Gunderich, the count of Brabant, lived during the thirteenth century. He was a pious man and scrupulously observed all the practices of Medieval Christianity. He regularly attended mass and went on pilgrimages. Litanies of devout monks resounded continuously in the halls of his palace
Gunderich was troubled by the fact that he had no children. He blamed his wife. He thought that the Lord was punishing them because of her vanity.
Her husband’s opinion troubled the countess. While she was not as enthusiastic about religious observances as her husband was, she did not really think that she had done anything to earn the disfavor of heaven. However, in case that her husband was correct, she tried to reconcile herself to God by fasting and bodily mortification.
One day, when Albertus Magnus was enjoying Gunderich’s hospitality, the countess asked him to hear her confession. She expressed concern over her childlessness.
Albertus Magnus was not only an outstanding thirteenth century theologian, but also a better scientist than most of his contemporaries. He told the queen not to do any penance and he prescribed a richer diet. He also prophesied that she would soon have a child.
Albertus Magnus had to attend the First Council of Lyons, which took place in 1245. By the time he returned, the countess had given birth to a daughter. Her name was Richilde.
Albertus Magnus made a marvelous mirror for Richilde. Whenever Richilde asked the mirror a question, it would answer her with clear pictures. Only Richilde could extract information in this way. The mirror would not answer the questions of anyone else.
Count Gunderich died a few years later, and the countess passed away when Richilde was 15 years old. Before her death, the countess gave the mirror to Richilde and explained how it worked. She urged Richilde to use the mirror wisely. If she misused it, its virtue would disappear.
Richilde mourned the death of her mother for a whole year. During this time, she lived in a cloister, but when the pain of her bereavement became less intense, life in the cloister began to bore her. She decided to leave.
The fame of Richilde’s beauty spread far and wide. The flattering words that continually assailed her ears kindled her pride. She wondered if she really was as beautiful as people claimed.
Up to this time, she had not asked the mirror any questions. Now she misused it. She asked the mirror to show her the most beautiful girl in Brabant. To her delight, she saw her own image in the mirror.
This experience filled her heart with pride. She had previously acknowledged tributes to her beauty with blushing modesty. Now she thought that it was the duty of people to praise her. She despised the maidens of Brabant and became jealous if anyone praised the beauty of a foreign princess.
When her courtiers noted her weakness, they began to criticize all other beauties, past and present. They found something wrong with Judith and Esther. Even Cleopatra and Helen of Troy did not escape criticism.
Richilde had as many suitors as Penelope, but she seemed to be more interested in adulation than in marriage. She cleverly kept her suitors in suspense with deceitful hopes similar to those which Queen Elizabeth later dangled before those who wished to marry her. Richilde did not fall in love with anyone until she asked the mirror to show her the most handsome man in Brabant. It was a knight as handsome as Adonis. She vowed that she would never give her hand to any other man.
Richilde wanted to learn the identity of this handsome knight, but she did not want anyone to know that she had a magic mirror, so she fabricated a lie .She told her assembled suitors that the holy Bishop Medardus had appeared to her during the night and showed her the man that she was destined to marry. She carefully described his appearance, hoping that someone might know him. Especially significant was a picture on his shield: a black lion walking on a silver field strewed with red hearts.
In reply, the count of Brabant thanked her for no longer keeping them in suspense with deceptive hopes. However, he informed her that the knight that she described could be none other than Count Gombald von Löwen, who was already married. When Richilde heard this, she became pale. She had proudly thought that the most handsome man in Brabant could not possibly marry any one else except her. The suitors left, and her court became a lonesome place.
Unfortunately, people found it impossible to cover this incident with a fitting cloak of silence. Details were added as the story spread abroad. By the time it reached the ears of Count Gombald von Löwen, people were saying that Richilde had decided to enter a cloister because she could not marry Count Gombald.
This had an unfortunate effect on the count. He was happily married to an excellent wife, but he suddenly succumbed to an unlawful passion for Richilde, and his love for his wife grew cold. When his wife noticed this, she treated her husband with even greater affection than before, but to no avail. He began to spend time in his forests and in some of his other castles, leaving his poor wife at home.
