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  • Writer's pictureZoe Franznick

Episode 12: The Gesta Romanorum Pt. 2

We're returning to this unique collection of folktales in our two-part episode this week! These stories continue to moralize folktales in unexpected ways, providing lessons that you never knew you needed to hear. We're focusing on three more tales, each twisted beyond their usual recognition.

Tale 125: "Of Women Who Not Only Betray Secrets But Lie Fearfully"

This tale features one of the oldest (but most highly inaccurate) tropes of all time. The story begins when a bitter parson tells his brother, a layman, that women cannot keep secrets. The layman decides to put this to the test with his wife, whom he tells he must share a dark secret. She begs him to tell her, and the layman tells his wife that, in a fit of indigestion, he shat a live crow which then flew off into the night.

Of course, as the folktale must go, the woman then told her best friend. She enlarges the tale, telling her friend that her husband shat two live crows, and that she must keep it a very close secret. The woman swears her secrecy before immediately running off to tell her neighbor. The story grows, and with it does the number of crows, until the town rumor is that the man shat a flock of 60 live crows.

The layman finally assembled his neighbors and explained to them the lie he had told, and the reason for it. Soon after this event, his wife died, and the man retired to a cloister where he learned three letters, the colour of which were red, white and black.

The Moral: The explained moral in this tale is that women cannot keep secrets, and we'd like to remind our audience of the similar, male-oriented trope of a man's prize fish, and how it mysteriously seems to keep getting bigger each retelling. In any case, it seems that if an outrageous story begins, it's likely to be repeated.

The three coloured letters are another interesting note in the tale. The exegesis tells readers that the red letter represents Christ's blood, the white for the desire for heaven, and the black for the reflection upon one's sins. As Mac noted in the podcast, black, red, and white are also the first colours that humanity recognizes, both visually and linguistically. Colours with fewer letters demonstrate older colours, while longer colour words like purple or yellow developed later. How mankind connects words or symbols (like colour) with meaning, as shown in the exegesis, is also known as semiotics.

Story Rating: 6.5


Tale 19: "Of Pride"

This tale was theoretically taken from "prince" Pompey's annals, and serves as an exmple of the medievalization of Roman stories by the medievals themselves. This tale is a retelling of Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon with a medieval twist. In this version, Caesar married Pompey's daughter, and Pompey suggested that Caesar go and "possess himself of distant fortresses." While Caesar was out conquering Gaul, Pompey seized power in Rome. When Caesar heard this news, he took his army and began his trek back to Rome. As he arrived at the Rubicon River, however, a phantom appeared over the water, challening him and his intentions. When he found Caesar's intentions were pure (that is, the best for Rome), he allowed the man to cross. Caesar took the city, but, the story notes, he was slain by a band of conspirators later.

The Moral: While the actual moral of this tale is less clear than the others, we'd like to remind listeners that not all supernatural occurrences are bad. This phantom serves as a literal threshold guardian over the river. In folktales (and in Campbell's Hero's Journey), the threshold guardian serves as a barrier to the hero between the ordinary world (the status quo) and the supernatural world, where they will change the course of events in a major way. In this case, the threshold guardian appears in a liminal space; that is, a space between. A liminal space might be an ever-moving river which divides lands, as in this tale, a hallway, or even an airport.

Story Rating: 6.75


Tale 20: "Of Tribulation and Anguish"

Our final tale is a combination of many fairy tale tropes with which the listener will be familiar. It begins in the reign of the "Emperor Conrad" (whom we established as Conrad II, who reigned the Holy Roman Empire at the beginning of the twelfth century. During his reign, Count Leopold (a fictional figure, insofar as we know) fled with his wife into the emperor's woods to hide for a supposed crime. He set up a small cottage there and lived at least somewhat happily.

One day, the emperor went hunting and became lost from the rest of his party. Coming to this cottage, he stayed within, where the count and his wife made him welcome. The count's widfe struggled to provide dinner, as she was very pregnant, and gave birth that evening to a child.

