I’m still knee-deep in researching 19th-century Bavaria. It’s a little disconcerting when inside your head, you’re surrounded by ladies in towering hairdos or spaniel curls, wearing great big swoopy gowns; gentlemen in top hats and tail coats; steam trains and horse carriages – and then you look up, and the realities of 21st-century life are staring you in the face. The writer’s dichotomy…
But anyway, there was something I ran across in the course of my research rabbit-trailings. Have you ever wondered why there is such a proliferation of princes and princesses in fairy tales? I have. But I think I may have found the answer.
One of the things that I was looking up was the German titles of nobility, and to my surprise I found that “prince” is ranked below “duke”. In the English system, “prince” is the highest title you can possibly hold, short of “king” or “queen”, and princes and princesses are in quite short supply. As far as I can see, only the immediate offspring of the monarch get that title, and even then it seems to be restricted to the male line. According to Wikipedia, there’s all of seventeen British princes and princesses living today; and the list of all princes and princesses since 1714 is short enough to fit inside two Wikipedia articles (here and here).
A real-life prince: Ludwig I, Crown Prince of Bavaria. Painted by Angelica Kauffmann, 1807.
In the German system, on the other hand, “prince” or “princess” doesn’t necessarily denote “child of king”. Yes, it does mean that, too, but it can also be a translation of “Fürst”, which is a lower-ranking title of ruling nobility than “Herzog”, i.e. “duke”. So a “prince” can be a ruler of a – wait for it – principality, a small realm that doesn’t qualify as a kingdom, so its ruler isn’t a “king”. Germany, up until 1871, was a patchwork of those small principalities and duchies (unlike England, which has been one large kingdom for more than a thousand years). Add to that the fact that among the German nobility, all children get the title – not just the eldest son – and you have more counts, baronesses, marchionesses, grand dukes and what-have-you than you can shake a stick at. And yes, princes and princesses too.
So, seeing that most of the well-known fairy tales of the Western tradition originate in mainland Europe, that would explain why we can have so many princes and princesses wandering in and out of fairy land. They were pretty normal, as far as blue-bloods go. And even when they were rulers, they didn’t necessarily reign over vast island nations like Our Gracious and Noble Queen, but maybe just a little postage-stamp realm, next door to another equally minute patch of principality.
That’s how you can get princes like the one from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Swine Herd”: “Once there was a poor Prince. He had a kingdom; it was very tiny. Still it was large enough to marry upon…” In fact, his kingdom is so tiny, at the end of the story “the Prince went home to his kingdom, and shut and barred the door.” That ending always tickled my fancy as a child – a kingdom so small, you can shut the door on it (and leave the bratty, stuck-up princess outside, as she deserves).
So there’s one mystery solved. You might get a prince – there’s enough of them around – but his kingdom could be kind of tiny. However, if you’re proper princess material, you won’t mind that. At least so long as there’s no peas under the mattress.
Life, the Universe, Princes and Princesses. Mine’s the one in the blue tunic, thank you.