One day, his wife poignantly lamented the loss of her husband’s love. She wanted to know how she had displeased him so that she could alter her conduct. He replied that she had done nothing wrong. He pretended that his conscience bothered him. He said that they were too closely related, so their marriage was unlawful.
The section that follows is a fine example of the genial satire of Musäus. He speaks of the very tender consciences of Christian kings and princes. Because they were not supposed to marry girls of the lower classes, they often had to marry their cousins or other close relatives. Their consciences slept while their wives were young and beautiful; but when their beauty began to fade, their consciences suddenly began to trouble them, especially if they wanted to marry someone else. Musäus cites Henry VIII as an example.
In spite of the fact that his wife was about to bear him a child, the ungrateful count procured papers from his archbishop that allowed him to desert his wife. He consigned his wife to a cloister, where she soon rejoiced in the birth of a daughter. She passed away shortly afterwards.
The count took the child to one of his castles and entrusted her to the care of his servants, some of whom were dwarfs. He then went to meet Richilde.
The count and his new wife enjoyed the pleasures of love for a while, but it eventually wore off. Besides, the conscience of the count began to bother him. This time his feelings of guilt were genuine. He felt that he had murdered his first wife.
In accordance with widespread medieval belief, he thought that he could atone for his sin by making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Richilde offered a few feeble objections to his plans, but she was not really sorry to see him go.
About a year later, Richilde learned that her husband had contracted the black plague in Syria. He had not even reached Jerusalem. Though Richilde felt no sorrow in her heart, she outwardly mourned for her husband.
The mourning of the young widow seemed to heighten her charms, and soon many admirers visited her. She appreciated their flatteries, but she wanted to make certain that her beauty had not faded. So fifteen years after she had first consulted the mirror, she again asked it to show her the most beautiful woman in Brabant.
To the horror of Richilde, the figure of a different woman appeared in the mirror. Since her only talent was her physical beauty, it was a great tragedy when her mirror showed her that she had lost the only thing of value in her existence.
Richilde conceived a deadly hatred for the lady that she had seen in the mirror. She soon found out that she was Bianca, her stepdaughter.
She asked Sambul, the court physician, to prepare an apple that was poisoned on one side and perfectly edible on the other. She then sent a message informing Bianca that she was coming to her castle to cry with her over the death of her father.
When Richilde arrived, she managed to conceal her bitter hatred. She feigned friendship and promised henceforth to regard her as a dear daughter. The two ladies ate a meal together, and then Richilde and Bianca ate the apple that Sambul had prepared.
After Richilde left, Bianca became pale, and she apparently suffered the endless sleep of death. All the servants were deeply grieved. The dwarfs of the castle made a glass sarcophagus for her so that they could daily view their beloved mistress.
When Richilde consulted the mirror, she was pleased to find that she was now the most beautiful lady in Brabant. However, she got into the habit of consulting the mirror more frequently than before. On a later occasion, she was surprised to find that Bianca had again supplanted her as the supreme beauty in the land.
Richilde was angry at Sambul because the apple that he had prepared did not kill Bianca. Sambul said that he had done his best. He claimed that he did not know why the apple did not work. She pardoned him, but only if he would prepare a fragrant soap that would kill whoever used it.
When the soap had been prepared, Richilde sent her cunning nurse to persuade Bianca to try it out. After the nurse had completed her mission, Richilde tried to consult her mirror. However, rust had accumulated on its surface, and its images were no longer clear. Nevertheless, she supposed that the soap had killed her stepdaughter.
However, after a while, Gunzelin, a Gascon knight, visited the castle of Richilde. He had seen Bianca alive and well. He was so impressed with her beauty that she became the lady of his heart. Needless to say, Richilde was utterly dismayed.
