Sunday, January 27, 2013

Early Cinderellas: Martin Montanus

From my book, Cinderella Tales From Around the World:

One of the earliest known Cinderellas in Germany appears as “Ein schöne history von einer frawen mitt zweyen kindlin” in Gartengesellschaft by Martin Montanus in 1560. Gartengesellschaft is a collection of tales, many very bawdy, which has not been translated fully into English. Unfortunately, a translation of the tale was not available for this collection. The tale is typed as ATU 511.

And that's still just about all I know about this tale. I didn't readily find a usable edition of it--my German is not that reliable for something this old with its particular vernacular either. I'm a Romance languages gal despite the German name bestowed by my heritage. (Someday ask me about my aborted attempt at taking German during my last semester as an undergrad. The short version is that dropping German started a chain of events that found me married to John. Since I am celebrating 16 years with him this month, I can't regret the German class too much! And my marriage to him is one reason why SurLaLune Fairy Tales exists, too, so neither can you, dear readers.)

I admit, I am still curious about this tale, mostly because of what I did read in English translation about Montanus, especially in this article, Martin Montanus as Entertainer and Social Critic by Albrecht Classen, available online. One tale in particular--not a Cinderella!--in the article is fascinating, to me at least, but be warned it may be offensive to some readers. And if it is, do not read the full article about Montanus, for this tale is only scatological, not sexual, like many of his others. But here's some unusual reading for you:

In another story Montanus combines the epistemological with the scatological, which results in rather grotesque laughter, but this in turn reveals a fundamental truth about human language. In "Ein fraw fragt ihren man, wie lieb er sie hett" (no. 54) the wife of a nobleman tortures him day and night with the question how much he is in love with her. Finally, when he has gotten tired of her incessant badgering, he replies that he loves her as much as a "guot oder haimlich scheyssen" ["a good or secret emptying of the bowels"] (304). For her, of course, entirely baffled by this strange comment, this amounts to a severe insult, and she feels deeply saddened and also angry with him. One day, however, while they are spending time together exchanging tenderness despite her feeling of rejection, she needs to go to the bathroom, which he tries to prevent. He holds her back for such a long time that she finally protests and breaks out in anger: "Ey lieber, lasst mich doch gehn! Ich muoss (mit gunst zuomelden) scheyssen" ["Now, my dear, let me go, I have (with your permission) to shit"] (304).20 This is exactly the situation that he had been looking for in order to explain to her what he meant by his original comment. He points out to her that the use of the bathroom is an existential need of all people. In analogy, and this must have been the moment when the audience broke out in laughter, he cannot live without her just like he cannot live without emptying his bowels -- both fundamental conditions for him, hence also for her: "als lieb dir solches ist, als lieb hab ich dich" ["as much as you love it, so much do I love you"] (304). In the epimythion we are then told that this simile opened her eyes, and from then on she loved him as much as he loved her.

The humor is obviously based on some scatological elements, but the difference from Till Eulenspiegel with its extraordinary focus on feces in a plethora of ever-changing contexts and situations cannot be overlooked. In contrast, Montanus refers to the basic needs in human life without exploiting the possibility of transgressing social and ethical norms by way of scatology. However, insofar as the audience would have immediately understood what imagery he has the husband play on in order to explain his mysterious statement, they can all join in the laughter because it goes hand in hand with an epistemological illumination: "Da erkant die fraw erst..." ["Only then did the woman realize..."] (304). The narrative does not imply any clear strategy to satirize or to ridicule the woman because of her gender. On the contrary, the couple enjoys a happy, love-filled marriage in which both respect and cherish each other, except that she is excessively concerned with getting explicit confirmation of his love for her, perhaps because of her own insecurity, but certainly because she does not understand how to trust his words.

Although he finally describes his love for her in scatological terms, he truly loves her, as she grasps only at the end, which specifically points us into the direction of language in its problematic nature, so easily subject to misunderstanding. The minor marital conflict finds its lasting solution at the end once both have discovered ways to communicate with each other in a more complex manner, no longer needing to explain every little detail or aspect of their emotions. The laughter supports, of course, the witty husband and his sophisticated though somewhat scatological language, but the wife is not necessarily a victim; instead the laughter also evokes sympathy and support for a good marriage where the mutual understanding is so strong that further inquiries are no longer necessary.

And doesn't that make you curious about his Cinderella? The above described tale even has a whiff of Love Like Salt Cinderellas, but it isn't a Cinderella tale, obviously. Can't you just imagine such a Cinderella tale though? "Father, I need your love like I need to poo." He is offended--that makes more sense to be offended by than a salt reference. She is banished and finds her prince to marry. Then they fail to have port-a-potties around when he attends her wedding after adding some laxatives especially to his food. A lesson never to be forgotten, to be sure!

Have Iamused you enough? Are these Cinderella blog posts still boring you?

Anyway, I'm sure I (or we) can learn more about Montanus from several of the wonderful German fairy tale scholars out there, but when the Cinderella book was already overfull, I decided to put this tale on the backburner and let it simmer. Until today! Even if my brain was obviously creating lively scenarios late at night when I was punchy and reading this stuff.

And in the end, Montanus's Cinderella is probably the most boring tale in his collection. But I don't know--yet!


  1. I love it!!! A little trip into the gutter every once in a while is good for a story and good for the soul. Reminds me of "The Grandmother's Tale" a little bit, where the LRRH stand-in saves herself from the wolf by claiming she has to use the bathroom, and refuses to do it in the bed. Poop saves the day!

  2. You can find an English translation of much of the story in the English translation of Max Lüthi's Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. It's in Chapter 5: The Little Earth Cow. I've never understood why it's considered to be just a Cinderella tale. It seems to be a combination of motifs from "Hansel and Gretel", "Frau Holle," and "Cinderella," but it is a fascinating early folktale.