Biancabella and the Snake is a tale by Giovanni Francesco Straparola. It is one of his many fairy tales published in a collection called The Facetious Nights or The Pleasant Nights. His stories are some of the earliest written fairy tales in Europe.
Giovanni Straparola was born around 1485 and died in the 1550’s. The first volume of The Facetious Nights was published in 1551 and the second in 1553. Together they contained seventy-five tales including an early version of Puss-in-boots and Biancabella and the Snake. The collection was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (list of books banned by the Catholic Church) between 1580 and 1624.
Biancabella and the Snake appears in The Facetious Nights Volume 1. Like most fairy tales it begins simple enough and ends “happily ever after”, but it’s the going developments in the middle that make it disturbing.
It contains all the weird and violence we’ve come to expect from the older fairy tales. Without giving away too much, Biancabella has a snake as a twin, there is a good father and an evil step-mother and ugly step-sisters, Biancabella is mutilated and left for dead but eventually the bad guys are dealt with in a gruesome way.
Biancabella and the Snake is quite a lengthy tale so we have split it into four parts. The subsequent parts will be published over the next three weeks.
Biancabella and the Snake – Part 1
Once upon a time, now many years ago there reigned in Monferrato a marquis called Lamberico, very puissant, both on account of his lordships and his great wealth, but wanting in children to carry on his name. He was, forsooth, mighty anxious for progeny, but this bounty of heaven was denied to him. Now one day it chanced that the marchioness his wife was walking for her pleasure in the palace garden, and, being suddenly overcome by sleep, she sat down at the foot of a tree and slumber fell upon her. While she slept gently there crept up to her side a very small snake, which, having passed stealthily under her clothes without arousing her by its presence, made its way into her body, and by subtle windings penetrated even into her womb, and there lay quiet. Before long time had elapsed the marchioness, with no small pleasure to herself, and with the highest delight of all the state, proved to be with child, and, when the season of her lying-in came, she was delivered of a female child, round the neck of which there was coiled three times something in the similitude of a serpent. When the midwives, who were in attendance upon the marchioness, saw this, they were much affrighted; but the snake, without causing any hurt whatsoever, untwined itself from the infant’s neck, and, winding itself along the floor and stretching itself out, made its way into the garden.
Now when the child had been duly cared for and clothed, the nurses having washed it clean in a bath of clear water and swathed it in snow-white linen, they began to see, little by little, that round about its neck was a collar of gold, fashioned with the most subtle handiwork. So fine was it, and so lovely, that it seemed to shed its lustre from between the skin and the flesh, just as the most precious jewels are wont to shine out from a closure of transparent crystal, and, moreover, it encircled the neck of the infant just as many times as the little serpent had cast its fold thereabout. The little girl, to whom, on account of her exceeding loveliness, the name of Biancabella was given, grew up in such goodliness and beauty that it seemed as if she must be sprung from divine and not from human stock. When she had come to the age of ten years it chanced that one day she went with her nurse upon a terrace, from whence she ob served a fair garden full of roses and all manner of other lovely flowers. Then, turning towards the nurse who had her in charge, she demanded of her what garden that was which she had never seen before. To this the nurse replied that it was a place which her mother called her own garden, and one, more over, in which she was wont often to take her recreation. Then said the child to her: ‘I have never seen any thing so fair before, and I had fain go into it and walk there.’ Then the nurse, taking Biancabella by the hand, led her into the garden, and, having suffered the child to go a little distance apart from her, she sat down under the shade of a leafy beech-tree and settled herself to sleep, letting the little girl take her pleasure the while in roaming about the garden. Biancabella, who was altogether charmed with the loveliness of the place, ran about, now here and now there, gathering flowers, and, at last, when she felt somewhat tired, she sat down under the shadow of a tree. Now scarcely had the child seated herself upon the ground when there appeared a little snake, which crept up close to her side. Biancabella, as soon as she saw the beast, was mightily alarmed, and was about to cry out, when the snake thus addressed her: ‘Cry not, I beg you, neither disturb yourself, nor have any fear, for know that I am your sister, born on the same day as yourself and at the same birth, and that Samaritana is my name. And I now tell you that, if you will be obedient to what I shall command you, I will make you happy in your life; but if, on the other hand, you disobey me, you will come to be the most luckless, the most wretched woman the world has ever yet seen. Wherefore, go your way now, without fear of any sort, and to-morrow cause to be brought into this garden two vessels, of which let one be filled with pure milk, and the other with the finest water of roses. Then you must come to me by yourself without companions.’
