This is a charming book, giving the kernel of many fictions that have been known throughout the nations in its primitive simplicity. The nature of the book is thus indicated in the preliminary dialogue:
“I am looking for a copy of the Gesta Romanorum with the idea of reading some of its amusing stories during our afternoon sittings.”
“Any thing but those Romans; it is bad enough to have read and believed all that Livy wrote from his Sucking Wolf to his Capitol Goose, and then to have a shrewd German prove that Kings were not Kings, and consuls not consuls, just when you are beginning to think you really do know something about your Roman History.”
“You will have but little of Roman History: the title of the book but ill agrees with its contents; fables of all climes contribute their share in the formation of this singular composition. The majority of the tales are entirely unconnected with the History of Rome, though the writer, in order to, in some manner, cover this deviation from his title, has taken care to preface almost every story with the name of some Emperor, who in most cases never existed, and sometimes has little to do with the incidents of the narrative.”
“To whom, most learned antiquary, are we indebted for this very stout volume?”
“To the imagination, knowledge, and literary labor of the Monks of the Middle Ages. In the refectory, while the Monks ate their meals, one, the youngest generally of the party, read from some such collection as this, a tale at once amusing and instructive. Nor was the use of these fables confined to the refectory. The success which has always attended instruction by fables, and the popularity consequent on this mode of teaching, led the Monks to use this medium to illustrate their public discourses, as well as for their own daily relaxation.”
The dialogue which connect these tales is heavily written, and contains little of interest. If the monks were obliged to cloak the pleasure they took in inventions of human interest by wrenching from them some theological meaning; that is no reason we should trouble ourselves with all that false and tedious part, which they could never have remembered.
It is always a mistake to force a meaning from any tale. As long as it is to your mind a piece of life, it exercises a living influence. A correct picture from Nature is always instructive in proportion to the power of the mind which looks on it to receive instruction, but the attempt of any one person to get from it a formal moral for all, is distasteful and dissuades from a natural surrender to the charm of the facts. Accordingly, children, those wise readers, always skip the moral; and let not grown-up pedants believe they, on that account, fail of the genuine benefit of the tales!
These tales before us are doubly interesting, first from their own simple utterance of common feelings, of the aspirations, the knowledge and the prejudices of an early age; and as the suggestion of the full creations of mighty geniuses, who looked upon the truth through the facts as the eye of a penetrating man reads the destiny of the child in its little careless pranks. It is very interesting to go back to the originals of Hamlet, Lear, and the Merchant of Venice; Hamlet is not among the narratives in this book, but the original of Shriller’s Frivoling is.
The story of Sir Guido is deeply affecting, from its religious tenderness, and the illustration if affords of the painful asceticism to which Christianity has sometimes tended. The crusader let the cross press too hard upon his breast till it destroyed the natural motions of his heart. Guido, not content with leaving his bride to many years of loneliness in the flower of life and hope, after performing every self-imposed duty, returns to live near her and his child without making himself known to them.
Seven years have passed since Guido left his castle and sailed for the Holy Land. Day after day did Felicia minister to the poor, and bestow alms on every applicant with this one request, that they would pray for the safety of her husband, Sir Guido, and that once more before her death she might rejoice in his presence. Felicia stood at her castle gate, and the inner court-yard was filled with her poor pensioners. One by one, she accosted them, and bade her almoner give to each his accustomed alms. Her young son ran by his mother’s side.
“Mother, dear mother,” said the child, as he heard Felicia commend Sir Guido to the prayers of the poor men; “Is it not my father, for whom you ask these poor people to pray?”
“Yes, my child; seven years have passed since he left me: but a few months had we been married, before God summoned him to the Holy Land, and he took the cross, and went against the Infidel.”
As she thus spoke to her son, Felicia drew nigh to a tall Pilgrim, who stood apart from the rest of the poor people. She gave him the alms, and asked of him his prayers for her husband’s return; low bowed the pilgrim his head, but not a word did he speak, as the lady passed onward. Her son followed after Felicia: as he passed the Pilgrim, he bowed himself forward and embraced the youth.
“God give thee grace,” said he with a trembling voice, “God give thee grace to do his will.”
“Thanks, father, for thy blessing,” said Felicia; “can I do aught to reward thy good wishes?”
“Lady,” said the Pilgrim in a low stifled voice, “I crave the small hermitage below the eagle’s rock; there let me live and die.
“Ha!” exclaimed Felicia, “the eagle’s rock; art thou of this place, good father, that thou knowest the name so well?”
“I was of thy people once, fair lady; now I am God’s poor servant.”
“Be it as thou desirest; go, father, and pray for this house and its long-lost master.”
