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Tales from the Gesta Romanorum

Tales from the Gesta Romanorum
Title: Tales from the Gesta Romanorum
Release Date: 2019-01-08
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
Count views: 131
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Transcriber’s Note:

The cover image was created by the transcriber and is placed in the public domain.


Translated by Rev. C. Swan
New York and London
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
The Knickerbocker Press, New Rochelle, N. Y.



You have here, my good friends, sundrymoral and entertaining stories, inventedby the monks of old, and used by them foramusement, as well as for instruction; fromwhich the most celebrated poets, of our ownand other lands, have condescended to drawtheir plots.

The improvements and refinements of thisage will naturally lead you to condemn asabsurdities, many of the incidents with whichthese tales abound. Considering the knowledgeof the present day, you are justified in so doing.But I pray you to bear in mind that few qualitiesare more dependent on time, than probabilityand improbability. When you read thesetales, you must, for the time, retrace your stepsto the age in which they were written; andthough the tale may seem absurd to us of thisday, yet if it was calculated to impress theivminds of those for whom it was invented, andto whom it was told, its merit was great, andtherefore deserving of due praise. A giant ora magician was as probable to the people of themiddle ages, as electricity to us. I pray youbear this in mind whilst you judge of thesetales.

Romantic fiction pleases all minds, both oldand young: the reason is this, says an oldPlatonist, “that here things are set down asthey should be; but in the true history of theworld, things are recorded indeed as they are,but it is but a testimony that they have notbeen as they should be. Wherefore, in theupshot of all, when we shall see that come topass, that so mightily pleases us in the readingthe most ingenious plays and heroic poems,that long afflicted Virtue at last comes to thecrown, the mouth of all unbelievers must bestopped.”

To the work of the ingenious Mr. Swan, theonly translator of these stories that I know ofin this country, I am indebted for my firstintroduction to these old tales; and I cannotconclude these few words without thankinghim for having often lightened my labors byhis close and admirable versions.

G. B.
December, 1844.


I.—The Gesta Romanorum—Its Origin—Tale of the Ungrateful Man—Sources of Didactic Fiction—Jovinian the Proud Emperor—Morals of the Tales 1
II.—Discussion on the Source of Fiction Renewed—The King and the GluttonGuido, the Perfect Servant—The Middle-Age Allegories—Pliny and Mandeville’s Wonders Allegorized 31
III.—Progress of Fiction from the East to the West—The Early Christians—The Monks—The Spanish Arabians—The Crusades—The Knight and the King of Hungary—The English Gesta 46
IV.—Modern Conversions of the Old Tales—The Three Black Crows—King Lear—The Emperor of Rome and his Three Daughters—The Merchant of Venice—The Three Caskets 58
viV.—The Probable Author of the Gesta—Modern Conversions—Parnell and Schiller—The Angel and the Hermit—The Poet’s Improvements—Fulgentius and the Wicked Steward—Irving’s Vision in the Museum—The Claims of the Old Writers on the New 74
VI.—Curiosities of the Gesta—The Wicked Priest—The Qualities of the Dog—The Emperor’s Daughter—Curious Application—The Emperor Leo and the Three Images—An Enigma 90
VII.—Curiosities of the Gesta—Byrkes’ Epitaph—The Lay of the Little BirdOf the Burdens of this Life—Ancient Fairs—Winchester—Modern Continental Fairs—Russia—Nischnei-Novgorod 104
VIII.—Southey’s Thalaba—The Suggestions of the Evil OneCotonolapes, the MagicianThe Garden of Aloaddin—The Old Man of the Mountain—The Assassins—Their Rise and Fall—Gay’s Conjurer—Sir Guido, the Crusader—Guy, Earl of Warwick 120
IX.—Illustrations of Early Manners—Sorcery—The Knight and the Necromancer—Waxen Figures—Degeneracy of Witches—The Clerk and the Image—Gerbert and Natural Magic—Elfin Chivalry—The Demon Knight of the Vandal Camp—Scott’s Marmion—Assumption of Human Forms by Spirits—The Seductions of the Evil One—Religious Origin of Charges of Witchcraft 149
X.—The Three Maxims—The Monk’s Errors in History—The Trials of Eustace—Sources of its Incidents—Colonel Gardiner—St. Herbert—Early English Romance of Sir Isumbras 174
viiXI.—Another Chat about Witches and Witchcraft—Late Period of the Existence of Belief in Witches—Queen Semiramis—Elfin Armorers—The Sword of the Scandinavian King—Mystical Meaning of Tales of Magic—Anglo-Saxon Enigmas—Celestinus and the Miller’s HorseThe Emperor Conrad and the Count’s Son—Legend of “The Giant with the Golden Hairs” 203
XII.—Love and Marriage—The Knight and the Three Questions—Racing for a Wife—Jonathan and the Three Talismans—Tale of the Dwarf and the Three Soldiers—Conclusion 233


The Gesta Romanorum—Its Origin—Tale of the UngratefulMan—Sources of Didactic Fiction—Jovinianthe Proud Emperor—Morals of the Tales.

