Tuesday 19 May 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #13: THE NETTLE SPINNER


Another dark fairy tale: this is a Flemish story, 'La Fileuse d’Orties', from ‘Contes du roi Cambrinus’ (1872) collected by Charles Deulin. The English translation was made by Leonora Blanche Alleyne (Mrs Andrew Lang) for ‘The Red Fairy Book’, and it's a strange, sinister story which takes the old theme of the girl who weaves nettle shirts, and stands it on its head. You'll remember tales such as Hans Andersen's 'The Wild Swans' and the Grimms’ ‘The Twelve Brothers’ in which the heroine spins and weaves nettle shirts to disenchant the brothers she loves. (A similar healing magic is performed by 'Gilla of the Enchantments': #6 in this series.) But when the heroine of this story tells a wicked count that she prefers marrying her sweetheart to succumbing to his wiles, the count effectively responds, ‘Over my dead body!’ and orders her to perform what he assumes will be the impossible tasks of weaving a nettle wedding-gown for herself, and for himself, a nettle shroud. Of course it isn't impossible, and as she steadily spins the nettles and weaves the shroud, he begins to sicken… 

Renelde is one of those strong, long-persisting heroines who keep their eyes firmly fixed on what they've decided is right. You'll note that while the women in this story are active agents, the men are ultimately ineffectual. Neither the count nor Renelde's fiance Guilbert can persuade her to act differently from her principles. Her behaviour is so consistent and so quietly inexorable that one almost begins to feel sympathy for the wicked count.

Almost. Not quite. 


Once upon a time there lived at Quesnoy in Flanders a great lord whose name was Burchard, but whom the country people called Burchard the Wolf. Now Burchard had such a wicked, cruel heart that it was whispered he used to harness his peasants to the plough and force them by blows from a whip to till his land with naked feet. 

His wife, on the other hand, was always tender and pitiful to the poor and miserable. Every time she heard of another of his misdeeds, she would secretly go to repair the evil, so that she was blessed throughout the whole countryside. This countess was loved as much as the count was hated.


One day when he was out hunting the count passed through a forest and at the door of a lonely cottage he saw a beautiful girl spinning hemp.
                “What is your name?” he asked.
                “Renelde, my lord.”
                “Aren’t you tired of living in such a lonely place?”
                “I’m used to it my lord, and I never get tired of it.”
                “If you come to the castle, I’ll make you a lady’s maid to the countess.”
                “I can’t do that, my lord. I have to take care of my grandmother, who is very helpless.”

                “Come to the castle, I tell you. Be there this evening,” and he went on his way.  But Renelde knew very well not to trust him, and she was betrothed to a young woodcutter called Guilbert, and besides, she did have her grandmother to look after. 

                Three days later the count rode by again. “Why didn’t you come?” he asked the pretty spinner. 

                “I told you, my lord, I have to look after my grandmother.”

                “Come tomorrow and I will make you lady-in-waiting to the countess,” and he went on his way. But his offer had no more effect than the last, and Renelde did not go to the castle.
                “If you will just come,” said the count, the next time he rode by, “I will put the countess aside and marry you.” But two years before when Renelde’s mother was dying of a long illness, the countess had helped them and been very kind to them, so even if the count had really meant to marry Renelde, she would still have refused. 


A few weeks passed, and Renelde hoped she had got rid of him, but one day the count stopped at the door, his duck-gun under one arm and his game-bag on his shoulder. This time Renelde was spinning not hemp, but flax. 

                “What’s that you’re spinning?” he asked roughly.
                “My wedding shift, my lord.”
                “You’re going to be married, are you?”
                “Yes my lord, by your leave.” For at that time no peasant could marry without his master’s permission. 

                “I will give you leave on one condition. Do you see those tall nettles that grow on the graves in the churchyard? Go and gather them, and spin them into two fine shifts. One shall be your bridal gown, and the other shall be my shroud, for you shall be married the day I am laid in my grave.” And with a mocking laugh, the count turned away.

                Renelde trembled. No one in all Locquignol had heard of such a thing as spinning nettles. And besides, the count seemed made of iron and was very proud of his strength, often boasting that he should live to be a hundred. 

                Every evening when his work was done, Guilbert came to visit his bride-to-be; this evening he came as usual, and Renelde told him what Burchard had said.

                “Shall I watch for the Wolf and split his skull with a blow of my axe?”

                “No!” Renelde answered, “there must be no blood upon our bridal. And – we must not hurt the count. Remember how good the countess was to my mother.”

                An old, old woman now spoke up, she was the mother of Renelde’s grandmother, and was more than ninety years old. All day long she sat in her chair nodding her head and never saying a word. “My children,” she said now, “in all the years I have lived, I have never heard of a shift spun from nettles. But what God demands of us, we will have the strength to do. Why shouldn’t Renelde try it?” 


