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  • Writer's pictureZoe Franznick

Gesta Romanorum Pt. IV

Welcome back to the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of weird Roman folktales the medieval church decided to moralize! What strange lessons will we learn this time?

So for those of you who haven't listened to our previous episodes on this text, or don't remember because it's been a while the Gesta Romanorum is a collection of stories from various places over Europe, some of which are clearly originally folktales some of which are allegories, all of which have been assigned a a meaning through biblical exegesis by the compiler.

And it's like really thick exegesis, too. He tries really hard. You might have a really obvious analogy, you know, like the church is the bride of Christ and instead, he'll go off on a tangent like the church represents the dove which appeared over Christ's head and anointed him just so the church can anoint us. And it's like, whoa, we already had a metaphor that made sense. Stop it. Stop it. So he really reaches for these metaphors. Again, a lot of the stories in here are clearly not originally supposed to be metaphors. They're just stories. They're folktales.

Tale 46: Of Mortal Sins

So this is one that I don't think was originally a folktale. I think this is designed to be a metaphor. And you'll see why in addition to the fact that it's very short.

Julius relates that in the month of May a certain man into the grove in which stood seven beautiful trees and leaves the leaves so much attracted him that he collected more than he had strength to carry of leaves you know, as you do. You see pretty leaves you just gather like so many that you can't physically carry them. I think that has more to do with the you fill the bag too much rather than wait, but so I'm rather impressed that he's managed this deed.

Three men came to his assistance, who led away both the man and the load beneath which he labored. As they went out, he fell into a deep pit and the extreme weight upon his shoulders sank him to the very bottom.

So we're done with that story now. Don't go collecting leaves is the moral here.

I'll actually read the application this time where it explains the metaphor. Usually it's not really worth going over, but I'll read it in full: “My beloved, the grove is the world where in our mini trees pleasant indeed to the eye, but putting forth only mortal sins with these man loads himself. The three men who brought assistants are the devil, the world and the flesh. The Pit is hell.” They can make allegory out of anything. It's quite impressive.

Tale 53: “Of good rulers who are not to be changed.”

Maximus states that when all the Syracusans desired the death of Dionysus, King of Sicily, a single woman of great age prayed every morning to continue his life beyond hers. Dionysius, surprised at this solitary exception, inquired the reason, and she answered: “When I was a girl, and governed by a tyrant I wished for his removal, and presently we obtained a worse instead. Having got rid of him, or worse still succeeded. Therefore, under the justifiable apprehension that your place may be filled up by yet a worse I pray earnestly for your longer continuance.” Dionysius hearing this gave her no further trouble.

This also has a very, very short application, which I think is very indicative of the mentality of the people who compose this. My beloved, be not desirous of change. God is merciful and gracious, be content with His government.That has a lot of really bad implications, given that all of the rulers in this story are tyrants. What does that say about the nature of God? That's a really rough allegory.

Tale 56: “Of remembering death.”

A certain prince derive great pleasure from the chase. It happened on one occasion that a merchant accidentally pursued the same path, and observing the beauty and splendor of the prince, he said in his heart, “Oh, ye heavenly powers, that man has received too many favors. He is handsome, bold, and graceful, and even his very retinue are equipped with splendor and comfort.”

Under the impression of such feelings, he addressed himself to one of the attendants. “My friend,” he said, “tell me who your master is.”

“He is,” replied the other, “The despotic lord has an extensive territory. His treasury is filled with silver and gold, and his slaves are exceedingly numerous.”

“God has been bountiful to him,” said the merchant. “He is more beautiful than anyone I ever beheld. And he is as wise as any I have met with.”

Now the servant related to his the prince all that the merchant had said, and the prince besought the merchant to tarry there all night. When the merchant had entered the palace, the prodigious display of wealth, the number of beautiful halls, ornamented in every part with gold surprised and delighted him.

When suppertime approached in the merchant by express command of the prince was seated next to his wife. This honor and her beauty and gracious manner, so enraptured the poor tradesman that he secretly exclaimed, “Oh, heaven, the prince possesses everything that his heart wishes. He has a beautiful wife, fair daughters and brave sons. His family establishment is too extensive!”

But what was his consternation to observe that the meal placed before him was deposited in the skull of a human being. Horrorstruck at what he saw, the merchant said to himself, “Alas, I fear I shall lose my head in this place!”