Those who could see the Pilgrim’s face could see the tears start in his eyes, as he accepted Felicia’s gift and turned toward his lonely hermitage. Many years did he live there, many a time did he come to the castle-yard, and there, many a time did he talk to him of adventures of knights in the Holy Land, of those that had fallen fighting for the sepulchre, and those who had passed through the fiery ordeal of that expedition. At last death came upon him.
“Dear boy,” said he to Sir Guido’s son, “take this ring to thy mother, and bid her if she would see me ere I die, come hither quickly.”
“Mother, dear mother,” said the youth, when he entered Felicia’s chamber, “the good Pilgrim is sorely ill; he sends you this ring, and bids you see him ere he die.”
Felicia cast once look upon the ring. “Haste, haste, my child,” she exclaimed, it is my lord’s, your father’s ring; come, come to the forest.”
Quickly as she rushed to the hermitage, she found but the dead body of her husband.
“Wo, wo is me!” she exclaimed, casting herself on the cold corpse, “wo, wo is me! where are now my alms? My husband asked charity of me, and I knew him not; thy father talked with thee, my child, he embraced thee, and thou knewest him not; O Guido! thou didst look upon thy wife, and didst not tremble; thou didst look upon thy child, and kissed him, and blessed him; alas! alas! my husband.”
And by such denial of the purest natural feelings saintly men thought the kingdom of Heaven might best be won!
We annex the story of Jovinian, which is very celebrated and one of permanent beauty.*
IN the days of old, when the empire of the world was in the hands of the lord of Rome, Jovinian was Emperor. Oft as he lay on his couch, and mused upon his power and his wealth, his heart was elated beyond measure, and he said within himself, “Verily, there is no other god than me.”
It happened one morning after he had thus said unto himself, that the Emperor arose, and summoning his huntsmen and his friends, hastened to chase the wild deer of the forest. The chase was long and swift, and the sun was high in the Heavens, when Jovinian reined up his horse on the bank of a clear bright stream that ran through the fertile country on which his palace stood. Allured by the refreshing appearance of the stream, he bade his attendants abide still, whilst he sought a secluded pool beneath some willows, where he might bathe unseen.
The Emperor hastened to the pool, cast off his garments, and reveled in the refreshing coolness of the waters. But whilst he thus bathed, a person like to him in form, in feature, and in voice, approached the river’s bank, arrayed himself unperceived in the imperial garments, and then sprang on Jovinian’s horse, and rode to meet the huntsmen, who, deceived by the likeness and the dress, obeyed his commands, and followed their new Emperor to the palace-gates.
Jovinian at length quitted the water, and sought in every direction for his apparel and his horse, but could not find them. He called aloud upon his attendants, but they heard him not, being already in attendance on the false Emperor. And Jovinian regarded his nakedness and said, “Miserable man that I am! to what a state am I reduced! Whether shall I go? Who will receive me in this plight? I bethink me there is a knight hereabout whom I have advanced to great honor; I will seek him, and with his assistance regain my palace, and punish the person who has done me this wrong.”
Naked and ashamed, Jovinian sought the gate of the knight’s castle, and knocked loudly at the wicket.
“Who art thou, and what dost thou seek?” asked the porter, without unclosing the gate.
“Open, open, sirrah!” replied the Emperor, with redoubled knocks on the wicket.
“In the name of wonder, friend, who art thou?” said the old porter as he opened the gate, and saw the strange figure of the Emperor before the threshold.
“Who am I, askest thou, sirrah? I am thy Emperor. Go tell thy master, Jovinian is at his gate, and bid him bring forth a horse and some garments, to supply those I have been deprived of.”
“Rascal,” rejoined the porter—thou the Emperor! Why the Emperor but just now rode up to the castle, with all his attendants, and honored my master by sitting with him at meat in the great hall. Thou the Emperor! a very pretty Emperor indeed; faugh, I’ll tell my master what you say, and he will soon find out whether you are mad, drunk, or a thief.”
The porter, greatly enraged, went and told his lord how that a naked fellow stood at the gate, calling himself the Emperor and demanding clothes and a good steed.
“Bring the fellow in,” said the knight.
So they brought Jovinian, and he stood before the lord of the castle, and again declared himself to be the Emperor Jovinian. Loud laughed the knight to the Emperor.
“What thou my lord the Emperor? art mad, good fellow? Come, give him my old cloak, it will keep him from the flies.”
“Yes, sir knight,” replied Jovinian, “I am thy Emperor, who advanced thee to great honor and wealth, and will shortly punish thee for thy present conduct.”
