Episode Three: The Gesta Romanorum, Pt. 1
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
This week, we dive into a strange collection of supposedly Roman folktales, each of which has a strange moral you probably won't see coming. With a strange cast of characters, the Gesta Romanorum surprises us with its pithy wisdom and over-the-top exegesis.
The Background: The Gesta Romanorum was an ahistorical collection of tales and folklore that was collected in the late 13th century. While it supposedly recalls the "Deeds of the Romans," most of these stories are ahistorical- they take place "once upon a time" during the reigns of lesser Roman emperors that are not given names. In essence, these are folktales that the compilers tried to give some historical credence by placing them in the late Roman empire. However, it is obvious that most of these tales are more contemporary or have earlier pagan origins that have been Christianized. The prominent role of clerical figures in these stories is incompatible with the historical Roman empire, as the Christian church had not yet developed that formally when these tales supposedly took place.
In addition to the heavy-handed ahistoricity of the Gesta Romanorum, each of its stories is accompanied by pages of Biblical exegesis, which expounds upon the moral lessons and significance of the characters in the story. The emperor figure signifies Christ, for instance, or a dog has four exemplary qualities that a priest should seek to embody. The victorian translator of our edition became so tired of translating the original Latin, he stopped translating the exegesis altogether!
This week, wee covered three tales, listed below.
Tale 12: "A Bad Example"
This tale is supposedly set in the reign of King Otho during the Year of the Four Emperors in 69 AD, but the Catholic church had not developed the priesthood fully at this time, so this is a clear example of the collection's ahistorical timekeeping.
The story tells how a certain parishioner did not like one of his local priests, who apparently was rather immoral and described as "the slippery priest." The parishioner routinely skipped mass when this priest was giving sermons. One day, as he was playing truant, the parishioner became extraordinarily thirsty. He found a pure stream of water to drink from, but the water did not quench his thirst. Deciding it was not enough, the man sought out the mouth of the stream.
As he looked for it, a mystical man dressed in fine raiment appeared to him, and asked why he was skipping church. This figure appears without explanation, and is most likely a fan or fairy figure from an earlier version of this tale, who was adapted to fit the more Christian moral. The parishioner explains his plight, and the mysterious stranger points out the stream's font, while admonishing the man for not attending mass.
The pure, clean water was coming from the mouth of a putrid corpse of a dog. The man is astonished, but drinks from it and his thirst is sated. The mysterious figure explains that just as this magic font spouts good water from an unclean source, so too should one still listen to a mass spoken by a "slippery priest" because the gospel is still worth imbibing. The mystery man disappears, and the tale concludes with the parishioner returning home and attending church as he ought.
The Moral: While this moral point might be both obvious and heavy-handed, it serves as an example of how the medievals perceived the universe; everything has a moral significance. How you dress, what you look like, and even what sort of birthmark you have all denote what sort of person you are. The dog's symbology also illustrates how many bestiaries were written; they tell you not only what a creature is, but also what it means. Such ideas were modeled off Aristotle's Great Chain of Being, which was an early taxonomy which eventually developed into our modern scientific taxonomy.
Tale 13: "Of Inordinate Love"
This tale begins wholesomely, but devolves very quickly into cursed territory. It begins with "a certain [unnamed] emperor" who was deeply in love with his wife. When his son was three years old, however, the king dies, and the queen is inconsolable in grief. Over time, she grew more and more attached to her son, who was the only remaining reminder of her husband, and the Devil with his "detestable solicitations" increased their love until the queen becomes pregnant by her now adult son. Upon hearing this, the young man is so shamed that he goes into exile and is never heard from again.
The queen, meanwhile, is likewise distraught. When she births a daughter, she immediately and graphically slits the child's throat. This is unusual; typically, in fairy tales, the child of nobility is not killed, but spirited away to later become a hero. The Gesta Romanorum allows the reader no such hopes. The blood splashes on her hand and sinks into her skin, leaving a blood sigil to mark her sin. The queen seeks penance, hides the mark with a glove, and enters the service of the Virgin Mary to be absolved.