The night passed on and he was shown into a bed chamber hung around with curtains and in one corner of the room several lights were burning. As soon as he had entered the door was fastened without and the merchant was left alone in the chamber, casting his eyes around him he distinguished in the corner where the light was, two dead men hanging by the arms from the ceiling. This shocking circumstance so agonized him that he was incapable of enjoying repose. In the morning he got up. “Alas,” cried he, “they will assuredly hang me by the side of these murdered wretches.”

When the prince had risen, he commanded the merchant to be brought into His presence. “Friend,” said he, “what portion of my family establishment best pleases you?”

The man answered, "I am well pleased with everything, my lord, except that my food was served to me out of a human head, a sight so sickening that I could touch nothing. And when I would have slept, my repose was destroyed by the terrific objects which were exhibited to me. And therefore for the love of God suffer me to depart!”

“Friend,” replied the prince, “the head out of which you were served, and which stood exactly opposite to my wife, my beautiful but wicked wife, is the head of a certain Duke, and I will tell you why it was there. He whom I have punished and so exemplary manner I perceived in the act of dishonoring my bed. Instantly prompted by an uncontrollable desire vengeance, I separated his head from his body to remind the woman of her shame. Each day, I command this memento to be placed before her in the hope that her repentance and punishment may equal her crime.”

And he goes on: “A son of the deceased to Duke slew two of my kindred whose bodies you observed hanging in the chamber which had been appropriated to you. Every day, I punctually visit their corpses to keep alive the fury which ought to animate me to revenge their deaths. And recalling the adultery of my wife and the miserable slaughter of my kindred, I feel that there is no joy reserved for me in this world. Now then go in peace and in future judge not at the life of any man until you know more of its true nature.”

The merchant gladly availed himself of the permission to depart and returned with greater satisfaction to the toils of traffic. And that's where the story ends.

And of course, this one has some allegories attached to it: my beloved, the Prince is intended to represent any good Christian. The adulterer is the devil, and we ought to cut off his head is to destroy our vices. The slain kinsmen of the prince our love to God and to our neighbor, which the sin of our first parent annihilated. The merchant is in a good prelate or confessor to whom the truth should always be exposed.

Tale 57: “Of perfect life.”

Oh, when Titus was emperor of Rome, he made the decrees that the natal day of his firstborn son should be held sacred, and that whosoever violated it by any kind of labor should be put to death. This edict being promulgated, he called Virgil, the learned man, also the Necromancer.

Note: Latin original says Magisterium Virgiliam, the master Virgil, signifying one skillful in the occult sciences, but where they get this idea that Virgil was some sort of magic wizard, man, we have no idea. We're going to have to figure that out.

Titus calls Virgil to him and says, “Good friend, I have established a certain law, but as offenses may frequently be committed without being discovered by the ministers of justice. I desire you to frame some curious piece of art which may reveal to me every transgressor of the law, every single one.”

Virgil replied, “Sire, your wills shall be accomplished.” He straightaway constructed a magic statute and caused it to be erected in the midst of the city. By virtue of the secret powers with which it was invested, it communicated to the emperor whatever offenses were committed and secret on that day.

Now, there was a certain carpenter called Focus, who pursued his occupation every day. Once, as he lay in bed, his thoughts turned upon the accusations of the statue, and the multitudes which it had cause to perish. In the morning he clothed himself and proceeded to the statue which he addressed in the following manner:

“Oh, statue, statue, because of thy informations, many of our citizens have been apprehended and slain. I vow to my God, that if thou accuses to me, I will break thy head.” Having so said, he returned home.

About the first hour, the emperor, as he was want, dispatched sundry messengers to the statue to inquire if the edict had been strictly complied with. The statue exclaimed, “Friends, look up what see ye written upon my forehead!”

They looked and beheld three sentences which ran thus: “Times are altered, men grow worse. He who speaks truth will have his head broken.”

“Go,” said the statue, “declare to His Majesty, what you have seen and read.” The messengers obeyed and detailed the circumstances as they had happened.

The emperor therefore committed his guard to arm and marched to the place on which the statue was erected. And he further ordered that if anyone presumed to molest it, they should bind him hand and foot and drag him into his presence.

The soldiers approached the statue and said, “Our emperor wills you to declare who have broken the law and who they were that threatened you.”

The statue made answer, “Focus the carpenter! Every day he violates the law and moreover, threatens me.”

Immediately Focus was apprehended and conducted to the emperor who said, “Friend, why dost thou break my law?”