It was a dull, cold Christmas evening; the snow fell fastand small, and the cutting northeast wind blew itswhite shower into heaps and ridges in every corner ofSt. John’s quadrangle, and piled its clear flakes againstevery projecting part of the old building. No one wasmoving in college, at least out-of-doors; but the rudelaugh from the buttery, and the dull-red gleam throughthe closely drawn curtains of one of the upper rooms inthe outer quadrangle, proved that in two portions of thecollege Christmas was being kept with plenty and withgayety.

The change from the white cold of the quadrangle tothe ruddy blaze of that upper room was inspiriting. Thefire burnt bright; the small table, drawn immediatelyin front of its merry blaze, glittered with after-dinnergood cheer; and three young and happy faces sat bythat little table, and compared their former Christmasesat home, with this one, during which they weredetermined to remain up in Oxford and read for theensuing examination.

“Morrison is always in good luck,” said Henry Herbert,the youngest of the party. “Whatever it is,2whether drawing lots for a Newham party, or crammingfor an examination, he always succeeds; and now he isthe last man that got away from Oxford before the roadswere blocked up by this snow-drift.”

“Fortunate fellow!” said Lathom. “We are shut upnow—fifteen feet of snow at Dorchester, and Stokenchurchbottom quite impassable.”

“Ay, and Oxford streets equally so,” said FrederickThompson, the last of the triumvirate, “and we shut uphere with the pleasant prospect of taking our constitutional,for some days to come, under the old Archbishop’scloisters.”

“By the by,” said Herbert, “what were you after inthe old library last week, Lathom?”

“Looking for a copy of the Gesta Romanorum, withthe idea of reading some of its amusing stories duringour after-dinner sittings.”

“Any thing but those Romans: it is bad enough tohave read and believed all that Livy wrote, from hisSucking Wolf to his Capitol Goose, and then to have ashrewd German prove that kings were not kings, andconsuls not consuls, just when you are beginning tothink that you really do know something about yourRoman history.”

“You will have but little of Roman history, Thompson;the title of the book but ill agrees with its contents:fables of all climes contribute their share in the formationof this singular composition. The majority of the talesare entirely unconnected with the history of Rome,though the writer, in order to, in some manner, coverthis deviation from his title, has taken care to prefacealmost every story with the name of some emperor, whoin most cases never existed, and sometimes has little todo with the incidents of the narrative.”

“To whom, most learned antiquary, are we indebtedfor this very stout volume?”

3“To the imagination, knowledge, and literary laborof the monks of the middle ages. In the refectory, whilstthe monks ate their meals, one, the youngest generally,of the society, read from some such collection as this, atale at once amusing and instructive. Nor was the useof these fables confined to the refectory. The successwhich has always attended instruction by fables, andthe popularity ever consequent on this form of teaching,led the monks to use this medium to illustratetheir public discourses, as well as for their own dailyrelaxation.”

“Few things are more certain,” said Herbert, “thanthat an argument, however clear,—a deduction, howeverlogical,—operates but faintly except on trained intellects;but an apposite story at once arouses the attention,and makes a more durable impression on illiterate auditors.Knowledge in the garb of verse is soonest appreciatedby an uneducated mind, and remains there farlonger than in any other form. A ballad will descendfrom generation to generation without a fault or an interpolation.”

“Yes,” rejoined Lathom, “and next to poetry comespoetic prose, at the head of which class stands didacticfiction. Many a clever man has confessed that he wasmore indebted to Shakspeare and Scott for his Englishand Scottish history, than to the standard historians ofeither land.”

“And as far as the general belief goes,” said Thompson,“the popular dramatist or poet will always outweighthe learned historian. Let Walpole or Turnerwrite what they will about Richard the Third; to themajority—ay, to more than four fifths of the people—heis still Shakspeare’s Richard, the Humpbacked Murderer.”

“One of the best of the old monks’ stories,” saidLathom, “was translated in Blackwood’s Magazine some4years since. It well illustrates the popular method bywhich the writers of these tales inculcated Christianduties on their brethren of the convent, or on theirhearers in the Church. If you like, I will read it.”

The following was the tale of


Vitalis, a noble Venetian, one day, at ahunting party, fell into a pit, which hadbeen dug to catch wild animals. He passed awhole night and day there, and I will leave youto imagine his dread and his agony. The pit wasdark. Vitalis ran from the one side of it to theother, in the hope of finding some branch orroot by which he might climb its sides and getout of his dungeon; but he heard such confusedand extraordinary noises, growlings, hissings,and plaintive cries, that he became half-deadwith terror, and crouched in a corner motionless,awaiting death with the most horriddismay. On the morning of the second day heheard some one passing near the pit, and thenraising his voice he cried out with the mostdolorous accent: “Help, help! draw me out ofthis; I am perishing!”

A peasant crossing the forest heard his cry.At first he was frightened; but after a moment5or two, taking courage, be approached the pit,and asked who had called.

“A poor huntsman,” answered Vitalis, “whohas

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