To add insult to injury, the Gascon became somewhat inebriated. He foolishly threw his iron glove on the table to challenge anyone who did not believe that Bianca was the most beautiful lady in Brabant. Richilde hoped that one of her knights would accept the challenge, but they stood in awe of the formidable knight. Finally her faithful squire took pity on his mistress. He picked up the iron glove as a sign that he accepted the challenge, but he did not fare well in the ensuing joust.
Sambul suffered severely from the wrath of the queen. His ears were cut off and the hairs of his beard were plucked. He was bound with chains and imprisoned in the tower.
Then she wrote a letter to her stepdaughter. Her words were replete with pretended affection. She brought the letter to Sambul and commanded him to poison it so that whoever opened it would die. She told him that he would forfeit his life if he failed this time.
Richilde had paid Sambul well for the apple and the soap, and it did not trouble his conscience to take the money. However, he did not want to commit murder. So instead of putting poison in the apple and the soap, he substituted a drug that made it appear as if the victim were dead.
Since Sambul did not wish to die, he seriously considered using real poison this time. However, Sambul’s conscience prompted him to take another chance. In the hope that his ruse would go undetected, he prepared a potion that would immobilize Bianca for a longer period of time than before.
The letter seemed to have its desired effect. Bianca was buried for the third time. On all three occasions, the faithful dwarfs had kept watch over her body, and the first two times they were still present when she revived. However, this time it seemed as if she were permanently dead.
At this point, a pilgrim named Gottfried of Ardenne came to the castle of Bianca. He asked to see Bianca’s body. He had with him a splinter of Elisha’s staff. When he laid this relic on the Bianca’s heart, she revived.
While still in the burial vault, Bianca and Gottfried introduced themselves to one another. When Gottfried heard what Bianca’s stepmother had done, he suggested that she stay in the vault for a while so that her stepmother would not find out that she was alive. The dwarfs, who had witnessed her resuscitation, would provide her with food. In the meantime, Gottfried would complete his pilgrimage.
Other than the trustworthy dwarfs, no one in the castle knew that Bianca was alive. When Gottfried emerged from the burial vault, he told the people that he had failed to bring Bianca back to life.
After completing his pilgrimage, he donned his knightly adornments and returned to Bianca’s castle. He took Bianca to his mother in Ardenne. His mother treated her like a beloved daughter.
Gottfried had admired Bianca’s beauty as soon as he had seen her in the burial vault. As time passed, they began to love one another more and more. They decided to get married.
However, Gottfried first wanted to wreak vengeance upon Richilde. He went to her court and pretended to fall in love with her. When the subject of marriage came up, Gottfried told her that he had to take care of his mother till she closed her eyes in death; so he told Richilde that she would have to come to Ardenne and live there till his mother died.
Richilde did not like the idea of living with her mother-in-law. He released Sambul from prison and brought him along, so that he could prepare some poison for the unwanted mother-in law.
At Ardenne, when the wedding of Gottfried and Richilde was supposedly about to take place, Gottfried explained to Richilde that he had chosen twelve maidens to take part in a sort of bridal dance, but one of them could not attend because her jealous mother had killed her. She asked Richilde to tell him what punishment was suitable for the wicked murderess. Richilde replied that the unnatural mother should take her daughter’s place in the ceremony, and she should wear glowing hot slippers during the wedding.
Then the doors of a neighboring room opened revealing Bianca and her maiden attendants. Richilde swooned, but was forcefully revived.
The dwarfs made some steel slippers and heated them until they glowed. The powerful Gascon knight had been invited. He grabbed Richilde with his strong arms while the dwarfs fastened the slippers to her feet. Then he dragged her around in a wild dance. As they whirled about, he conducted her out of the hall and into a well-guarded tower, where she had the time and leisure to do penance. Sambul prepared an ointment that healed her blistered feet.
Bianca and Gottfried enjoyed a happy life together. They gratefully rewarded Sambul, whose conscience had made it possible for them to enjoy the blessings of marriage.
My source is an online version of “Richilde” presented by Project Gutenberg.
Project Gutenberg: Johann Karl August Musäus – Volksmärchen der Deutschen