Maiden–in–a–Tower stories can be found in folk traditions around the world — but "Rapunzel," the best known of these stories, comes from literary sources. The version of "Rapunzel" we know today was published as a German folk tale by the Brothers Grimm in 1857 — but it's now believed that their "Rapunzel" was neither German nor a proper folk tale. Scholars have shown that a number of the storytellers from whom the Brothers Grimm obtained their material were recounting "authored" tales from German, French, and Italian literary sources rather than anonymous folk stories passed orally from teller to teller. The Grimms' "Rapunzel," for example, was derived from a story of the same name published by Friedrich Schultz in 1790 — which was a loose translation of an earlier French story, "Persinette" by Charlotte–Rose de La Force, published in 1698 at the height of the "adult fairy tale" literary movement in Paris. La Force's tale was influenced by an even earlier Italian story, "Petrosinella" by Giambattista Basile, published in 1634 in his story collection Lo cunto de li cunti (also known as the Pentamerone).
Each writer in this chain used folk motifs drawn from oral tales (associated with peasants and the countryside), reworking them into literary tales (for adult readers who were educated, urban, and upper–class). It is difficult, however, to draw a sharp line between folk tales and literary fairy tales, placing "Rapunzel" in one category or another — for after the Basile, La Force, and Schultz publications, "Rapunzel" slipped into the oral tradition of storytellers throughout the West, where it's now part of our folk culture even though it didn't start there.
Let's go back to the start, however, with Giambattista Basile's "Petrosinella." Basile, born near Naples, drew plots and characters from the folk tales of the region, re–working them into courtly tales for the Italian aristocracy. What follows is a bare–bones summary of his story, without the clever turns of language that make Basile's work so sprightly and distinctive. (I suggest reading Basile's story in full in a good English translation — such as the one provided by Jack Zipes in his book The Great Fairy Tale Tradition.)
Once upon a time, the tale begins, a woman looked out her window at the garden of her neighbor, an ogress, and developed a terrible hunger for the fine parsley growing there. Now, this woman was pregnant, and it was widely believed that denying the cravings of a pregnant woman could cause grave harm to mother and child — so she snuck into her neighbor's garden, not once, but over and over. The ogress laid a trap and caught her. "What do you have to say for yourself, thief?"
The woman threw herself on her neighbor's mercy, but the ogress was not appeased. "I will spare your life only if you give me the child you carry, be it boy or girl." The frightened woman agreed and slunk back home, pockets full of parsley.
She soon gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and named her Petrosinella (derived from the word for parsley in the Neapolitan dialect). By the time the child was seven years old, her mother had forgotten all about her promise. But when Petrosinella started school, her path took her by the ogress's house.
Each time that Petrosinella passed, the old ogress called out to her: "Tell your mother to remember the promise she made to me, Petrosinella!" The child did as she was told. Her mother grew more and more frightened, until one day she cried out: "Tell that woman my answer is: 'Take her!'"
When Petrosinella delivered this message, the ogress grabbed her by the hair, carried her deep into the forest, and locked her in a tall stone tower. The tower had no door or stairs, just a small window at the very top, and there the child would sit, straining to catch a small ray of sun. The girl grew up in this lonely place. The ogress was her only company, climbing in and out of the tower on the long, gold braids of Petrosinella's hair.
Years passed, and Petrosinella grew into a beautiful young woman, her golden braids so long they coiled on the ground below. It happened that a prince, who was hunting nearby, became separated from his fellows. He stumbled through the forest, lost, and came upon the tower. The ogress was away and Petrosinella sat in the window sunning her hair. She was the most beautiful young woman the prince had ever seen, and he instantly fell in love. He called up to Petrosinella, and for several days they conversed and sighed and pledged their love. Then Petrosinella proposed a plan to meet when the moon had risen. That night, she gave the old ogress a dose of poppy to make her sleep, then she threw her braids over the windowsill and pulled the young man up. The prince then "made a little meal out of the parsley sauce of love."
More nights of love–making followed until an old gossip got wind of this. She told the ogress what was going on, warning her that her "daughter" might up and fly if she didn't act quickly. The ogress was unperturbed, saying: "She won't be able to get very far without the use of my magic acorns, and I've carefully hidden them in a little spot above the rafters."
Petrosinella had been listening at the window, and she quickly made a plan. She told her lover to bring some rope, then she drugged the ogress to sleep again, stole the three acorns, and used the rope to leave the tower. They hadn't gone very far when the ogress woke and discovered the girl's escape, using her magic to catch up to the fleeing lovers in no time. Petrosinella threw down the first acorn. It turned into a ferocious dog — but the ogress drew bread from her pocket and fed the dog so it let her pass. Petrosinella threw down the second acorn. It turned into a raging lion. The ogress stole the skin from a grazing ass and charged into the lion, which reared back from this monstrous apparition and fled in fright. Petrosinella threw down the third acorn. It turned into a hungry wolf, which quickly gobbled up the ogress before she could use her magic again to save herself.
Now the lovers were safe. They traveled on to the prince's own kingdom, where "with the kind permission of his father, the prince made Petrosinella his wife and proved that, after many trials and tribulations, one hour in a safe harbor can make you forget one hundred years of storm."
Sixty years after Basile's "Petrosinella," the French writer Charlotte–Rose de La Force borrowed elements from it to use in her own Maiden–in–a–Tower story, "Persinette," published in her fairy tale collection Les contes des contes in 1697. (This, of course, was a practice much more common in the days before copyright laws; particularly among writers of fairy tales, where the practice continues to this day.) La Force was part of a group of writers (including Madame D'Aulnoy, Madame de Murat, and Charles Perrault) who created a vogue for adult fairy stories in the literary salons of Paris. Like Basile, La Force was writing for an educated, aristocratic audience, creating stories that were meant both to entertain and to comment on issues of contemporary life.
One issue of particular concern to women of the period was the common practice of arranged marriages, particularly among the upper classes. Women had no legal say in these arrangements, often conducted as business transactions between one aristocratic family and another. Daughters were used to cement alliances, to curry favor, and to settle debts. Sex was a husband's legal right, and there was no possibility of divorce. Young girls could find themselves married off to men many years their senior or of vile temper and habits; disobedient daughters could be shut away in convents or locked up in mad–houses. Little wonder, then, that French fairy tales are filled with girls handed over to various wicked creatures by cruel or feckless parents, or locked up in enchanted towers where only true love can save them.