The real Rapunzel wasn't just a beautiful woman locked in a tower – she was a literal saint. Or, at least one of the early inspirations for the folktale that would become Rapunzel was. The actual story is even darker than the Grimm Brothers version, in which the prince seduces Rapunzel instead of saving her. Just like the true story behind Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney had to change a lot in the Rapunzel story before turning it out as a children's film.
Saint Barbara was the daughter of a rich Roman merchant in the third century. Her own father locked her into a tower so that she wouldn't convert to Christianity, but Barbara found a way. She also resisted marriage, just like the Christian saints who protected their virginity with some extreme measures. But as a punishment for her faith, Barbara's pagan father grabbed her by the hair and beheaded her.
The links between Saint Barbara and Rapunzel go beyond both being locked in towers. Like Saint Barbara, Rapunzel was an independent woman who refused to listen to authority. But luckily for Rapunzel, she didn't suffer the same gruesome fate as the stories that were inspirations for Rapunzel.
According to the Life of Saint Barbara, written in the 13th century, Barbara's father was furious when she told him that she had converted. He dragged her to jail by her hair: "Her father took her by the hair and drew her down from the mountain and shut her fast in prison." And even though she was his own daughter, Barbara's father demanded that she go on trial simply for being a Christian.
At the trial, the pagan judge ordered Barbara to choose between renouncing her Christianity and torture. Barbara chose the torture. She also made a fiery speech, where she said, "fie on your devils!" And her faith carried her through a series of gruesome tortures.
Barbara's tortures were horrific, but the final one was the worst. The judge stripped Barbara naked and "beat her with sinews of bulls, and frot her flesh with salt." The second round included cutting off her breasts and burning her with lamps. When Barbara was paraded through town naked to shame her, God sent an angel to cloak her body in fog so that Barbara wouldn't suffer too much.
In the end, the same person who locked Barbara in the tower ended her life. Barbara's own father grabbed her beautiful hair and struck off Barbara's head with a sword. According to the legend, as soon as Barbara died, a bolt of lightning struck her father and killed him.
However, none of the stories of Saint Barbara claim that she had extremely long hair. Her hair is mentioned several times, when her father drags her to prison by her hair and when he pulls back her hair to cut off her head – but no one climbs her hair, which is a key element of later Rapunzel stories.
Where did the long tresses of the Rapunzel fairy tale come from? Most people argue that the long hair was borrowed from a Persian epic, The Shahmaneh, written around the year 1000 CE. In the story, the beautiful Rudaba catches the eye of a young hero named Zal. In order to meet up, he visits her tower, and she throws down her long hair so he can climb up to see her.
Their story also ends with an unplanned pregnancy and a Romeo-and-Juliet twist: their fathers don't approve of the union because Zal is Persian, and Rudaba is Babylonian. But they get a happy ending when astrologers predict that their son will conquer the world.
In the late 1600s, a woman wrote her own version of the Rapunzel story, and she used it to criticize the most powerful ruler in Europe. Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force was a French fairy-tale writer with a scandalous history. She had multiple affairs, including one with an actor who shocked the royal court by accidentally leaving his nightcap in her room. And, according to one rumor, Charlotte-Rose was sent away from court when King Louis XIV, the Sun King, suspected she was sleeping with his son.
Charlotte-Rose wasn't just send away. She was locked in a convent against her wishes. While in the convent, she wrote her own version of the Rapunzel story, called "Persinette." Did the author identify with the beauty locked in a tower? If so, the evil fairy in Persinette was a clear allusion to Louis XIV, who forced Charlotte-Rose into a convent.