The early centuries of the Middle Ages, when the legends were in the making, give all the impression of a dream. Among rustic populations, deeply submissive to the Church and of a gentle spirit (the legends themselves attest this), we would gladly assume a high degree of innocence.
Surely it must have been God’s own time, this. Nevertheless, in the Penitentiaries, where the most ordinary sins are noted down, strange and dishonouring forms of depravity are mentioned too, of rare occurrence under the reign of Satan.
This is due to two causes — utter ignorance, and the habit of living in common, which brought near relatives into the closest contiguity. They seem to have had scarce an inkling of our morality. Their own, in spite of ecclesiastical prohibitions, appears to have been that of the Patriarchs, of the remotest antiquity, which looks upon marriage with strange women as wicked, and only allows the kinswoman to be a lawful bride.
Allied families formed only a single household. Not daring as yet to disperse their dwellings over the wastes that surrounded them, tilling merely the outlying demesne of a Merovingian palace or a monastery, they retired every night together with their beasts under the roof of a vast villa. Hence inconveniences similar to those of the ergastulum of classical antiquity, in which slaves were herded promiscuously.
More than one of these communities still existed in the Middle Ages, and even later. The Lord of the Soil recked little of what resulted from the arrangement. He regarded as forming a single family this tribe, this mass of human beings “getting up and going to bed together,” — “eating bread off one platter and meat out of one pot.”
In this indiscriminate way of living, woman met with very little care or protection; the place she occupied was an extremely humble one.
True, the virgin, the ideal woman, rose higher from century to century, but the woman of real-life counted for mighty little in these rustic communities, these massed aggregates of men and cattle.
Such was the unhappy but inevitable outcome of a state of things which could only change for the better when the common habitation was subdivided, when at length men plucked up courage to live apart, in separate hamlets, or to settle as isolated cultivators of fertile lands at a distance, and build huts in clearings of the forest. The separate hearth created true family life; the nest made the bird. Henceforth they have ceased to be chattels — they are living souls […]. The wife and mother has come into existence.
A touching moment. At length she has a home; she can, therefore, be pure and holy at last, poor creature. She can brood quietly over a thought, and undisturbed, as she sits spinning, dream dreams while he is abroad in the forest. The hut is wretched enough, damp and ill-built, and the winter wind whistles through it; but to make up for all defects it is silent. There are dim corners in it where her dreams can find a lodgement.
She is an owner now, possesses something of her very own. Distaff, bed, chest is all the household has, as the old song says. But soon a table will be added, a bench, or a couple of stools […]. A poorly appointed house! but its furniture includes a living soul. The firelight heartens it; the consecrated bush of box guards the bed, to which is often added a pretty bunch of vervain. The lady of this palace sits spinning at her door, watching a few sheep the while.
They are not rich enough yet to keep a cow; but this will come in time, if God blesses the house. The forest, a bit of pasture land, a hive of bees that feed on the heath are their livelihood. They do not grow much wheat yet, having any certainty of reaping a crop so long in growing.
This life, poverty-stricken as it is, is yet less hard upon the wife. She is not broken with fatigue, made old and ugly before her time, as she will be when the time of farming on a large scale has arrived.
Moreover, she has more leisure too. Beware of judging her in any way by the coarse literature of the Noëls and fabliaux, the silly laughter and licence of the broad tales composed at a later date. She is alone, without neighbours. The evil, unhealthy life of dark little shut-in towns, the prying into each other’s affairs, the pitiful, perilous scandal-mongering, — none of this is begun yet! There is no old harridan yet, coming creeping at dusk down the narrow, gloomy street to tempt the young wife and tell her someone is a-dying of love for her. The serf’s wife we are describing now has no friend but her dreams, no one to gossip with but her beasts or the forest trees.
They talk to her, — we know not what about. They awake in her things her mother told her, her grandmother — old, old things that for century after century have been handed on from woman to woman. Harmless memories come back of the ancient spirits of the country, a gentle, genial family religion, which in the common life just quitted and its noisy promiscuity, had doubtless lost most of its force, but which now returns like a ghost and haunts the lonely cabin.
A strange, dainty world of fairies and elves, made to appeal to a woman’s soul. Directly the great stream of invention that produced the saintly legends runs dry and stops, these other legends, older and equally poetical, but in a totally different way, come to share their vogue with them, and reign softly and secretly in gentle hearts. They are the woman’s special treasure, which she fondles and caresses. A fairy is a woman too, a fantastic mirror in which she sees her own self, only fairer and daintier than the reality.
What were the Fairies? What we are told is that in old days, queens of the Gauls, proud and fantastic princesses, at the coming of Christ and His apostles, were wickedly impertinent and turned their backs.
In Brittany they were dancing at the time, and never stopped. Hence their cruel sentence; they are doomed to live on till the Day of Judgment. Many of them are reduced to the tiny dimensions of a rabbit or a mouse; for instance, the kowrig-gwans (fairy dwarfs), who at night-time, at the foot of old Druidical stones, ring you round with their elvish dances; or to take another example, the lovely Queen Mab, who makes her royal coach out of a walnut-shell.
They are a trifle capricious, and sometimes mischievously disposed, — and what wonder, considering their unhappy destiny? Whimsical and tiny as they are, they possess a heart, and crave to be loved. Sometimes kindly, sometimes the reverse, they are full of fancies. At the birth of a child they come down the chimney, endow the babe with gifts good or bad, and fix its fate. They love good spinsters, and spin themselves divinely. To spin like a fairy, the good wives say.
These Tales have a traditional side, recalling the tremendous famines, — in the ogres and so on. However, as a rule, they float in a higher ether than common history, soaring on the wings of Fantasy through the realms of eternal Poesy, expressing the desires of men’s hearts, which are ever the same and have an unchanging history of their own.
The longing of the poor serf to get breathing time, to find rest, to discover a treasure that shall end his wretchedness, recurs again and again in them. More often still, by a nobler aspiration, this treasure trove is a soul to boot, a treasure of sleeping love that must be awaked, — as in ‘The Sleeping Beauty’; though often the charming heroine is found hidden under a mask by reason of a fatal spell. Whence that touching Trilogy, that admirable crescendo, — ‘Riquet of the Tuft’, ‘Ass’s Skin’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Love will take no denial; under all these hideous disguises, it pursues, and wins, the hidden fair one. The last of these three tales reaches the truly sublime, and I suppose no one has ever been able to read it without tears.
A very real and very genuine passion underlies it, that of unhappy, quite hopeless love, one that cruel Nature often sows between pure souls of two widely separated ranks, the poignant regret of the peasant woman that she cannot make herself fair and desirable, to be loved of the knight; the stifled sighs of the serf, as looking down his furrow, he sees riding by on a white horse a too, too charming vision, the beautiful, the adored, mistress of the castle and the lands he tills.
It is like the Eastern fable, the melancholy idyll of the impossible loves of the Rose and the Nightingale. But there is one great difference; the bird and the flower are both beautiful, equal even in beauty. But here the inferior being, so low placed in the scale of rank, confesses humbly, “I am plain and homely, a monster of ugliness!” The pity of it! But all the same, with a persistency and a heroic power of will unknown to the East, and by the very ardour of his longing, he breaks through the silly obstacles in his way. He loves so truly he is loved in turn, this monster; and Love makes him beautiful.