History of The Princess & The Pea

Instructor: Tina Miller

Tina earned an MFA in Creative Writing, has several published novels and short stories, and teaches English and writing.

Princesses are born and not made, and Hans Christian Andersen emphasized this in ''The Princess and the Pea.'' Such a story, though, has outlasted centuries, even before Andersen penned the story for the whole world to read.

Princesses and Peas and Mattresses

Surely, twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds would keep a small pea from impeding on one's sleep. That is, unless that one is a princess. When a prince desperately seeks to find a true princess to marry, there is only one test: the pea test. The royal family prepares the princess's bed. They pile twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds atop one single pea. The self-proclaimed princess awakes the next morning with bruises and pain. The pea is the culprit, and it proves the princess's identity. With such sensitivity, she is surely a princess. And, the princess and the prince marry.

The princess is so sensitive that she can feel the pea beneath all of these mattresses!
princess in bed

Such a folk tale has been passed down for centuries, from generation to generation. The story we know as ''The Princess and the Pea'' was first published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1835. However, as history shows, many versions of the story have been created previously. There is a history behind the peas, the beds, the princesses, and the concept of sensitivity.



In the second volume of Tales and Stories (1865), wherein which Andersen wrote a preface, he suggested that he heard the story, ''The Princess and the Pea,'' in his childhood. He was Danish, yet there is no evidence that such a story about princesses and sensitivity are of Danish tradition. However, there is a Swedish version, ''Princess Who Lay on Seven Peas.'' In this version, an orphan girl's cat encourages her to believe she is a princess and warns her about the pea test. Thus, she is tested. In the final test, she must lay atop a mattress, under which there are seven peas. When she awakes, she claims to have slept horribly. Her claims lead to her becoming a real princess.

The princess prepares to sleep to prove whether or not she is actually a princess.
Preparing to Sleep


In the Italian culture, a similar story, ''The Most Sensitive Woman,'' has passed through generations. As the title indicates, the prince is looking for the most sensitive woman. A woman who is in pain from having a hair pulled out and another woman who is sick from sleeping on a wrinkled sheet are deemed not sensitive enough. After a jasmine petal falls on a woman's foot, her foot is bandaged. She is in great pain, and this is appealing to the prince who is looking for a wife and finds her to be the most sensitive woman.


But, what if there was no princess and no pea? Legends with similar morals and lessons have persisted throughout time. While it doesn't include a princess nor a pea, a tale dating back to the 11th century from India does retell a story about a boy who, upon sleeping atop seven mattresses, wakes with a pain in his back. He finds a single hair that has impeded on his coziness.

Another story from India describes a king with three wives, all sensitive. Like the story from Italy, one of the wives is injured by a petal, from a lotus flower. Another one is harmed by the moonbeams, and the third is bruised just from a grinding sound. The king decides that the third queen is the most sensitive.

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