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The Origins of the Bluebeard Tale

We’re all familiar with the tale of “Bluebeard,” of how a wealthy local creepster with several dead wives marries the daughter of a local lady.
When he decides to go out of town on business, he gives his young wife the keys to all of the rooms in their grand house, but cautions her not to open the door to one of his

An illustration of "Bluebeard" by Dore, source

private rooms. Curious, the young wife unlocks the door to said private room anyhow and discovers the corpses of Bluebeard’s slain wives within. She locks the door, but there is still blood on the key – blood which won’t come off. Bluebeard returns the next day and is enraged when he finds out that his wife has opened the door to his vault, and he is ready to kill her, too, but his young wife cleverly stalls by asking for time to say her prayers. Just when time is up and Bluebeard is ready to strike, the young wife’s brothers arrive and slay him instead. Now a widow with a vast fortune inherited from her dead husband, the young wife is able to use the money to provide a dowry for her sister, to buy her brothers commissions in the military, and marry another man who is kind to her and with whom she will live a peaceful life.

The tale has been around for centuries, but it was first written and recorded by Charles Perrault in 1697. There are many theories about the possible origins of the tale. Some tie the beginnings of it to child-killer and nobleman Gilles de Rais, who fought alongside Joan of Arc. After the Dauphin was crowned king and Joan’s execution, de Rais returned to his Breton estates. He began practicing black magic and alchemy, but soon things got worse: young children began disappearing from de Rais’s lands. Some people thought it was odd, but de Rais’s wealth, status, and reputation as a war hero only allowed him to continue to kill. The Duke of Brittany finally took notice and investigated, and it was discovered that de Rais was behind the murders of young peasant boys in the surrounding area. The Duke and his men found at least 50 bodies in the castle, but de Rais confessed to over twice than that before his execution. It was thought that the peasantry used the tale as a warning to children to stay far away from de Rais’s castle or else harm might come to them.

An illustration from "Bluebeard" by Dulac, source

There is an earlier Breton legend, though, that seems a more likely origin of the “Bluebeard” tale. It is the story of Conomar and Tryphine, which plays out similarly to the “Bluebeard” story. Tryphine, daughter of Waroch, Count of Vannes, marries Conomar. Tryphine doesn’t want to marry him at first; Conomar had allegedly murdered his three previous wives, and this frightens her greatly. Tryphine ends up capitulating and marrying him, though, when he threatens to return with an army. But because of his reputation, she asks for one condition: that she is able to return to her father if he is cruel to her.

At first the marriage seems to go well, until Tryphine discovers a secret room in Conomar’s castle which holds the bodies of his dead wives. While she prays for them, the ghosts of the three wives appear to her with a warning that if she becomes pregnant, Conomar will kill her, as it has been prophesied that his son will kill him. Tryphine, who is pregnant, flees the castle with assistance from the ghosts, and her son Tremeur is born. She is able to hide him before Conomar finds her and beheads her. St. Gildas revives Tryphine, and she and Tremeur live peacefully with the saint until after her death, when Conomar discovers Tremeur’s whereabouts and kills him.

An illustration of "Bluebeard" by Crane, source

Tryphine was a real Breton saint. Conomar was an actual Breton ruler, a count who became king by murdering his predecessor and marrying the widow. Tryphine was his second wife, and he eventually murdered her and his son, Tremeur. Conomar was eventually excommunicated by the Christian church in Brittany, and the previous king’s son, Judael, allied with the Frankish king to overthrow Conomar. Their armies met in the Monts d’Arrée, and Conomar was vanquished in battle. So this legend, combined with what the peasantry knew about what might be going on at de Rais’s castle, gave rise to the tale of “Bluebeard.”

There are many different versions of the tale, like “The Robber Bridegroom,”

An illustration of "Bluebeard" by Rackham, source

Story of a Third Kalendar: Son of a King,” from The Arabian Nights, and Dickens’s “Captain Murderer,” yet the theme is always the same: an eligible man who may or may not have killed his previous wives takes a new wife. It is the new wife’s curiosity – not often considered to be the best quality in women – which helps her to find out what sort of man her husband really is. It is her own quick thinking to stall for time that allows her to save herself or someone to save her from the same fate as the previous wives. Her actions help bring about the end of a cruel, murderous man, and she is rewarded for it by inheriting his vast fortune. It’s a reminder of how marriage can be a happy or miserable lot for a woman, depending on the sort of man her husband is. As his wife, she is more or less his property, and her fate is in his hands. It’s a cautionary tale to young women to do what they can to marry decent men and make good matches, yet also to obey their husbands so that they might not be mistreated. It’s really little more than an example of the contradictory rules women must follow per the standards of the patriarchy, and if a woman doesn’t follow them, then it sucks to be her, doesn’t it?

16 replies on “The Origins of the Bluebeard Tale”

Love this – have you seen Catherine Breillat‘s Bluebeard? It rifts off the actual Bluebeard story, but involves “bluebeard” and his missing wives, and how his new and very young wife, discovers his er…well… you will see. British writer Angela Carter described the Perrault’s fairy tale this is based off of as nursery tales that have been “purposely dressed up as fables of the politics of experience and the film has been rewritten to tell a feminist end.

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