Perhaps the best known version of this tale comes from Perrault, Peau d'Ane (Donkeyskin). However, the English Catskin and the German Allerleirauh (All-Kinds-Of-Fur) are nearly as well known. The tale used to more widely known but has been ignored or rewritten in recent times to suppress the incest themes.
A father, usually a king, promises his dying wife to marry only someone as beautiful as her or someone who can wear her ring. The father searches everywhere and discovers his daughter is the only one who fulfills the stipulation. He declares he will marry her. Upon the advice of a helper, she demands impossible items before she will marry him, hoping to delay or prevent the wedding. The first is a dress like the sun (gold), the second a dress like the moon (silver), and the third a dress like the stars (diamonds). Finally she demands a cloak made of the king’s prize donkey which defecates gold or a similar outfit of animal skin which will provide a disgusting disguise for her escape and concealment. Once all of these are provided, she runs away with all of the garments and seeks employment as a servant in another kingdom while wearing the cloak of skins. The girl is considered one of the lowliest servants and is abused by the prince as she performs tasks for him. She secretly attends feasts or church wearing her beautiful dresses, causing the prince to fall in love with her. When asked from whence she comes, she gives mysterious answers that reference the abuse he dealt her, such as “Comb-throw.” He gives her a ring or other token and she disappears. When the prince grows inconsolably sick with love, the woman prepares him food with the token hidden within. He recognizes the token, reveals her true identity, and then they are married.
A discussion of Cinderella/Donkeyskin tales during the European Middle Ages and early Renaissance warrants a book of its own, for the stories are long, ranging from epics to ballads to legends of saints. The similarities are intriguing although they can be elusive to the casual reader. A discussion of medieval Cinderellas can be found in Cox’s preface to Cinderella accompanied by references to medieval literature throughout her notes in the book. Much of the discussion of medieval Cinderellas centers around stories of unnatural fathers—those who want to marry their daughters, an ATU 510B motif—which were not uncommon during this era, especially in saint legends. One of the most comprehensive listings with brief discussions can be found on the internet at the Cinderella Bibliography by Russell A. Peck in the Medieval section.
Histoire de la Belle Hélène de Constantinople is an epic verse romance from northern France in the 15th century or even earlier. It is a romantic fiction based on a real person who has been sainted in Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions as Saint Helena. Helena is a persecuted heroine, wanted in marriage by her father, not an uncommon theme in medieval literature.
One of the earliest known European Cinderellas is France’s “Of a Young Girl Nicknamed Peau d’Asne and How She Was Married With the Help of Small Ants.” It is often attributed to Bonaventure des Périers and was first published in 1568 in his Nouvelles Récréations et Joyeux Devis. While its authorship is debated—the tale was likely not written by Des Périers—its first appearance in print is certain. The persecuted heroine with her skin cloak, grain sorting task, and animal helpers is certainly recognizable as a Donkeyskin.
The next version of this tale appeared as The She-Bear in Giambattista Basile's Il Pentamerone (1634-6). This version has many variants throughout Europe, but the tale recorded by Perrault several years later has become the most recognized version of the tale.
Perrault's original version of Donkeyskin, titled Peau d'Ane in French, was published in verse form in 1694 and was one of his first literary fairy tales. His more famous collection of tales, Contes du temps passe, would follow three years later. It was later added to his collection in a prose version, paraphrased by an anonymous adapter, which diminished the humor and increased the descriptive elements of Perrault's original. The prose version is the better known of the two (Warner 1994).
Donkeyskin is considered a close variant of the ATU 510A Cinderella tale with many parallels between the stories, especially the theme of the persecuted heroine. While the story was frequently included in fairy tale collections in the late 19th and early 20th century, it was often omitted from popular collections for children in the mid to late 20th century, due to the incestuous overtones in many of its versions.
An excellent online article about Donkey Skin, "Donkeyskin, Deerskin, Allerleirauh: The Reality of the Fairy Tale" by Helen Pilinovsky. (no external link available at this time)
The most informative information about Donkeyskin can be found in Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde. If you are interested in this tale, Warner's analysis and comparisons should not be missed.
Note that while the tale is still popular in France with many picture book versions published there, it has slight visibility in the United States and other English speaking countries, perhaps due to its difficult themes of incest and abuse. During a visit to Paris in 2006, a small toy store I visited not far from Sainte-Chapelle had a display devoted to the tale, including a Donkeyskin costume.
I also recommend these three external sites for additional information about the tale:
Cinderella Project at the University of Southern Mississippi
Cinderella Stories collected by D. L. Ashliman
Cinderella Bibliography by Russell A. Peck