Episode 21: The Gesta Romanorum Pt. 3
Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Not to be outdone by our other texts, the Gesta Romanorum continues it's wild foray into ahistorical legends and poorly written exegesis. This week, we are taking a look at seven new tales, many of which play on ancient tropes you might recognize.
Tale 28: "On the Execrable Devices of Old Women"
No one in this tale gets to walk away without blame, including the translator. The story begins with a man departing for business and leaving his chaste wife without guard because he trusts her. (The fact he makes a comment on the matter reveals more about his perception of women, but we digress.) While the man is away, his wife is invited to a festival by a friend. Unfortunately, a young man at the festival became "violently enamoured" with her, and though he visited her, she scorned all his advances since she was chaste and committed to her husband.
The young man's desire was so powerful that his health declined, and he struggled for a solution. While on the way to church one day, an old crone in the guise of a holy, wise woman accosted him and demanded to know the reason for his ailings. The youth explained his situation, and the woman said that she could solve his longing.
The old woman fasted her dog for two days, and then presented the animal with a strong mustard bread that made the dog weep. After doing so, she went to the lady's home and was brought in since she had a local (though false) reputation as a wise woman. The lady inquired about the dog's tears, and the old woman exclaimed that the dog was in fact her daughter who had scorned a man's love. The young man died of heartbreak, and the young woman was cursed as a dog and mourned the rest of her days.
The lady, aghast at the prospect, told the woman she was in a similar situation, and asked her for advice. The old crone told the woman to give in to the young man and give him the love he desired, and so was the lady led into adultery.
Now, the tale in its origin ends here, but our Victorian translator seemed to feel it lacked an impactful ending. To fix this problem, he wrote in his own ending, wherein the husband returns home and kills his adulterous wife. While that end might better fit the general violence of the Gesta Romanorum's tales, the editor removed his addition since it was not true to the original.
Once more, we see medieval (and Victorian) representations of women as untrustworthy. Despite the young man's immoral desire, he is not blamed in the tale for tempting the woman; only the lady and the old woman shoulder the blame.
Final Rating: 7.5
Tale 29: "Of Corrupt Judgement"
This tale is short, sweet, and does include the violence we've come to expect of the Gesta Romanorum. The story begins with the decree of a certain emperor that any judge who apportioned a partial sentence would be punished for his indiscretion. A local judge, however, took a bribe and made a corrupt decision despite this new law. The emperor had him immediately flayed, and his skin was then nailed upon the judge's seat. The emperor gave the open position to the judge's son and made him sit upon the skin-chair as a permanent reminder of the consequences of flouting the law.
Final Rating: 7.5
Tale 37: "Of Lifting up the Mind to Heaven"
The Gesta claims that this obscure tale comes from Pliny, though it is not found anywhere in his works. However it was collected, the tale reads more like an Aesop's fable. It begins with an eagle who has set up her nest in a high tree, and a serpent called a Perna who sought to devour her eaglets. To kill the eagle, the snake emitted a torrent of poison - whether from its front or back, the text does not detail. However, the crafty eagle found an achates (an agate) and placed it within the nest, and the nest and her eaglets were safe from harm.
While this may seem an odd tale, it does demonstrate the medieval belief that stones were useful for protecting against and curing poisons.
Final Rating: 5
Tale 38: "Of the Precaution Necessary to Prevent Error"
This tale is recorded as taking place during Henry II's reign. But wait, wasn't this supposed to be during the Roman empire, we hear you ask. Why is there an English king? Not to worry; our text is referring to Henry II of the Holy Roman Empire, who lived during the 10th century. So while it's definitely a little off, our text is still technically within the bounds of a Roman empire.
In this story, a certain city is besieged by its enemies, and a dove arrives with a letter around its neck. The letter simply reads: "The generation of dogs is at hand, it will prove a quarrelsome breed, procure aid and defend yourselves resolutely against it." That's it. That's the tale. The exegesis argues that the bird is the Holy Spirit, but we feel they're really reaching here.
