagine fairy tales as medieval. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, for example, opens with an image of a bejewelled manuscript in front of a medieval tapestry. The camera zooms in on the book, which opens to reveal a highly decorated page complete with a lavish capital, marginalia, hand-written script, and an image of a stately castle. The narrator begins to tell the story of a king and queen who lived a long time ago. The page turns to reveal said king and queen in a room in their castle, dressed in clothing that looks medieval, standing next to a group of people also wearing clothing that looks medieval.
Of course, very little of the design is actually historically accurate, but the whole thing is meant to evoke the Middle Ages. From the manuscript to the pointed hats, Disney imagined that the story of Sleeping Beauty took place in the medieval world.
Many of Disney’s fairy tale films are designed in this way. Cinderella, Snow White, Frozen, and Tangled, for example, are all set in beautiful medieval-esque castles and feature kings, princes, and princesses dressed in medieval-esque clothes riding horses and fighting with swords. Few to none of the things that appear in these films are actually from the medieval world. The clothes and the castles tend to be a hodgepodge of different styles and periods, but that doesn’t matter. It’s meant to evoke a pre-modern or medieval world where kings reign, knights quest, and dragons rampage.
So fairy tales, in the modern western imagination, look medieval. But are fairy tales actually medieval?
Are Fairy Tales Medieval?
The short answer to this question is no. Most of the fairy tales that are popular today, or were made popular by Disney, like Snow White, The Snow Queen, and Rapunzel, cannot be concretely traced to the medieval world.
Most fairy tales we know today were recorded in the seventeenth century or later. One of the most famous recorders of European fairy tales was Charles Perrault, and he lived and worked in the late seventeenth century. The Grimm Brothers, those other famous recorders of fairy tales, lived even later, in the 19th century. So, despite how very medieval fairy tales look and feel, many are dated to the seventeenth century and beyond, well after the medieval period.
There are a few exceptions. I wrote a column a few years ago on a medieval version of Cinderella. Called Yeh-Shien, this version of the story can be found in a text written in the 9th century in China. It is quite different from the European version that many know today but has elements of the Cinderella story (the wicked stepmother, the magical helper, the lost slipper, a party, and so on). You can read all about it here.
A version of the Sleeping Beauty story also exists in the medieval world. The story of Zellandine and Troylus can be found embedded within another medieval romance narrative. It appears in the lengthy fourteenth-century French romance of Perceforest. It is, again, quite different from the Disney version, but it’s a story about a knight who falls in love with a woman in an enchanted sleep. You can read all about that story here.
These two surviving examples show that some fairy tales were definitely circulating in the Middle Ages. Others probably were too, but we can’t be certain because fairy tales are a form of folk tale, and these are notoriously hard to date. This is in part because folk tales and fairy tales circulate orally amongst members of the lower classes. This means that they are not typically written down because they are considered of lower literary worth. When Perrault and the Grimm Brothers were recording them, they were doing so outside of any elevated literary tradition. So, some of the fairy tales we now know may very well have been circulating in the Middle Ages, but no one bothered to write them down because they were not considered worthy of recording, so we can’t know for sure.
While the specific stories of most fairy tales cannot be concretely placed in the medieval period, many of the key components of fairy tales are found in medieval literature and romance especially. Medieval romances also told stories of knights riding out on quests to rescue individuals in trouble or to find magical objects. Fairy tales actually share much in common with the style, structures, and characters of medieval romance.
And that is what makes fairy tales look so very medieval.
Fairy Tales and Medieval Romances
Here are some of the key characteristics that medieval romances and fairy tales share.
Knights in Shining Armour
The heroes of medieval romance and fairy tales are often, although not aways, very similar. The heroes of romance are knights who head out on quests to find and/or fight whomever or whatever needs finding or fighting. Sir Bevis, Sir Guy, and Sir Orfeo are just a few of the heroes of medieval romance who don their armour to fight dangerous threats and rescue helpless maidens. So, the knight in shining armour trope that we find in some traditional fairy tales and certainly in modern versions finds precedent in the medieval world.
Damsels in Distress and Damsels not-so-in-Distress
The damsel in distress trope can also be found in both fairy tales and medieval romance. Women in both are often held captive by some wicked individual and must await rescue by some brave knight. Queen Guinevere is held captive in an enchanted castle by the evil Meleagant, for example, in the romance Lancelot; or the Knight of the Cart, in the same way Rapunzel is held captive in a tower by a wicked witch in her fairy tale.
Women who are perfectly capable of saving themselves also appear in both fairy tales and romances. Several romance heroines, like Josiane in Sir Beves of Hampton use their intelligence and various magical objects to help themselves out of difficult situations. Heroines in many traditional fairy tales also use magical objects and helpers and their intelligence to get themselves out of difficult situations. The princess in Rumpelstiltskin, for example, uses both to avoid death at the hands of the king.
Magical helpers are also common in both kinds of tales. They can be magical objects (like rings or cloaks or swords) or magical people (like magicians or fairies), but they tend to appear at opportune moments to help the characters out of tricky situations. Animal helpers are also common in both. A lion helps the knight Yvain in the medieval romance Yvain or the Knight of the Lion, just as birds and mice help Cinderella in her fairy tale.
Both kinds of traditional tales also feature wicked mother figures. Stepmothers appear in both, but more common in medieval literature are wicked grandmothers. You can read about their depiction in my column on The Wicked Grandmas of Medieval Literature.
The phrase “Once upon a time” is probably one of the most well-known in the literary world. There are similar kinds of phrases in romance. Certain sets of words are always used in fairy tales and in romances. Characters are described with one or two words (a beautiful princess, a wicked witch, an aged king, for example), and descriptions of things like landscapes are minimal. Certain phrases appear over and over again from romance to romance.
Settings: Forests and Castles
Romances and fairy tales also almost always take place in the same kind of distant, vague setting. They are set in a far-away land and a long time ago. Some romances have some sense of geographic specificity, but it doesn’t usually play an important part. Most are set in a distant unspecified past. Most also take place in forests and castles. The characters move between these spaces as they navigate their tales.
So… Are Fairy Tales Medieval?
Clearly fairy tales are very medieval. The list above is just a short sample of the similarities found between romances and fairy tales. Even as I sit here, I can think of many other traits they share. They are not the same, of course, because romances are written down and much longer, but they are remarkably similar.
That said, the short answer to the question I opened the column with remains no. Because they are folktales which have circulated for millennia in various forms, fairy tales are very difficult to pin to one specific period in history. So, we can’t say with any certainty that fairy tales are medieval.
But the long answer to the question also remains an emphatic yes. Fairy tales probably circulated in the Middle Ages and may have picked up many of their traits there. They may also have shared some of those traits with the romances of the time. The very fact that so many contemporary creators imagine their fairy tales in the medieval world shows how closely linked the tales are to that period. So Disney’s choice to open Sleeping Beauty with an image of a manuscript was not so far off after all.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.