Illustration by Walter Crane in an 1882 English translation of the Grimm Brothers’ Household Tales.
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm first published Rapunzel in 1812 in their famous compendium, Children’s and Household Tales, but like many fairy tales the myth behind the story is much older. There are some theories that Rapunzel comes from the tragic 3rd-century hagiography of St Barbara, who was locked in a tower by her father. Like most lives of saints, things don’t go too well for Barbara. Others say the tale resembles the Persian myth of Rūdāba, the Princess of Kabul who lived in a tower and let her long hair down for her lover to climb. But later we see tales that look undeniably like Rapunzel coming from Italy, France and Germany (in that order), which all focus on a tasty, leafy plant that causes our protagonists’ many woes. The earliest was Giovanni Battista Basile’s Petrosinella, or Parsley, which was published in 1634.
Interestingly, the tales that came to form the Brothers’ anthology weren’t originally intended for children. They were filled with murder, torture, cruelty and, as Hollywood puts it, ‘scenes of a sexual nature’. However, Jacob and Wilhelm fought to keep the collection of tales together, arguing that they all had inherent culture value. They just gave parents a heads up at the beginning of the tome to make sure kids read only the age-appropriate stories.
Believe it or not, fairy tales are actually classified according to their motif and storyline. According to the Aarne-Thompson-Uther indice (there are more than one), Rapunzel is Type 310: The Maiden in the Tower. This isn’t terribly surprising for those familiar with the story. For those of you who aren’t, it goes like this:
Rapunzel’s parents lived in a house that overlooked the beautiful walled garden of a powerful and terrifying witch. The garden was lush with the best vegetables and fragrant flowers, but no one was allowed in.
Rapunzel’s parents were desperate for a baby. When Rapunzel’s mother finally became pregnant, she stared out their small back window into the witch’s garden and developed an insatiable craving for the green, earthy leaves and roots of rampion. Rapunzel’s mother grew sick from desire, until her husband believed she would die without the rampion.
He climbed the wall, stole the rampion and brought it home. His wife quickly made a salad, consumed it entirely and immediately wanted more. Her cravings grew worse.
The following night, Rapunzel’s father climbed the witch’s wall again to steal the rampion. This time he got caught. The witch was furious and devised a cruel punishment. Rapunzel’s parents could live and eat as much rampion as they wanted, but in return the witch would get the child.
So when the baby was born, the witch claimed her and named her Rapunzel.
And here’s the genius – Rapunzel is actually German for rampion, the very salad leaf that started this whole tale of regret, longing, love and kidnapping.
What is rampion?
Rampion is actually a species of bellflower. The roots and leaves were commonly used in cooking throughout medieval and early modern Europe. It was popular in salads during these periods because the entire plant could be utilised. The long, broad leaves were used like spinach and the root like a radish. There is a common misconception that the modern rampion is actually North American ramps (wild garlic), but the plants are actually different species. However, this misconception exists for a reason – the rampion and ramp share an uncanny number of similarities in appearance and cooking properties.
The challenge for Eric next week is to recreate the rampion salad eaten by Rapunzel’s mother. What makes this tricky is that despite the popularity of rampion in medieval Europe, it’s practically impossible to find now. It still grows wild in a few parts of the world, but I have so far been unable to find it anywhere. And I looked really, really hard!