One night, the local confessor priest has a vision of Mary, who tells him of the queen's sin. She will be absolved, Mary tells him, if she confesses her sin. When the queen comes to the priest the next day to confess, he entreats her to confess all her sins and asks her about the glove she wears. She claims it is diseased. When the queen fails to confess, the priest (rather abruptly and violently) tears her glove away, revealing the mark.
The mark turns out to include instructions on how to be rid of it, and once the queen confesses that she did kill her daughter and sleep with her son, the mark disappears and she is absolved. She then lives out the rest of her days lauded by her people and dies peacefully.
The Morals: don't sleep with your kids, and definitely don't kill them. If you do wind up with a blood sigil on your hand, don't try and hide it! The Maniculum Podcast's official stance states: if you find blood runes on your body, consult your local cleric and confess your sins. Also, check the rune for instructions- you could save yourself years of grief.
We have tried to recreate the blood sigil below, as it is described in the story and with its accompanying translation. We hope that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you can use this as a reference to be rid of any similar marks.
"Of the letter C: Blinded by the flesh thou hast fallen,
Of the letter D: The gifts that were bestowed upon thee thou hast given to the devil,
Of the letter M: The stain upon thy hand discovers thee,
Of the letter R: When the queen is interrogated the red marks will vanish."
Tale 18: "Of Venial Sin"
Our final tale begins immediately with all the relevant plot points. It opens by telling us that the protagonist of our story, Julian, will kill his parents and is addicted to"the sports of the field." One day, when Julian is out hunting, he is stopped by a deer which turns to him and tells him, quite clearly, that he will be the death of his parents. Julian is understandably alarmed and feels from the country.
Over time, he becomes a favored knight of the local king and gets married. Meanwhile, his parents are searching all over the world for him, since he presumably left without telling them what had happened. While he is away hunting again, Julian's parents arrive at his new home asking for him. His wife recognizes them from his descriptions of them. She welcomes them in with open arms and lets them stay in the master bedroom.
When his wife was at the chapel practicing her devotionals early the next morning, Julian arrived home and saw that there were two figures in his bed. Immediately thinking his wife was cheating on him, Julian drew his saber and slew the two sleeping figures. He charged out of the house in a blind rage, and ran into his wife on her way back from the church. Surprised to see her (since he had presumably just killed her), he asked who was staying in their bed. She explained to him that his parents had arrived, and she wanted to welcome them in style. Julian breaks down, realizing he has just unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy the deer had told him.
For penance, Julian opens a hospital with his wife. One night, he awakes to hear the voice of a crying leper from across the river. He ferries the leper over and tries to care for him, but the leper remains cold and poorly. To warm the leper, Julian invites him into his bed to help keep him warm. Overnight, the leper transforms into an angel with wings and tells Julian he is absolved from his sin. The angel foretells his wife's and his own death, and soon after, Julian dies and is canonized.
The Moral: don't believe what the deer tell you. Deer are not supposed to talk, and we advise that if you do come across a talking deer, you can disregard whatever it has to say. Additionally, seek medical help if you have severe anger issues, see talking deer, and are addicted to hunting. Clearly, it didn't work out for Julian, even though he became a saint in the end.
The Maniculum Podcast would like to note that we agree that Julian's wife, rather than Julian, ought to have been canonized for staying with her husband even after he tried to kill her for assuming he had cheated on her. She was a loyal wife, if co-dependent, and provides a much better example of Christian character than Julian, whose entire problem was that he listened to a talking deer.
The Gesta Romanorum definitely entertained us with its odd occurrences. Even if we took away a few different morals than its original compilers intended, we still think it's worth a read for it's educational (and entertainment) value.
Final Rating: 5.9
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!
Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church by Richard Firth Green
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