Between pure fiction, and factually accurate historical accounts that make up what we call history, there is an in between zone, found in almost all cultures, which I call "legendary history", which recounts stories that have a connection to real events and circumstances in the past which they can shed light upon. But, legendary history also has elaborations, often supernatural, of those events added to provide interest, in addition to specifics added to give otherwise bland accounts of events a narrative that is relatable.
Legendary history isn't just the stuff of Bronze Age and early Iron Age exploits in religious texts, although there is a lot of that. It is a literary tradition that continued into the many "Lives of Saints" written by people affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church well into the Medieval period and beyond, and also in the form of many European fairy tales, the most comprehensive collection of which was assembled by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s (the first edition was published just a few years before Jane Austin's novel "Emma" which hit theaters last week).
The piece below makes the very credible claim that the fairy tale of "Hansel and Gretel" is a piece of legendary history from Medieval Europe and quite possibly from the Great Famine of 1315-1317 in Europe.
Most fairy tales hide darker realities or themes to be discovered once you go beyond the fantastical and cheerful trappings, but despite the apple-cheeked children protagonists and the gingerbread house, the darkness of "Hansel and Gretel" seems to prevail whenever we return to the story. And that's because the history behind "Hansel and Gretel" is already the stuff of nightmares: climate change, famine, and survival cannibalism.
If you need a refresher, "Hansel and Gretel" is about two siblings in medieval Germany. During a famine, the siblings, their father, and their stepmother begin to starve. Their cruel stepmother, thinking only of herself, tells her husband that they'd be better off if they abandoned the children in the woods one day while out woodcutting. Her husband protests, but agrees. Hansel and Gretel overhear this, and Hansel comes up with a strategy. When the stepmother abandons them, Hansel just follows the stones he left behind. When the stepmother tries the same plan again, Hansel tries the same trick with breadcrumbs — but it doesn't work because birds exist. Starving to death in the forest, they come across a house made entirely out of delicious cakes and sweets. The siblings get to eating, but it's a trap set by a child-eating witch. She captures them and forces Gretel to help her fatten Hansel up for the slaughter. But it's Gretel's turn to think quick, and she manages to shove the witch in the oven before the witch shoves them in it. The witch burns to death and the children steal all of her money. They make their way home, with the help of the biggest duck in Germany, where their stepmother has died and their father welcomes them home to live happily ever after.
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm included "Hansel and Gretel" in the first volume of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, which English-speaking audiences now know as Grimms' Fairy Tales. According to the brothers, the story comes from Hesse, the region in Germany in which they lived. A marginal note found in the brothers' copy of the first edition of the first volume indicates that Wilhelm's wife, Henriette Dorothea Wild, contributed to their adaptation of "Hansel and Gretel." It's likely the brothers heard the story from Henriette's family or even Henriette herself. The first volume of Kinder- und Hausmärchen was published in 1812, but the brothers made changes to their great work over the course of its publication history. The version I just related to you is the final version, published in 1857. In the original version, there is no rescue by duck — and their wicked stepmother is, in fact, their mother. She only became their stepmother in 1840, when the fourth edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen was published.
Rereading the story with that in mind, the mother seems heartless, abandoning her children in the face of hunger and turning angrily on her husband when he dares to protest. But a similar tale from 1697, Charles Perrault's "Little Thumb," also features a couple who abandon their children in the face of hunger, albeit with much heavier hearts. The famines in these stories aren't fairytale embellishments; they're important pieces of place-setting. Medieval Europe was no stranger to the horrors of famine.
In The Old Magic of Christmas, Linda Raedisch mentions the theory that "Hansel and Gretel" was inspired by the Great Famine of 1315–1317. While it's impossible to point to a specific famine and say "Yep, that's the one this story comes from! Case closed," the Great Famine of 1315-1317 is one of the biggest and, therefore, most well-documented famines in medieval European history. That makes a useful event to get insight as to how people dealt with famines in medieval Europe. Namely: suffer.
The Great Famine of 1315-1317 tends to get overshadowed by its more famous older sister, the Black Death, which reached Europe in 1347. But it's the first of the crises that stopped medieval Europe dead in its tracks. It was precipitated by the first rumblings of the Little Ice Age. (The Little Ice Age wasn't actually an ice age, but François E. Matthes called it that back in 1939 and the name stuck.) As glaciers expanded, temperatures in Europe cooled, leading to cooler winters, worse weather, and bad harvests. While the Little Ice Age was in full force from the 1500s to the 1800s, there's plenty of contemporary reports of bad harvests and rain — so much rain! — starting in the spring of 1315.
From here (in a story hyping the new motion picture adaptation of the story).The successive bad harvests led to an astronomical rise in food prices for the limited supply. A murrain — a word used in medieval Europe as a catch-all for different diseases that afflict cattle — afflicted livestock, further depleting food sources. As people began to starve, their bodies became vulnerable to disease, including the murrain from the cattle they ate, and people began to die. In droves. Faced with what felt like the end of the world, some people turned to faith. Others abandoned their children. And some turned to cannibalism.