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Literature / The Nettle Spinner

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The Nettle Spinner, also known as La Fileuse d'orties, is a French Fairy Tale. It was collected by Charles Deulin in Contes du roi Cambrinus in 1874 and in 1890 Andrew Lang included it in The Red Fairy Book. In short, The Nettle Spinner is about a cruel lord who accidentally makes a serf his personal psychopomp.

Burchard is the feared and hated Count of Hainaut, whose reign is only tolerable because his wife is exceptionally kind. The beginning of the end of Burchard comes when he meets a pretty local peasant named Renelde in the Forêt de Mormal. He tries to lure her to his castle in Le Quesnoy, but she refuses. The next time he passes by, Renelde is spinning her wedding shift. The resentful count orders Renelde to spin nettles into a wedding shift for herself and into a burial shroud for him, because only when he dies will she get permission to marry. The challenge is that no one has spun nettles before, but Renelde gives it a try and finishes a fine wedding shift soon after. Burchard learns of this and as Renelde moves on to work on his burial shroud, he steadily grows ill. Several times, he sends his soldiers to kill Renelde, destroy the spinning wheel, and uproot the nettles. Yet none of that is effective and as Renelde keeps spinning, Burchard keeps weakening. Eventually, the countess herself requests Renelde to stop spinning. She obliges, which angers her fiance Guilbert because it means they cannot marry. After a year, he leaves. Another year passes and Burchard becomes ill again despite Renelde keeping her promise to the countess. He gets past the point of recovery, but Death does not come to relieve him either. Burchard recalls his order from two years ago and realizes that Death requires his burial shroud. He has Renelde brought to Le Quesnoy to continue spinning by his bedside, finally remorseful for all he has done. With the last stitch, he dies and, as fate would have it, Guilbert returns to reunite with Renelde.

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The fairy tale presumes familiarity with the setting. Deulin's version namedrops Le Quesnoy, the Forêt de Mormal, Locquignol, and the Rhonelle. These four are located in Northern France and during the Middle Ages were part of the County of Hainaut. Le Quesnoy was a favored residency of the counts. Lang's version is a near-faithful translation of Deulin's version, but he seems to have had issues with the regional details. For one, in Lang's version the Forêt de Mormal and the Rhonelle aren't namedropped and he names Le Quesnoy as "Quesnoy". For two, Lang adds that "Quesnoy" is located in Flanders, which it has never done. However, the Houses of Flanders and of Hainaut have a long history of seeking each other out for marriages, so the two counties have on occasion had the same ruler.


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Tropes included

  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Played straight and averted. Count Burchard the Wolf is evil, but his wife is as good as a saint. She effectively undoes all the evil he does, though she keeps this a secret from him.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Burchard made a serious mistake when he ordered Renelde to make him his burial shroud. It ended up giving her complete control over whether he lives or dies.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Prior to the events of the tale, the countess had taken care of Renelde's household when her mother was dying. This is why Renelde is loyal to her and honors her request to stop spinning, even though Burchard still won't give his permission for Renelde's marriage.
  • Complete Immortality: Both Renelde and Burchard cannot die until Burchard's order for a burial shroud made of nettles is fulfilled. She can't die because she of her assigned duty as psychopomp and he can't die until she acts on her duty. For the first year, Burchard does try to stop Renelde by having her drowned twice, but she miraculously and apparently unfazed makes it back to shore each time, and by shooting her himself, but the bullet straight up rebounds. She only stops because his wife asks her to. In the second year, Burchard becomes incurably ill all on his own but no matter how weak he gets, he cannot die until Renelde finished the shroud.
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  • Don't Fear the Reaper: Of course Burchard doesn't want to die and he's always boasted of his iron health. But when he becomes incurably ill and only death can relieve his agony, he gladly invites Renelde and Death into his home. He dies peacefully.
  • Irony: In the Middle Ages, lords had full control over their serfs' lives. By invoking his control over Renelde's life, Burchard gave her full control over his death.
  • Mighty Lumberjack: Guilbert is a woodcutter and depicted as a no-nonsense kind of guy. When he hears that Burchard won't give permission for his marriage to Renelde, he offers his fiancée to make his axe meet the count's face. When the count orders Renelde to stop spinning but still refuses to permit the marriage, Guilbert tells Renelde to keep going. When Renelde honors the countess's request to stop, Guilbert leaves her because he doesn't accept the helplessness. He returns a year later with renewed respect for Renelde's sense of virtue.
  • Psychopomp: Renelde is Burchard's own personal psychopomp with absolute control over whether he lives or dies. He gave her this role himself when he ordered her to make him a burial shroud, although he did not foresee the supernatural consequences of said order. Renelde is explicitly separate from Death themself, whom Burchard reasons is waiting for Renelde to play her part first.
  • Rule of Three: Invoked thrice.
    • Burchard has three offers for Renelde if she comes to live at his castle. First he offers to make her his wife's lady's maid. Thereafter he offers to make her his wife's lady-in-waiting. And when that still is not enough, he offers to divorce his wife and marry Renelde instead. Could be considered subverted if his order to spin him a burial shroud of nettle is seen as the fourth offer, because in the role of psychopomp Renelde does eventually come to the castle.
    • Renelde works with three types of textile: hemp, flax, and nettle.
    • Once Guilbert leaves, Renelde cries for three days and three nights.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Renelde is working on her own wedding shift made of flax when Burchard tells her to use nettles instead and make him a burial shroud while she's at it. This inadvertently puts Renelde in the role of Burchard's psychopomp. When she works on the burial shroud, he grows ill and weak. When she stops, he won't die no matter what his body endures.
  • Wedlock Block: During the Middle Ages, lords needed to give their permission for serf marriages because those marriages affected the lords' property. This is why Burchard can prevent Renelde and Guilbert from getting married. The event he sets that must precede the marriage is his own death.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Burchard attempts this when he promises the beautiful Renelde increasingly better positions at his castle if only she'll come. Renelde refuses and the countess seemingly never learns of her husband's poor attempt at wooing a serf, so things never proceed past Burchard's desire for Renelde.

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