The tale of Little Red Riding Hood has a long history to it – first printed by Charles Perrault in the late 17th century and the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth. However, the earliest known version of the story actually dates back to the 11th century.
Between the years 1010 and 1026, Egbert, a cleric who taught in the town of Liege wrote a book for the young students in his classroom. The work he created is called The Well-Laden Ship, which retells various proverbs, fables and folktales. It was designed to teach grammatical rules and give moral lessons to the students.
Egbert explains that he wrote the book “not for those who are already perfected to manly strength by careful attentive reading, but for those timid little boys still subject to discipline in school; so that, when their teachers are absent, while that band of youths is babbling to one to one another certain ditties (though none of them to any purpose) in order to sharpen somewhat their meagre talent by practicing and frequently chanting those little verses, at such times they might rather use these.”
While many of the stories that Egbert gives in his book are based on the Bible, he also gives several that he first heard from peasants. This includes the following tale:
Concerning the Girl Saved from the Wolf Cubs
The story I tell, the country folk know how to tell me, and it is not so much marvellous to believe as it is very true. A certain man raised a girl from the sacred font, and he gave her a tunic woven from red wool. Shrove Sunday was the holy day of this baptism. When the sun had risen, the girl now five years old set out wandering, heedless of herself and of danger.
A wolf attacked her and headed for his woodland haunts; and he took her as prey to his cubs and left her to be eaten. They immediately approached her, then when they were unable to tear her to pieces, they began to caress her head, their fierceness having been allayed. The little infant said, “Oh mice, don’t rip this tunic which my godfather gave me, taking me from the font!” God, their creator, softens savage souls.
Historians have been puzzled by this little story, wondering how much of it is connected to the Red Riding Hood tales that were told in early modern Europe. Jan Ziolkowski notes that there are “significant similarities to Little Red Riding Hood as the title character (a little girl with a red riding hood), the main prop (a red riding hood), the lead villain (a wolf), the climactic event (an improbable but safe escape from the lead villain when all seems lost), and two main themes (the dangers of the woods and of being eaten by wolves).”
You can read more about his views of this story in Ziolkowski’s article A Fairy Tale from before Fairy Tales: Egbert of Liège’s “De puella a lupellis seruata” and the Medieval Background of “Little Red Riding Hood”
The Well-Laden Ship has been just edited and translated by Robert Gary Babcock and is published as part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series from Harvard University Press.
See also the articles: How Old Is Little Red Riding Hood?: Tales Over Time, by Gwen Thurston Joy and The Path of Needles or Pins: Little Red Riding Hood, by Terri Windling.
And if you want to know how Hollywood retells this story, check out our review of the 2011 film Red Riding Hood.
Top Image: Photo by Michael Miller / Flickr