When the serpent was gone the little girl rose up from her seat and went back to seek her nurse, whom she found still sleeping, and, having aroused her, she returned with her to the palace without saying aught of what had befallen her. And when the morrow had come Biancabella chanced to be with her mother alone in the chamber, and the mother remarked that the child bore upon her face a melancholy look. Whereupon she said: ‘Biancabella, what ails you that you put on so discontented a face? You are wont to be lively and merry enough, but now you seem all sad and woebegone.’ To this Biancabella replied: ‘There is nothing amiss with me; it is only that I want to have taken into the garden two vessels, of which one shall be filled with pure milk and the other of the finest water of roses.’ The mother answered: ‘And why do you let your self be troubled by so small a matter as this, my child? Do you not know that everything here belongs to you?’ Then the marchioness caused to be brought to her two vessels, large and beautiful, filled, the one with milk and the other with rose water, and had them carried into the garden.
When the hour appointed by the serpent had come, Biancabella, without taking any other damsel to bear her company, repaired to the garden, and, having opened the door thereof, she went in and made fast the entrance, and then seated herself upon the ground at the spot where the two vessels had been placed. Almost as soon as she had sat down the serpent appeared and came near her, and straightway commanded her to strip off all her clothes, and then, naked as she was, to step into the vessel which was filled with milk. When she had done this, the serpent twined itself about her, thus bathing her body in every part with the white milk and licking her all over with his tongue, rendering her pure and perfect in every part where, peradventure, aught that was faulty might have been found. Next, having bid her come out of the vessel of milk, the serpent made her enter the one which was filled with rose water, whereupon all her limbs were scented with odours so sweet and restorative that she felt as if she were filled with fresh life. Then the serpent bade her put on her clothes once more, giving her at the same time express command that she should hold her peace as to what had befallen her, and to speak no word there anent even to her father and mother. For the serpent willed that no other woman in all the world should be found to equal Biancabella in beauty or in grace. And finally, after she had bestowed upon her every good quality, the serpent crept away to its hiding-place.
When this was done Biancabella left the garden and returned to the palace. Her mother, when she perceived how her daughter had become more lovely and gracious than ever, and fairer than any other damsel in the world, was astonished beyond measure and knew not what to say. Wherefore she questioned the young girl as to what she had done to indue herself with such surpassing loveliness; but Biancabella had no answer to give her. Hereupon the marchioness took a comb and began to comb and dress her daughter’s fair locks, and forthwith from the girl’s hair there fell down pearls and all manner of precious stones, and when Biancabella went to ‘wash her hands roses and violets and lovely flowers of all sorts sprang up around them, and the odours which arose from these were so sweet that it seemed as if the place had indeed become an earthly paradise. Her mother, when she saw this marvel, ran to find Lamberico her husband, and, full of maternal pride, ,thus addressed him: ‘My lord, heaven has bestowed upon us a daughter who is the sweetest, the loveliest, and the most exquisite work nature ever produced.
For besides the divine beauty and grace in her, which is manifest to all eyes, pearls and gems and all other kinds of precious stones fall from her hair, and to name something yet more marvellous-round about her white hands spring up roses and violets and all manner of flowers which give out the sweetest odours to all those who may come near her to wonder at the sight. All this I tell to you I assuredly would never have believed had I not looked thereon with my own eyes.
Her husband, who was of an unbelieving nature, was at first disinclined to put faith in his wife’s words, and treated her speech as a subject for laughter and ridicule, but she went on plying him without ceasing with accounts of what she had witnessed, so that he determined to see for himself how the matter really stood. Then, having made them bring his daughter into his presence, he found about her even more marvellous things than his wife had described, and on account of what he saw he rejoiced exceedingly, and in his pride swore a great oath that there was in the whole world no man worthy to be united to her in wedlock.
Part 2 of Biancabella and the Snake will be published on 6 June 2016.