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Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of remembering Death, and forgetting Things temporal




There was an image in the city of Rome, standing in an erect posture with the dexter hand outstretched; and upon the middle finger was written, "Strike here." The image stood a long time in this manner, and no one understood what the inscription signified. It was much wondered at, and commented on; but this was all, for they invariably departed as wise as they came. At last, a certain subtle clerk, hearing of the image, felt anxious to see it; and when he had done so, he observed the superscription, "Strike here." He noticed, that when the sun shone upon the image, the outstretched finger was discernible in the lengthened shadow. After a little consideration, he took a spade, and where the shadow ceased, dug to the depth of about three feet. This brought him to a number of steps, which led into a subterranean cavity. Not a little exhilarated with his discovery, the clerk prosecuted the adventure. Descending the steps, he entered the hall of a magnificent palace, in which he perceived a number of persons seated at table, and the hall itself filled with men. They were all habited in costly apparel; and kept the most rigid silence. Looking about, he beheld, in one corner of the place, a polished stone, called a carbuncle, by the single aid of which the hall was enlighted. In the opposite corner, stood a man armed with a bow and arrow, in the act of taking aim at the precious stone. Upon his brow was inscribed, "I am what I am: my shaft is inevitable; nor can yon luminous carbuncle escape its stroke." The clerk, amazed at what he saw, entered the bed-chamber, and found a multitude of beautiful women arrayed in purple garments, but not a sound escaped them. From thence he proceeded to the stables; and observed a number of horses and asses in their stalls. He touched them, but they were nothing but stone. He visited all the various buildings of the palace, and whatever the heart could desire, or the imagination picture, was to be found there. Returning to the hall, he thought of making good his retreat. "I have seen wonders to-day," said he to himself, "but nobody will credit the relation, unless I carry back with me some incontrovertible testimony." Casting his eyes upon the highest table, he beheld a quantity of golden cups and beautiful knives, which he approached, and laid his hands upon one of each, designing to carry them away. But no sooner had he placed them in his bosom, than the archer struck the carbuncle with the arrow, and shivered it into a thousand atoms. Instantly, the whole building was enveloped in thick darkness, and the clerk, in utter consternation, sought his way back. But being unable, from the intricacy of the passages, or from some other cause, to discover it, he perished in the greatest misery, amid the mysterious statues of the palace. (14)


My beloved, the image is the devil: the clerk is any covetous man, who sacrifices himself to the cupidity of his desires. The steps by which he descends are the passions. The archer is death; the carbuncle is human life, and the cup and knife are worldly possessions.



Note 14.Page 90.

"Spencer, in the 'Faerie Queene,' seems to have distantly remembered this fable, where a fiend expecting Sir Guyon, will be tempted to snatch some of the treasures of the subterraneous House of Richesse, which are displayed in his view, is prepared to fasten upon him.

Thereat the fiend his gnashing teeth did grate,
And grieved so long to lack his greedy prey,
For well he weened that so glorious bait
Would tempt his guest to take thereof assay:
Had he so done, he had him snatched away
More light than culver in the falcon's fist."

B. ii. C. viii. 34.

"This story was originally invented of Pope Gerbert, or Sylvester the Second, who died in the year 1003. He was eminently learned in the mathematical sciences, and on that account was styled a magician. William of Malmesbury is, I believe, the first writer now extant by whom it is recorded; and he produces it partly to shew that Gerbert was not always successful in those attempts which he so frequently practised to discover treasures hid in the earth, by the application of romantic arts. I will translate Malmesbury's narration of this fable, as it varies in some of the circumstances, and has some heightening of the fiction.

"'At Rome there was a brazen statue, extending the fore-fingers of the right hand; and on its forehead was written Strike here. Being suspected to conceal a treasure, it had received many bruises from the credulous and ignorant in their endeavours to open it. At length Gerbert unriddled the mystery. At noon-day, observing the reflection of the fore-finger on the ground, he marked the spot. At night he came to the place, with a page carrying a lamp. There, by a magical operation, he opened a wide passage in the earth; through which they both descended, and came to a vast palace. The walls, the beams, and the whole structure, were of gold; they saw golden images of knights playing at chess, with a king and queen of gold at a banquet, with numerous attendants in gold, and cups of immense size and value. In a recess was a carbuncle, whose lustre illuminated the whole palace; opposite to which stood a figure with a bended bow. As they attempted to touch some of the rich furniture, all the golden images seemed to rush upon them, Gerbert was too wise to attempt this a second time: but the page was bold enough to snatch from the table a golden knife of exquisite workmanship. At that moment all the golden images rose up with a dreadful noise; the figure with the bow shot at the carbuncle; and a total darkness ensued. The page then replaced the knife, otherwise they both would have suffered a cruel death.'

"Malmesbury afterwards mentions a brazen bridge, framed by the enchantments of Gerbert, beyond which were golden horses of gigantic size, with riders of gold, richly illuminated by the most serene meridian sun. A large company attempt to pass the bridge, with a design of stealing some pieces of the gold. Immediately the bridge rose from its foundations, and stood perpendicular on one end: a brazen man appeared from beneath it, who struck the water with a mace of brass, and the sky was overspread with the most horrible gloom. Gerbert, like some other necromancers of the gothic ages, was supposed to have fabricated a brazen head under the influence of certain planets, which answered questions. But I forbear to suggest any more hints for a future collection of Arabian tales. I shall only add Malmesbury's account of the education of Gerbert, which is a curious illustration of what has often been inculcated in these volumes, concerning the introduction of romantic fiction into Europe.

"'Gerbert, a native of France, went into Spain for the purpose of learning astrology and other sciences of that cast, of the Saracens; who, to this day, occupy the upper regions of Spain, They are seated in the metropolis of Seville; where, according to the customary practice of their country, they study the arts of divination and enchantment. Here Gerbert soon exceeded Ptolemy in the astrolabe, Alchind in astronomy, and Tulius Firmicus in fatality. Here he learned the meaning of the flight and language of birds, and was taught how to raise spectres from hell. Here he acquired whatever human curiosity has discovered for the destruction or convenience of mankind. I say nothing of his knowledge in arithmetic, music, and geometry, which he so fully understood, as to think them beneath his genius, and which he yet, with great industry, introduced into France, where they had been long forgotten. He certainly was the first who brought the algorithm from the Saracens, and who illustrated it with such rules as the most studious in that science cannot explain. He lodged with a philosopher of that sect.' "—Warton.