Final Rating: 5.5
Tale 42: "Of Want of Charity"
This story features Valerius Maximus, who lived during Tiberius' reign. Valerius records seeing a large column in Rome with four P's, four S's, four R's, and four F's inscribed upon it. He helpfully interprets this message as a prophecy, reading thus:
Pater Patriae Perditur.
The father of his country is lost
Sapientia Sicum Sustolitur.
Wisdom has departed with him.
Ruent Reges Romae.
The kings of Rome perish
Ferro Fama Flama.
by the sword, by fire, by famine.
The prediction, while obscure, apparently proved true. Lucky they had Valerius to interpret it.
Final Rating: 5
Tale 45: “Of the Good, who Alone will Enter the Kingdom of Heaven”
This story has an older origin than the Gesta Romanorum, going all the way back to the Babylonian Talmud and ancient oral tradition. In these versions, the wisdom-giver is usually King Solomon or a wise rabbi, though as the tale became Christianized, the figure changes. This story was popular through the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance, and is featured in a variety of art, as displayed below.
The tale begins with a wise king who had an unloving wife. The queen had three bastard sons by other men who were ungrateful and rebellious, but only one legitimate heir. When the king died, each son tried to claim the crown for himself. Rather than duke it out, the sons went to one of the king's knights for advice. The knight suggested they take the body of the king and shoot the corpse with a single arrow. Whosoever shoots nearest the king's heart would inherit the kingdom.
Finding this idea agreeable, the sons tied their father's body to a tree and shot toward him. The first son hit the king's hand. The second, his mouth. The third hit the king's heart. The fourth, however, lamented that it had come to this and refused to shoot his father's body. The nobles and population, hearing his lament (and who had apparently seen this spectacle), immediately elect him as their king and exile the other three sons.
The exegesis of this tale is unsurprising, but illustrates common Christian ideas of the time. The three bastard sons represent the pagans, Jews, and heretics, while the king is Christ. The pagans wound the hand of Christ through persecutions. The Jews wound the mouth of Christ through his crucifixion and by giving him vinegar to drink. The heretics wound the heart of Christ by deceiving the faithful. The fourth son, however, represents "any good Christian."
The Talmudic version of the tale is much less harrowing. In this version, a man overhears his wife talking to their daughter, telling her to be more subtle when she sleeps around, as she has only one legitimate son and nine bastards by her husband. The man, not wanting to apportion his property to his bastard sons, declares that his wealth go to his single legitimate son (though he does not know which one it is). When the man died, the matter came to Rabbi Bnaha, who suggested they knock on their father's grave and ask him to explain himself. The one son who did not participate won the inheritance.
Fascinatingly, the tale reveals more about Hebrew history than medieval tradition. Hebrews passed their inheritance so that the oldest son (or the first legitimate son) received two portions of inheritance while the remainder only received one. Further, this story demonstrates that the one son who did not knock on his father's grave was sure in his position; he did not need to verify his role with his dead father.
Final Rating: 7
Tale 44: "Of Envy"
Our final tale is more a curiosity than moral dilemma. It opens by framing Tiberius as a successful military commander, but a poor emperor which led him to receive the nickname "Bacchus." Sometime during the course of his reign, an artificer came to his court and presented him with a special type of glass. He challenged the emperor to break it, but Tiberius could not break it - the glass merely bent. When the emperor failed to break it, the artificer took a small hammer and bent the glass back into shape. Seeing this incredible resource, Tiberius had the artificer killed because he feared the repercussions such a product would have on the economy. The exegesis is likewise unsatisfactory: Tiberius is a rich man, and the artificer is a poor man who bestowed the rich man with an unacceptable gift.
Final Rating: 7
Overall, this mix of tales provides a good look into some odd medieval perspectives, and branches out from medieval tradition into older Hebrew tradition as well as including some interesting commentary from our Victorian translator.
Final Overall Rating: 6.36
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!
Stechow, Wolfgang. “‘Shooting at Father's Corpse.’” The Art Bulletin, vol. 24, no. 3, 1942, pp. 213–225.
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