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Fairy-Tale Science

Fairy-Tale Science: Monstrous Generation in the Tales of Straparola and Basile

  • Book Info
    Fairy-Tale Science
    Book Description:

    Between 1550 and 1650, Europe was swept by a fascination with wondrous accounts of monsters and other marvels - of valiant men slaying dragons, women giving birth to animals, young girls growing penises, and all manner of fantastic phenomena. Known as 'fairy tales,' these stories had many guises and inhabited a variety of literary texts. The first two collections of such fairy tales published on the continent, Giovan Francesco Straparola'sLe piacevoli nottiand Giambattista Basile'sLo cunto de li cunti, were greeted with much enthusiasm at home and abroad and essentially established a new literary genre. Contrary to popular thought, Italy, not Germany or France, was the birthplace of the literary fairy tale.

    This fascination with the marvellous also extended to the worlds of science, medicine, philosophy, and religion, and many treatises from the period focused on discussions of monsters, demons, magic, and witchcraft. InFairy-Tale ScienceSuzanne Magnanini looks at these 'science fictions' and explores the birth and evolution of the literary fairy tale in the context of early modern discourses on the monstrous. She demonstrates how both the normative literary theories of the Italian intellectual establishment and the emerging New Science limited the genre's success on its native soil. Natural philosophers, physicians, and clergymen positioned the fairy tale in opposition in opposition to science, fixing it as a negative pole in a binary system, one which came to define both a new type of scientific inquiry and the nascent literary genre. Magnanini also suggests that, by identifying their literary production with the monstrous and the feminine, Straparola and Basile contributed to the marginalization of the new genre.

    A wide-ranging yet carefully crafted study,Fairy-Tale Scienceinvestigates the complex interplay between scientific discourse and an emerging literary genre, and expands our understanding of the early modern European imagination.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8808-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction: Science Fictions
    (pp. 3-9)

    The first two collections of literary fairy tales published in Europe teem with monsters and marvels. On the pages of Giovan Francesco Straparola’sLe piacevoli notti(1551–3) and Giambattista Basile’sLo cunto de li cunti(1634–6), valiant lads slay dragons and hydras, women give birth to animals, a young girl sprouts a penis, and an ogre believes that his flatulence possesses reproductive powers. Such monstrosities represent just one sort of wonder in these tales. Fairies, necromancers, and enchanted animals transform themselves and others into beasts and plants. Marvellous liquids revive the dead and magic herbs restore amputated limbs....

  5. 1 Facts and Favole
    (pp. 10-18)

    Descriptions of monstrous births proliferated on the pages of scientific treatises published during the same years asLe piacevoli nottiandLo cunto de li cunti. Indeed, we can think of the Age of the Marvellous as experiencing a boom in teratology, or the study of monsters. This chapter prepares the way for the analysis of Straparola’s and Basile’s tales by describing the origins and sketching the contours of the teratological canon, which encompassed works on medicine, philosophy, prodigies, theology, and natural history. My intention here is to highlight in these texts the persistent juxtaposition of what were thought to...

  6. 2 Wonder Tales in the Age of the Marvellous
    (pp. 19-47)

    The Italianmeraviglia, like the English ‘wonder,’ signifies both a marvellous object and the emotional response it engenders. This chapter examines the ways in which early modern Italians constituted and regulated literarymeraviglia, as both object and emotional response, in order to explain both the editorial and critical success ofLe piacevoli nottiandLo cunto de li cuntiand their failure to inspire imitators in Italy. Although commonly referred to as fairy tales, Straparola’s and Basile’s fantastic narratives do not all include fairies. Instead, what all of these tales do share, and what distinguishes them from the realistic novella...

  7. 3 ‘Con l’uno e l’altro sesso’: Gender, Genre, and Monstrosity in Straparola’s Frame Tale
    (pp. 48-69)

    Although scholars of Italian novella collections have long viewed frame tales as a hermeneutic lens through which to examine individual tales that they circumscribe, those studyingLe piacevoli nottihave rarely utilized Straparola’s framing narrative in this manner. Undoubtedly, this critical negligence stems from the belief that Straparola merely presented his readers with alieta brigataand alocus amoenusin the hope that his Boccaccian frame tale would serve as his entry-ticket to the genre, or that his bow to the Trecento master would temper his revolutionary decision to place marvellous fairy tales alongside verisimilar novellas.¹

    Certainly, the aesthetic...

  8. 4 ‘Per far vere le favole’: Manipulating Maternal Desire in Basile’s Frame Tale
    (pp. 70-92)

    In this chapter I return to examine the story of Princess Zoza in order to demonstrate that Basile inscribes in his fairy-tale frame tale a scientific theory regarding the power of the maternal imagination to mark the fetusin utero. While in the frame tale ofLe piacevoli nottiStraparola forged a clear boundary between fairy tales of monstrous generation and Molino’s scientific case history, Basile confounds the division between what were thought to be facts and what were known to be fictions. From this fusion of science and fairy tale, he creates a framing narrative that ultimately functions to...

  9. 5 Bestiality and Interclass Marriage in Straparola’s ‘Il re porco’
    (pp. 93-116)

    This chapter represents the first of three in which I furnish new social-historical readings of a number of Straparola’s and Basile’s classic fairy tales that feature representations of monstrous generation. I consider here Straparola’s animal bridegroom tale of ‘Il re porco,’ or the King Pig, in which a capricious fairy curses a queen to give birth to a pig who must marry three times in order to regain his human form. In quick succession, he brutally murders his first two wives, the daughters of an impoverished widow. When he overhears each of them plotting to kill him on their wedding...

  10. 6 Foils and Fakes: Manufactured Monsters and the Dragon-Slayer
    (pp. 117-143)

    Vicious devourers or fierce guardians, dragons are a fixture in the myths, legends, and folklore of the Western tradition. Hercules slew the Hydra of Lerna as one of his seven labours; Saints George and Martha succeeded in converting infidels by smiting dragons; and countless legions of protagonists in both oral and literary fairy tales have proved their mettle by butchering these malevolent creatures. Even in contemporary feminist fairy tales such asThe Paper Bag Princessby Robert Munsch, dragons threaten to devour princesses, although in these versions the female character often trades in the role of victim for that of...

  11. 7 Fertile Flatulence: Monstrous Paternity in Basile’s ‘Viola’
    (pp. 144-162)

    Just as images and descriptions of monstrous births multiplied on the pages of the teratological treatises, prodigy books, and popular broadsheets printed in early modern Europe, so did the theories explaining such anomalies. In his treatiseOn Monsters and Marvels(1573), the French surgeon Ambroise Paré enumerates thirteen different causes of monstrous generation including the glory of God, defects of the seed, blows to the mother’s womb, hereditary illness, and demonic forces.¹ Paré readily admits the incompleteness of what might appear to our eyes an exhaustive list and reminds his readers that not every monster can be sufficiently explained by...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 163-170)

    In Straparola’sLe piacevoli notti, Basile’sLo cunto de li cunti, and the many texts that composed the teratological canon, the fairy tale and scientific theory slid over and under each other, collided and withdrew, only to collide once more at the fault line of the marvellous. In both collections of tales, these dynamic encounters displaced the prevailing prejudice against stories of ogres, witches, and fairies with a definition of the literary fairy tale as a genre worthy of male authors. Straparola and Basile – albeit each in his own way – showed that the monsters and marvels of the literary fairy...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 171-198)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 199-214)
  15. Index
    (pp. 215-221)