From my book, Cinderella Tales From Around the World:
Marie de France first wrote “The Lay of the Ash Tree” in the late 12th century. To read more about the story, also known as “Le Fresne,” and its relation to Cinderella, consult Graham Anderson’s Fairytale in the Ancient World (2000). In his book, Anderson points out several similarities between this tale and traditional Cinderella stories, including (1) a persecuted heroine in humble circumstances, (2) supernatural help, (3) meeting the hero at church, (4) ring and brocade tokens, and (5) token recognition and subsequent marriage to hero.It is rather surprising that this tale is discussed in Anderson's book since it is later than the "ancient world" but it makes for a compelling Cinderella argument.
The lays are lengthy but Wikipedia provides a sufficient plot summary:
Le Fresne begins with two wedded knights. The wife of one knight gives birth to twins, and upon hearing a message to that effect, the other wife declares that in order to have two children at one time, a woman must have slept with two men. Many consider this comment to be slanderous, and the husband of the woman who gave birth to twins shuts her away. Appropriately, the wife who made the comment about twins being a mark of adultery gives birth, in turn, to twin daughters.
More willing to make amends with God than shame herself, the wife plans to secretly kill the extra child and deny its existence. A handmaiden offers to hide it instead. After an ornate brocade is tied to the baby's arm signifying its noble birth, the handmaiden leaves it under an ash tree outside of an abbey. A porter finds the girl and names her Le Fresne (modern French frêne, "ash tree"), and gives her to a gentle abbess to raise.
Le Fresne grows into an exceedingly beautiful woman, and a respected lord named Gurun becomes enamored with her. Gurun makes a great donation to the abbey as an excuse for his constant visits, and secretly gains the love of Le Fresne. Fearing the wrath of the abbess if Le Fresne became pregnant in her house, Gurun convinces her to run away with him, making her his concubine.
Gurun's knights become concerned that if he does not marry a noblewoman for the sake of a legitimate heir, his lands and lineage will be lost upon his death. They find a noble and beautiful woman named La Codre (modern French coudrier, "hazel tree"). Gurun's knights convince him that for the sake of carrying on his noble lineage, he should marry La Codre instead of Le Fresne, creating a metaphor of the fertile hazel tree and the barren ash. The marriage is planned. While La Codre's mother originally plans to move Le Fresne as far away from Gurun as possible, she discovers upon meeting her that Le Fresne is very kind and then wishes her no harm. The night of the wedding, Le Fresne helps to prepare the wedding bed, for she knows how Gurun likes things. Not finding it sufficiently beautiful, she adds her brocade to the wedding bed. This is discovered by the mother of La Codre, who recognizes that the brocade is her own, and that Le Fresne is the twin sister of La Codre whom they had abandoned at birth. The family welcomes Le Fresne. Though the marriage of La Codre and Gurun is finished, it was annulled the next day. Le Fresne and Gurun marry, a husband is found for La Codre, and all characters end up happy.
Now, once again, there is plenty of wiggle room on whether this can be considered a Cinderella tale, but Anderson was not the first or only scholar to consider it as such. Many of Marie de France's lays offer fodder as early fairy tale relations.
And, yes, soon I will be sharing tales that are much more easily recognized as Cinderella tales. But the early history is fascinating as limited records make us ponder the true age of any fairy tale.