“Scoundrel!” said the knight,, now enraged beyond all bounds, “traitor! thou the Emperor; ay, of beggars and fools. Why, did not my lord but lately sit with me in my hall, and taste of my poor cheer? and did not he bid me ride with him to his palace-gate, whence I am but now returned? Fool, I pitied thee before, now I see thy villainy. Go, turn the fellow out, and flog him from the castle-ditch to the riverside.”
And the people did as the knight commanded them. So when they ceased from flogging the Emperor, he sat him down on the grass, and covered him with the tattered robe, and communed on his own wretchedness.
“Oh, my God!” said Jovinian,—for he now thought of other gods but himself,—is it possible that I have come to such a state of misery, and that through the ingratitude of one whom I have raised so high!” And as he thus spake, he thought not of his own ingratitude to his God, through whom alone all princes reign and live. And now he brooded over vengeance—“Ay,” said he, as he felt the sore weals on his back from the scourging; “ay, I will be avenged. When he next sees me, he shall know that he who gives can also take away. Come, I will seek the good duke, my ablest counselor; he will know his soverign, and gladly aid him in his calamity.” And with these thoughts he wrapped his cloak round him, and sought the house of the good duke.
Jovinian knocked at the gate of the duke’s palace, and the porter opened the wicket, and seeing a half-naked man, asked him why he knocked, and who he was.
“Friend,” replied the Emperor, “I am Jovinian. I have been robbed of my clothes while bathing, and am now with no apparel, save this ragged cloak, and no horse; so tell the duke the Emperor is here.”
The porter, more and more astonished at the Emperor’s words, sought his master, and delivered Jovinian’s message to him.
“Bring in the poor man,” said the duke; “peradventure he is mad.”
So they brought Jovinian unto the duke’s great hall, and the duke looked on him, but knew him not. And when Jovinian reiterated his story, and spoke angrily unto the Duke, he pitied him. “Poor mad fellow,” said the Duke, “I have but just returned from your palace, where I left the very Emperor thou assumest to be. Take him to the guard-house. Perhaps a few days’ close confinement on bread and water may cool his heated brain. Go, poor fellow; I pity thee!”
So the servants did as their lord commanded, and they fed Jovinian on bread and water, and after a time turned him out of the castle; for he still said he was the Emperor.
Sorely and bitterly did the Emperor weep and bewail his miserable fate, when the servants drove him from the castle-gate. “Alas, alas!” he exclaimed in his misery, “what shall I do, and whither shall I resort? Even the good duke knew me not, but her regarded me as a poor madman. Come, I will seek my own palace, and discover myself to my wife. Surely she will know me at least.”
“Who art thou, poor man?” asked the King’s porter of him when he stood before the palace-gate and would have entered in.
“Thou oughtest to know me,” replied Jovinian, “seeing thou hast served me these fifteen years.”
“Served you, you dirty fellow,” rejoined the porter. I serve the Emperor. Serve you indeed!”
“I am the Emperor. Dost thou not know me? Come, my good fellow, seek the Empress, and bid her, by the sign of the three moles on the Emperor’s breast, send me hither the imperial robes, which some fellow stole whilst I was bathing.”
“Ha ha!” fellow; well, you are royally mad. Why the Emperor is at dinner with his wife. Well, well, I’ll do thy bidding, if it be but to have the whipping of thee afterwards for an impudent madman. Three moles on the Emperor’s breast! how royally thou shalt be beaten, my friend.”
When the porter told the Empress what the poor madman at the gate had said, she held down her head, and said, with a sorrowful voice, unto her lord, “My good lord and king, here is a fellow at the palace-gate that hath sent unto me, and bids me, by those secret signs known only to thou and me, to send him the imperial robes, and welcome him as my husband and sovereign.”
When the fictitious Emperor heard this, he bade the attendants bring in Jovinian. And lo, as he entered the hall, the great wolf-hound, that had slept at his feet had slept for years, sprang from his lair, and would have pulled him down, had not the attendants prevented him; whilst the falcon, that had sat on his wrist in many a fair day’s hawking, broke her jesses, and flew out of the hall: so changed was Jovinian the Emperor.
“Nobles and friends,” said the new Emperor, “hear ye what I will ask of this man.”
And the nobles bowed assent, whilst the Emperor asked of Jovinian his name, and his business with the Empress.
“Askest thou me who I am, and wherefore I am come?” rejoined Jovinian. “Am not I thy Emperor, and the lord of this house and this realm?”
“These our nobles shall decide,” replied the King. “Tell me now, which of us twain is your Emperor?”
And the nobles answered with one accord: “Thou dost trifle with us, sire. Can we doubt that thou art our Emperor, whom we have known from his childhood? As for this base fellow, we know not who he is.”