That night, the emperor was awoken by a strange voice, telling him to "take, take take!" Bemused, the king fell back asleep. He was awoken later that night to the voice, this time echoing, "Restore, restore, restore!" Once more, he was confused, but returned to bed. Finally, he was awoken a third time to the voice, which proclaimed, "Fly, fly, fly; there is a child born here who will be your son-in-law!" Why this was particularly egregious is not apparant. True-to-trope, however, the emperor ordered two squires who were with him to take the child and cleave it in twain, thus preventing the boy from claiming power. The squires took the child, but upon entering the forest, they spared the boy and set him in a tree branch to save him from the beasts of the forest. They killed a hare and brought its heart to the emperor, saying it was the heart of the boy they had killed.

After a time, a duke found the child in the woods and brought him home for his wife to raise as their son. The boy grew up well, and they named him Henry. The emperor saw the eloquence and features of the lad and offered to foster him. After having done so for some time, however, he worried that the boy would take power from him, and even wondered if this was the child that he had ordered his squires to kill all those years ago. Fearing this, he wrote to his wife and ordered her, upon pain of death, to kill the lad for him. Before he can send this letter, however, he "accidentally" falls alseep in a church.

While alseep, a curious priest decides to pickpocket the emperor and read his letter. Aghast at the emperor's order, the priest scrapes off the decree and writes instead that Henry should be married to the emperor's daughter. When the queen recieved the letter, she did as bid, and Henry was married and became the emperor's son-in-law anyway. The tale also notes that when Henry came to the throne, he banned all jugglers from his kingdom.

The Moral: you can't fight fate. There's clearly a lot going on in this tale, and it fits into the Heroic Biography tropes very well. Despite its checklist of fairy tale cliches, this story isn't up to scratch. There are a lot of unnecessary additions in the tale, and things that fail to add up even in fairy-tale land. Why would the priest read the emperor's mail, and wouldn't the queen recognize the change in handwriting? It seems that the only reason that Count Leopold is included is to provide Henry with some real noble blood, which cancels out the pauper-to-prince trope. Whatever this tale's moral, it seems to combine far too many tropes to provide a consistent story.

Story Rating: 5

The Gesta Romanorum continues to surprise with its weird retellings of history and even stranger morals.

Final Rating: 6.25

Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia! Searching for our sources? Read the Gesta Romanorum here, and check out our Library for more! Additional references for interested scholars (featuring the Leech's Corner papers):

  • Brennessel, Barbara, et al. “A Reassessment of the Efficacy of Anglo-Saxon Medicine.” Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 34, 2005. pp. 183–195. Link.

  • Cameron, M. L. "Anglo-Saxon Medicine and Magic." Anglo Saxon England, vol. 17, 1988. pp. 191-215. Link.

  • Kahrl, Stanley J. “Allegory in Practice: A Study of Narrative Styles in Medieval Exempla.” Modern Philology, vol. 63, no. 2, 1965, pp. 105–110. Link.

  • Marchalonis, Shirley. “Medieval Symbols and the ‘Gesta Romanorum.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 8, no. 4, 1974, pp. 311–319. Link.

  • The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints. Trans. William Granger Ryan. Princeton University Press, 2012. Link. (Alternative edition translated by William Caxton here.)

We do our best to accurately research, source, and cite the works we use, and make them available to you, too! Each episode has a corresponding blog post which includes further breakdowns of the big ideas in each text as well as cites our sources and references. We also have the Maniculum Library, which actively collects resources and recommendations for writers, scholars, and geeks alike! We update our collection of Master Lists after each new episode, so be sure subscribe and stay updated! Are we missing something? Let us know! We'd love to add more knowledge to our ever-growing compendium. Chat with us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Thanks for checking us out! If you like our content, please share it! If you want to support us, rate and review on iTunes, find us on Patreon, or buy us a coffee so we can keep making content you love.

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1 Comment

Adam Fuller
Adam Fuller
Jun 25, 2022

I want to suggest another threshold guardian for America...the Statue of Liberty. She fits all the criteria. She's located in a body of water in a liminal area between this case, the old world and the new world. Immigrants passing her were in a moment of transition between nationalities and often even names. Of course, the Statue of Liberty doesn't literally do the guarding (except against ghosts, I guess), but is strongly associated with Ellis island which _does_ fill that role of a challenge to be passed.

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