1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gesta Romanorum

GESTA ROMANORUM, a Latin collection of anecdotes and tales, probably compiled about the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th. It still possesses a twofold literary interest, first as one of the most popular books of the time, and secondly as the source, directly or indirectly, of later literature, in Chaucer, Gower, Shakespeare and others. Of its authorship nothing certain is known; and there is little but gratuitous conjecture to associate it either with the name of Helinandus or with that of Petrus Berchorius (Pierre Bercheure). It is even a matter of debate whether it took its rise in England, Germany or France. The work was evidently intended as a manual for preachers, and was probably written by one who himself belonged to the clerical profession. The name, Deeds of the Romans, is only partially appropriate to the collection in its present form, since, besides the titles from Greek and Latin history and legend, it comprises fragments of very various origin, oriental and European. The unifying element of the book is its moral purpose. The style is barbarous, and the narrative ability of the compiler seems to vary with his source; but he has managed to bring together a considerable variety of excellent material. He gives us, for example, the germ of the romance of “Guy of Warwick”; the story of “Darius and his Three Sons,” versified by Occleve; part of Chaucer’s “Man of Lawes’ Tale”; a tale of the emperor Theodosius, the same in its main features as that of Shakespeare’s Lear; the story of the “Three Black Crows”; the “Hermit and the Angel,” well known from Parnell’s version, and a story identical with the Fridolin of Schiller. Owing to the loose structure of the book, it was easy for a transcriber to insert any additional story into his own copy, and consequently the MSS. of the Gesta Romanorum exhibit considerable variety. Oesterley recognizes an English group of MSS. (written always in Latin), a German group (sometimes in Latin and sometimes in German), and a group which is represented by the vulgate or common printed text. The earliest editions are supposed to be those of Ketelaer and de Lecompt at Utrecht, of Arnold Ter Hoenen at Cologne, and of Ulrich Zell at Cologne; but the exact date is in all three cases uncertain.

An English translation, probably based directly on the MS. Harl. 5369, was published by Wynkyn de Worde about 1510–1515, the only copy of which now known to exist is preserved in the library of St John’s College, Cambridge. In 1577 Richard Robinson published a revised edition of Wynkyn de Worde, and the book proved highly popular. Between 1648 and 1703 at least eight impressions were issued. In 1703 appeared the first vol. of a translation by B. P., probably Bartholomew Pratt, “from the Latin edition of 1514.” A translation by the Rev. C. Swan, first published in 2 vols. in 1824, forms part of Bonn’s antiquarian library, and was re-edited by Wynnard Hooper in 1877 (see also the latter’s edition in 1894). The German translation was first printed at Augsburg, 1489. A French version, under the title of Le Violier des histoires romaines moraliséz, appeared in the early part of the 16th century, and went through a number of editions; it has been reprinted by G. Brunet (Paris, 1858). Critical editions of the Latin text have been produced by A. Keller (Stuttgart, 1842) and Oesterley (Berlin, 1872). See also Warton, “On the Gesta Romanorum,” dissertation iii., prefixed to the History of English Poetry; Douce, Illustrations of Shakespeare, vol. ii.; Frederick Madden, Introduction to the Roxburghe Club edition of The Old English Versions of the Gesta Romanorum (1838).