[CW: infidelity, child loss, sexual assault]
[Note: I could not find a single image for this particular story so I had to improvise]
**Editors note: this week’s theme was actually supposed to be about winter myths and legends. I mean, I was close but not on the money. In my defense, this is also finals week and I have a lot on my mind**
This week’s theme is the folklore of children, in honor of Children’s Day. I wanted something winter-related, of course, and the Snow Maiden immediately came to mind but that’s also a pretty well-known and recent story and I wanted something deeper. The one I chose is definitely deeper and has a lot to say about men’s faith (or lack thereof) in their wives and what they’ll do to avoid family dishonor.
The Snow Child is an incredibly old story and most of the variations have grim fates in store for the child, who is always a boy. The oldest known variation goes back to the 10th century and can be found in a book called the Fragmenta Burana (it’s in Latin so I can’t tell you exactly what it says). There’s an 11th century version in Cambridge Songs and it was also a common subject in Medieval fabliaux. These were often comedic or satiric in nature and cuckoldry was a popular subject, so it’s not surprising that this story would have been revisited again and again.
The basic plot that is common to all of the stories is that a husband has been away from his wife for a long absence. Upon returning, he finds that she has mysteriously had a son. The length of the husband’s absence makes it virtually impossible for him to be the father. When questioned, the wife gives a divine explanation for the boy, generally to the effect that she ingested frozen water in some form and thus became pregnant with a miraculous snow child. Other versions omitted the snow, had rather longer absences, and way wilder explanations for the bonus mystery child.
In all of the versions that involve snow/ice, the husband seems to accept the boy, at first. Years later, however, the husband takes the boy with him, either to the next village or on a sea voyage, and then the husband returns, alone. Some are circumspect about where the boy went and some are very blatant, with a few saying that the husband sold the boy as a slave. The explanations for the boy’s disappearance is always that he inexplicably melted in the heat.
A merchant lived with his wife in their cottage by the shore. Their’s was not an easy life, for his voyages kept him away from home many months at a time. One homecoming following a particularly long and arduous voyage, the merchant was greeted by his wife and an infant child. He was surprised, but not especially pleased, to see the newborn baby, as he had been at sea for nearly a year.
The wife countered the husband’s inquiring look with an explanation.
“No, it is not your son,” she admitted. “It’s a miracle boy, a Snow Child!” She continued, “One winter’s day while returning home from church I slipped on the ice and fell into a snow bank. Nine months later I gave birth to our Snow Child. Is he not a wonder!”
he husband had to admit that the child was a wonder, for he had no color. His hair and his skin were a bleached white. The merchant seemed to accept the new family member.
Many voyages and seasons later, it was on a hot summer’s day, the merchant, announced to his wife that he would be going to market in the next village. “I’ll take the Snow Child along for an outing,” he said.
The merchant arrived back home that evening, but he was alone.
“Where is our son?” asked the anxious mother.
“Something terrible happened,” responded the husband. “We were walking across a broad meadow in the hot sun, and he …,” the husband faltered. “And he melted.”Lutz Röhrich, Erzählungen des späten Mittelalters und ihr Weiterleben in Literatur und Volksdichtung bis zur Gegenwart (Bern and Munich: Francke Verlag, 1962), v. 1
Other versions simply claim the boy is a divine gift from God and the husband accepts this, mostly because he just really needs to, rather than face the idea that his wife has been unfaithful. Because that’s what all of these stories come down to; was it divinity or was it adultery?
A Florentine, who had been abroad, came home after one year’s absence, and found his wife in labor. He did not like it, suspecting some conjugal disloyalty. However, not being sure of the thing, he sought the advice of a neighbor, a clever gentlewoman, and asked her if a child could be born to him after twelve months.
The lady, seeing his silliness, at once comforted him: “To be sure,” said she,” for, if on the day she conceived, your wife happened to see a donkey, she will have borne a whole year, as asses do.”
The husband took those words for gospel, and thanking God for having rid him of an ugly suspicion, and his wife of a grievous exposure, he acknowledged the child as his own.Poggio Bracciolini, The Facetiae or Jocose Tales, volume 2 (Paris: Isidore Liseux, 1879), no. 72, pp. 2-3.
There’s a lot to be analyzed here about medieval gender politics and mistrust of women. It’s not surprising, of course, that women were often suspect, even when they were never apart from their husbands for any length of time. This was a time when women were being actively held responsible for the fall of humankind and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. They were considered untrustworthy, liars, deceivers… it didn’t matter what they did. They would always be suspect and suspicions of adultery were high on the list.
And too, men had no interest in raising the children of other men that were (allegedly) being passed off as their own. We have to remember that, up until recently, a man could never know with absolute certainty that a child was his. It simply wasn’t possible. Women would always know that the children they were raising were theirs because they came from their bodies. Men had no such certainty. Even the slightest whiff of a hint that a child was illegitimate could ruin reputations.
My suspicion is that the reason these stories are so specific about the husband only getting rid of the boy when he is older is because it would have taken time for the fluidity of a child’ features to form into something that resembled the father, thus verifying that the child was his. Once it became clear that the child did not resemble him, he took matter into his own hands.
What needs to be considered here, though, is the more dire implications of a husband returning from a long absence to find that his wife is pregnant. It could have been an affair, but it could also have been sexual assault. In that period, there were ways to end an unwanted pregnancy but they were often unreliable and unsafe to the point of being fatal to the mother. So if a woman in this period is assaulted and can’t report it for some reason (and there were so, so many reasons) and then finds herself pregnant, she has very few options. All she can do is hope that her husband will accept the child instead of getting rid of it in some way.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: folktales almost always have a grain of truth in them somewhere and they ALWAYS speak to cultural mores and societal fears. The general assumption–and the reason for the jokes–is that the wife was a basically a whore who couldn’t control herself while her husband was away and the husband will let himself be cuckolded rather than face the truth, until the truth becomes to much to bear and he rids himself of an illegitimate reminder of his wife’s infidelity. It’s only later that readers can take a look with fresh eyes and a knowledge of the time period as a whole. Then we can see that maybe there’s a helluva a lot more going on here than what we see on the surface.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that the wife just really didn’t like her husband–who she may not have wanted to marry in the first place– and was grateful for his long absences so that she could be with a man she really loved. And honestly, if that’s the case, who are we to judge?