“My lord,” answered Focus, “I cannot keep it, for I'm obliged to obtain every day eight pennies, which without incessant labor I have not the means of acquiring."

“And why eight pennies?” asked the emperor.

“Every day through the year,” returned the carpenter, “I am bound to repay two pennies which I borrowed in my youth, to I lend to I lose and to I spent. I am bound each day to repay two pennies to my father, for when I was a boy, my father expanded upon me daily the like sum. Now he is poor and needs my assistance. And therefore I returned what I borrowed, formerly two other pennies to my son, who is pursuing his studies in order that, if by any chance I should fall into poverty, he may restore the loan, just as I have done to his grandfather. Again, I lose two pennies every day on my wife, for she willful and passionate. I cannot do with less, nor can I obtain them without unremitting labor. You now know the truth and I pray you give a righteous judgment.”

“Friend,” said the emperor, “thou hast answered well. Go and labor earnestly.” Soon after this. The emperor died, and Focus the carpenter, on account of his singular wisdom, was elected in his stead by the unanimous choice of the whole nation. Focus the carpenter governed as wisely as he had lived. And at his death, his picture bearing on the head, eight pennies was deposited among the effigies of the deceased emperors.

Once again, the application is short. My beloved, the emperor is God, who appointed Sunday as a day of rest. By Virgil is typified the Holy Spirit, which ordains a preacher to declare man's virtues and vices. Focus is any good Christian who labors diligently in his vocation and performs faithfully every relative duty.

Tale 61: “Of reflection.”

The Emperor Claudius had an only daughter who was incomparably beautiful. As he lay in bed, he reflected seriously upon the best mode of disposing of her. “If,” he thought, “I should marry her to a rich fool, it will occasion her death. But if I bestow her upon a wise man, although he be poor, his own wit will procure him riches.”

There dwelt in the city a philosopher named Socrates, whom the king very greatly esteemed. (Note: we don't know if this is supposed to be THE Socrates, because that's obviously not at the same time as Claudius.)

This person was sent for and thus addressed, “My good friend, I designed to espouse you to my only daughter.” Socrates, overjoyed at their proposal expressed his gratitude as he best could. “But,” continued the emperor, "Take her with this condition, that if she die first, you shall not survive her.”

The philosopher assented, the nuptials were solemnized with great splendor, and for a length of time, their happiness was uninterrupted. But at last she sickened and her death was outwardly expected. This deeply afflicted Socrates, and he retired into a neighboring forest and gave free course to his alarm.

Whilst he was this occupied it chance that King Alexander the Great, hunted in the same forest, and that a soldier of his guard discerned the philosopher and rode up to him and asked who he was.

“I am,” replied he, “the servant of my master, and he who is the servant of my master, is the lord of thine.”

“Now,” cried the other, “there is not a greater person in the universe than he whom I serve. But since you are pleased to say otherwise, I will presently lead you to him, and we will hear who thy lord is.”

Accordingly, he was brought before Alexander. “Friend,” said the king, “concerning whom dost thou say that his servant is my master?”

The philosopher answered, “My master is reason.”

Alexander, wondering at the man's wit, candidly answered in the affirmative, and ever after ruled both himself and his kingdom by the laws of reason. Socrates, however, entered further into the forest and wept bitterly over the expected decease of his wife.

In the midst of his distress, he was accosted by an old man who inhabited that part of the wood. “Master,” said he, “why art thou afflicted?”

“Alas," answered the other, “I have espoused the daughter of an emperor upon the condition that if she die, I should die with her. She is now on the point of death, and my life, therefore will certainly be required.”

The old man answered: “Take my counsel and thou shalt be safe enough. Thy wife is of royal descent, so smear her breast with some of her father's blood, then do thou search in the depths of this forest, where thou wilt find three herbs. Of one of them, make a beverage and administer it to her the other to breast into a plaster and apply it to the afflicted part. If my instructions are exactly attended to she will be restored to perfect health.”

Socrates did as he was directed, and his wife presently recovered. When the Emperor knew how he had striven to find a remedy for his wife's disorder. He loaded him with riches and honors.

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 Romanorumhere, and check out our Library for more! Additional references for interested scholars :

  • Spargo, John Webster. Virgil the Necromancer: Studies in Virgilian Legends. Kissinger, 2004. Link

  • Lang, Andrew. "Virgilius the Sorcerer." The Violet Fairy Book. 1901. Link.

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!

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