And with one accord the people cried out against Jovinian that he should be punished.
On this the usurper turned to the Empress of Jovinian—“Tell me,” said he, “on thy true faith, knowest thou this man who calls himself Emperor of this realm?”
And the Empress answered, “Good my lord, have not thirty years passed since I first knew thee, and became the mother of our children? Why askest thou me of this fellow? and yet it doth surprise me how he should know what none save you and I can know?”
Then the usurper turned to Jovinian, and with a harsh countenance rebuked his presumption and ordered the executioners to drag him by the feet by horses until he died. This said he before all the court; but he sent his servant to the jailor, and commanded him to scourge Jovinian; and for this once to set him free.
The deposed Emperor desired death. “Why,” said he to himself, “should I now live? my friends, my dependents, yea, even the partner of my bed shuns me, and I am desolate among those whom my bounties have raised. Come, I will seek the good priest to whom I so often have laid open my most secret faults: of a surety, he will remember me.”
Now, the good priest lived in a small cell, nigh to a chapel about a stone’s cast from the palacegate: and when Jovinian knocked, the priest being engaged in reading, answered from within—“Who is there? why troublest thou me?”
“I am Emperor Jovinian; open the window, I would speak to thee,” replied the fugitive.
Immediately the narrow window of the cell was opened, and the priest, looking out, saw no one save the poor, half-clothed Jovinian. “Depart from me, thou accursed thing,” cried the priest: “thou art not our good Lord the Emperor, but the foul fiend himself, the great tempter.”
“Alas, alas!” cried Jovinian, “to what fate am I reserved, that even my own good priest despises me! Ah, me, I bethink me—in the arrogance of my heart, I called myself a god: the weight of my sin is grievous unto me. Father, good father, hear the sins of a miserable penitent.”
Gladly did the priest listen to Jovinian; and when he had told him all his sins, the good priest comforted the penitent, and assured him of God’s mercy, if his repentance was sincere. And so it happened that on this a cloud seemed to fall from before the eyes of the priest; and when he again looked on Jovinian, he knew him to be the Emperor, and he pitied him, clothing him with such poor garments as he had, and went with him to the palace-gate.
The porter stood in the gateway, and, as Jovinian and the priest drew near, he made a lowly obeisance and opened the gate for the Emperor. “Dost thou know me?” asked the Emperor.
“Very well, my Lord,” replied the servant; but I wish that you had not left the palace.”
So Jovinian passed on to the hall of his palace; and as he went, all the Nobles rose and bowed to the Emperor; for the Usurper was in another apartment, and the Nobles knew again the face of Jovinian.
But a certain knight passed into the presence of the false Emperor. “My Lord,” said he, “there is one in the great hall to whom all men bow, for he so much resembleth you that we know not which is the Emperor.”
Then said the Usurper to the Empress—“Go and see if you know this man.”
“Oh! my good Lord,” said the Empress, when she returned from the hall, “whom can I believe? are there, then, two Jovinians?”
“I will go myself and determine,” rejoined the Usurper, as he took the Empress by her hand, and, leading her into the great hall, placed her on the throne beside himself.
“Kinsfolk and Nobles,” said the Usurper, “by the oaths ye have sworn, determine between me and this man.”
And the Empress answered—“Let me, as in duty bound, speak first. Heaven be my witness, I know not which is my lord and husband.”
And all the Nobles said the same.
Thereupon the feigned Jovinian rose and spake:—“Nobles and friends, hearken! that man is your Emperor and your master; hear ye him; know that he did exalt himself above that which was right, and make himself equal unto God. Verily he hath been rewarded; he hath suffered much indignity and wrong, and, of God’s will, ye knew him not; he hath repented him of his grievous sin, and the scourge is now removed; he has made such satisfaction as man can make. Hear ye him, know him, obey him.”
As the feigned Emperor thus addressed the astonished Nobles, his features seemed illumined with a fair and spiritual light, his imperial robes fell from off him, and he stood confessed before the assembly an angel of God, clothed in white raiment. And, as he ended his speech, he bowed his head, and vanished from their sight.
Jovinian returned to his throne, and for three years reigned with so much mercy and justice, that his subjects had no cause to regret the change of their Emperor. And it came to pass, after the space of three years, the same angel appeared to him in a dream, and warned him of his death. So Jovinian dictated his troubled life to his Secretaries, that it might remain as a warning unto all men against worldly pride, and an indictment to the performance of our religious duties. And when he had so done, he meekly resigned himself, and fell asleep in death.
“Select Tales from the Gesta Romanorum . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 31 May 1845, p. 1.