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Little Red Pentecostal

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The earliest known version of "Little Red Riding Hood" comes from Egbert of Liege's school trivium textbook Fecunda natis (The Richly Laden Ship, c. 1022/24). Egbert's verse version, which appears to be drawn from an oral folktale, begins with Red's baptism: "A certain man took up a girl from the sacred fond/ and gave her a tunic of red wool; / sacred Pentecost was [the day] of her baptism." When she's 5, a wolf attacks her and carries her back to her lair to feed to her cubs. But "they were unable to harm her" and instead "began, free from all their ferocity, to caress her head." Red cries out "Do not damage this tunic, mice . . . / which my godfather gave me when he took me from the font!" Egbert draws the moral: "God, their creator, soothes untame souls."

Harvard medieval Latinist Jan Ziolkowski, who analyzes Egbert's story in Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales (University of Michigan, 2007) suggests that the red color of the hood is Pentecostal:

Red was the color of Pentecost in the medieval church, and Ziolkowski connects this to the tongues of fire from the original Pentecost. He lists various customs that emphasized red as the color of this season: "'red rose leaves were scattered from the roof of the church'; the Gospel book was covered in red, to signify the blood of Christ; and, most important, the vestments for that day were red. Thus the red of the surcoat conveys the power of a Pentecostal baptism, as embodied in a red-colored celebrant. Finally, it bears noting that the rubicunda tunica in Egbert's poem does not rule out a white baptismal garment: the red surcoat that the girl was given after being taken from the font could have been placed over the customary white garb of a candidate for baptism."

The story thus becomes a promise of the protective qualities of baptism: "the little girl is protected miraculously from the wolves directly through the virtue of her tunic. The red tunic, which brackets the narrative . . . as effectively as it clothes the little girl, can safeguard her precisely because of the liturgical context in which it is bestowed on her - as a baptismal gift on Pentecost from her godfather. The baptismal rites buffer the girl from the wolves within the story, just as, in figurative terms, they shield any Christian from the violence of the infernal wolf, the Devil."

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, July 09, 2007 at 02:41 PM

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