Renelde did, and to her great surprise found the nettles, crushed and prepared, gave a good thread, supple and light and firm. Quite soon she had finished the first shift, which was for her wedding. She wove it and cut it out at once, hoping the count would not force her to begin the other. Just as she finished sewing it, Burchard the Wolf passed by. 

                “Well,” said he, “how are the shifts getting on?”

                “Here is my wedding gown, my lord, “ Renelde answered, holding up the shift, which was the whitest and finest ever seen. The count went pale, but he replied roughly, “Very good. Now begin the other.”

                The spinner set to work. As the count returned to the castle a cold shiver passed over him; he felt, as the saying goes, that someone had walked over his grave. He tried to eat his supper but could not; he went to bed shaking with fever. He did not sleep, and in the morning he could not rise.

                Such a sudden illness, which was becoming worse, made him very uneasy. He was sure Renelde’s spinning wheel was doing it. Was it necessay that his body, as well as his shroud, should be ready for burial?  So Burchard sent a message to Renelde to stop spinning and put away her wheel. She obeyed, but that evening Guilbert asked her, “Has the count agreed to our marriage?”

                “No,” said Renelde.
                “Continue your work, sweetheart. It’s the only way of gaining his consent. He told you so himself."


Next morning, the girl sat down to spin. Two hours later, two soldiers arrived and when they saw her spinning they seized her, tied her arms and legs and carried her to the river, which was swollen with rain. They flung her in like a dog and left her to drown. But Renelde rose to the surface, her bonds fell away and she struggled to land. 

As soon as she got home she sat down and began to spin.

Again the soldiers came to the cottage and seized her. They carried her to the river, tied a stone around her neck and threw her into the water. But the moment their backs were turned the stone untied itself. Renelde waded to the ford, returned to the hut and sat down to spin. 

Now the count resolved to go to Locquignol himself, but he was so weak he had to be carried in a littler. And still the spinner spun. As soon as he saw her he fired a shot at her, but the bullet rebounded without hurting her – and still she spun on. 

Burchard fell into such a rage it almost killed him. He smashed the spinning wheel into a thousand pieces and fell to the ground in a faint. He was carried back to the castle unconscious, but the next day the spinning wheel was mended and the spinner sat down to spin. The count ordered her hands to be tied, but the cords fell away. He ordered every nettle to be uprooted for miles around, but no sooner had they been torn from the soil than they grew again thicker than before, and they even grew up through the cottage floor and sprang to the distaff ready for spinning.

And every day Burchard the Wolf grew worse and watched his end approaching. 


Moved by pity for her husband, the countess at last found out the cause of his illness, and begged him to consent to Renelde’s marriage. But the count in his pride refused more than ever to do so.

                So without his knowledge the lady went herself to pray for mercy from the spinner, and in the name of the girl’s dead mother she begged her to spin no more. Renelde gave her promise, but in the evening Guilbert arrived at the cottage, and seeing no progress in the cloth from the day before, he asked the reason. Renelde confessed that the countess had pleaded for her husband’s life.

                “Has he agreed to our marriage?”
                “Let him die, then. The countess will understand that it is not your fault. The count alone is guilty of his own death.”
                “Let us wait a little. Perhaps his heart may soften.”

                They waited for one month, for two, for six, a year. The spinner spun no more. The count had ceased to persecute her, but still he refused his consent to the marriage. Guilbert became impatient. “Let us have done with it!” he cried. 

                “Wait a little still,” pleaded Renelde, but the young man grew weary. He came more rarely to Locquignol, and then he did not come at all. News came that he had left the country. Renelde felt her heart would break, but she held firm and another year went by.


                Then the count became more ill. The countess thought Renelde, tired of waiting, ahd begun her spinning again, but when she came to the cottage to find out, the wheel stood silent in the corner. 

                But the count grew worse and worse. The doctors had given him up, the passing bell was rung and he lay expecting Death to come for him. But Death was not so near as the doctors thought, and still he lingered, getting neither better nor worse. He could neither live nor die; he suffered horribly and called aloud on Death to put an  end to his pains. 

                In this extremity he remembered what he had said to the little spinner long ago. If Death was so slow in coming it was because he was not ready to follow him, having nor shroud for his burial.  

                He sent for Renelde, placed her by his bedside and ordered her at once to go on spinning his shroud, and as soon as she began the count felt his pain begin to lessen.  At last his heart melted and he was sorry for all the evil he had done in his pride, and he begged Renelde to forgive him. So she forgave him, and went on spinning night and day. 

                When the thread was all spun she wove it with her shuttle, and then she cut the shroud and began to sew it. And as she sewed the count felt the life sinking within him, and when the needle made the last stitch he gave his last breath.

At that same hour Guilbert returned to the country. He had never stopped loving Renelde, and eight days later they were married. He had lost two years of happiness, but comforted himself by thinking that his wife was a clever spinner – and what was far better, a brave and good woman.

More on fairy tales and folklore in  "Seven Miles of Steel Thistles" available  here and here.

Picture credits:
Illustrations to The Nettle Spinner by HJ Ford
for The Red Fairy Book


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