I love the story of Richilda and Blanca so much.  It all makes sense.  Blanca is not randomly living with dwarves in the woods; rather, she has a home and the dwarves are her servants (which was a fashionable thing back in the day).  The author, Musaeus, takes the time to really draw out Richilda’s character; she isn’t instantly evil, but starts off as a lovely young woman.

What’s more, you don’t blame Blanca for falling prey to the machinations of her stepmother.  Each murder attempt is unique, making the story credible, and the heroine innocent and wise.

But if this story is based (however loosely) on the life of Richilde of Hainaut, as I’ve suggested, who is Snow White?  What’s more, why did Musaeus transpose these events to the late 1200s and early 1300s – over 300 years after they took place?

The “Real” Snow White

If you recall from last week, Richilde had two children by her first marriage who were disinherited from Hainaut.  Roger, Richilde’s son, is eventually “elected bishop of Chalons-sur-Marne.”[1]  Gertrude, Richilde’s daughter, is sent to a convent,[2] and we do not hear of her again.

Disinherited from her rightful territory, estranged from her mother at a young age, and never heard from again…Gertrude is an obvious candidate for Snow White.

However, there is one more equally valid candidate.

Ida of Leuven

In Musaeus’ story, Richilde sets her eyes on Gombald of Lowen, making his daughter Blanca of Lowen.  “Lowen” is the German form of Leuven (or Louvain in French).[3]  In 1084, Richilde’s son and heir, Baldwin II of Hainaut, marries an Ida of Leuven.[4]  I’m not sure why Musaeus changed her name to “Blanca,” but the connection is clear: Richilde’s daughter-in-law is from Lowen.

Yes, it is a mother-in-law, and not a stepmother, relationship we’re dealing with.  However, this is a German rendition of a Belgian tale, where they speak French.  In French, the word for mother-in-law and stepmother is the same: belle-mère.  It’s also important to note that it was quite common for the more ancient Snow White tales (including Cupid and Psyche) to depict the mother-in-law as the aggressor rather than the stepmother.

Thus, Ida, Richilde’s daughter-in-law, is a very plausible candidate.

Gertrude or Ida?

History lies quiet as to the relationship between Richilde and Ida.  We do know that Richilde retired to an abbey, purportedly in 1083, and she died between 1084-1087 (sources are conflicting).[5]  Baldwin II and Ida married in 1084, so there is at least a year’s overlap where the women could have been in contact.[6]  And with such a personality as Richilde, surely there was a bit of tension.

In the end, we do not know if the events stem from Richilde and Ida’s relationship, or Richilde and Gertrude’s.  I can think of stories for both, and am no convinced either way.

On a side note, I feel I should address why Blanca married Godfrey (of Ardennes) in Musaeus’ book.  The only thing I can think of is that in history, Ida and Baldwin were of the same generation as Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the first crusade and king of Jerusalem.[7]  Baldwin even went on crusade with this Godfrey, and was lost during a raid[8] (much like Blanca’s father Gombald in Musaeus’ story).  Godfrey was part of the Ardennes-Verdun dynasty, forever linking the name Godfrey to that area.[9]

Why the Wrong Date?

If I had to guess, I’d say Musaeus put all the most famous people of the time and connected them into a lovely fairy tale story.  However, he clearly puts Richilda’s birth between 1272-1274; why is his date so off?  And how did it become a German fairy-tale when the roots are Belgian and French?

The key lies in an obscure historical figure: Henry I of Hesse.

Henry was the younger son of Henry II, Duke of Brabant of the house of Reginar, and inherited Hesse from his mother.  To cement his claim to Hesse, Henry moved there in 1277 – very close to when the fairy tale Richilda is supposed to have been born. [10]

Already you see the connections between Henry and Richilde.  Both come from the Brabant region, and both come from the same royal house (Richilde married into the Reginar family).  Now, seeing as how Richilde disinherited the last heirs of the Reginar household in Hainaut, she would not have been a very popular person in that family.  Also, the German audience would not have picked up on the fact that Richilde came from a different region.  Thus, if they heard of her, it would be in an unflattering light from their Brabant overlord.  Ergo, her role in the fairy tale.

The Transposing of a Tale

Although this is a rather circumstantial piece of evidence, it explains how the name “Richilde” gets attached to the Brabant region, and how the story arrives in Hesse.  When the Grimms’ Brothers collected their tales, they found six variations of Snow White in Hesse (and still ended up changing the one they picked for their fairy tale anthology).  They noted that “it was one of the best known tales in the area.”[11]

We do not know how the tale changed and morphed over time; however, we begin to trace a loose thread of how the story traveled.  Rumors and tales spread of the wild queen Richilde, coming together with the more ancient Snow White tales.  Then, when Henry arrives from Brabant, his attendants carry this folktale with them.  It changes and morphs more, as stories do,[12] eventually becoming the story the Grimms’ Brothers introduce to the world as “Snow White.”



[1] Theodore Evergates, Aristocratic Women in Medieval France, 115, https://books.google.com/books?id=d_-ytOKnWSUC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=richilde&f=false

[2] Ibid.

[3] Leuven, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leuven

[4] Baldwin II, Count of Hainaut, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldwin_II,_Count_of_Hainaut

[5]“Richilde,” Connaitre la Wallonie, 2013, http://connaitrelawallonie.wallonie.be/fr/wallons-marquants/dictionnaire/richilde#.WVE-KuvyuM_ , Evergates, 116.

[6] Baldwin II, Count of Hainauthttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldwin_II,_Count_of_Hainaut

[7] Godfrey of Bouillon, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godfrey_of_Bouillon

[8] Baldwin II, Count of Hainaut, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldwin_II,_Count_of_Hainaut

[9] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Lords_of_Bouillon, www.britannica.com/place/Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, www.lepinparasol.com/images2008/france_holiday_photos/lorr-map.jpg, castleandpalacehotels.com/images_maps/france/alsace_lorraine_map.jpg

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_I,_Landgrave_of_Hesse

[11] Anne Heiner, Sleeping Beauties, 7.

[12] Margarete von Waldeck is often mentioned as the inspiration for Snow White.  Born in 1533, this German countess had a difficult relationship with her stepmother.  She was ultimately poisoned, but probably not by her stepmother.  You can find more information on her here and here.  Her story is very convincing as a Snow White tale.  Seeing as how stories change and grow, she could certainly be an inspiration for what we know today as Snow White.

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Arthur short

Great article. As an author of a kid’s book series based on folklore of the brabant region, i’ve found it’s really hard to find good research material online concerning the historical origin of snow white and related tales. Please keep up the good work!

Xandra Lyn

Thank you so much! Your words are very encouraging!

And yes – finding material was very difficult for this. I’m glad you found it helpful!