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Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of the Transgressions and Wounds of the Soul




In the reign of Titus there lived a certain noble and devout knight who had a beautiful wife; but she dishonoured herself, and persisted in her dishonour. The knight, therefore, was very sorrowful, and resolved to visit the Holy Land. In this determination, he said to his wife, "My beloved, I go to the Holy Land, and leave you to the guidance of your own discretion." No sooner had he embarked, than the lady sent for a certain skilful necromancer whom she loved; and he dwelt with her. It happened, that as they lay in bed, the lady observed, "If you would do one thing for me, I might become your wife." "What is it," replied he, "that will please you, and which I will not perform?"

"My husband is gone to the Holy Land, and loves me little; now, if by your art you could destroy him, all that I possess is yours." "I acquiesce," said the clerk, "but on condition that you marry me." To this the lady bound herself, and the necromancer fashioned an image under the similitude and name of the knight, and fixed it before him in the wall.

In the mean time, the knight having passed over to Rome, a wise master met him in the way, and observing him narrowly, said, "My friend, I have a secret to communicate."

"Well, master, what would you please to say?"

"This day you will die, unless you follow my advice: your wife is a harlot, and contrives your death." The soldier, hearing what was said of his spouse, put confidence in the speaker, and said, "Good master, save my life, and I will amply recompense you." "Willingly," answered the other, "if you will do as I shall tell you." The knight promised, and the master took him to a bath, undressed him, and desired him to bathe. Then putting into his hand a polished mirror, said, "Look attentively upon this, and you will see wonders." He did so, and the mean while, the master read to him from a book. "What see you?" he asked. "I see," said the knight, "a certain clerk in my house, with an image of wax which resembles me, and which he has fastened in the wall." "Look again," continued the master; "what do you perceive now?"

"He takes a bow, and places in it a sharp arrow; and now he aims at the effigy."

"As you love your life, the moment you discern the arrow flying to its mark, place yourself in the bath, and remain there, until I tell you to come out."

As soon, therefore, as the arrow quitted the string, he plunged his body into the water. This done, the master said, "Raise yourself, and look into the glass. What do you perceive now?" "The effigy is not struck, and the arrow is sticking by its side. The clerk appears much concerned." "Look in the glass once more" said the master, "and observe what he does." "He now goes nearer to the image, and refixes the arrow in the string in order to strike it."

"As you value your life, do as before."

Again the knight plunged his body into the water as the arrow flew; and then at the command of the master, resumed his inspection of the glass.

"The clerk makes great lamentation, and says to my wife, 'If the third time I do not strike the effigy, I shall lose my life.' Now he approaches it so near, that I think he cannot miss it."

"Take care," said the master, "as soon as you see him bend the bow, immerse your body, as I before told you." The knight watched attentively, and at the proper moment, plunged below the water. "Rise quickly, and look into the glass:" he did so, and laughed. "My friend," said the master, "why do you laugh?" "I observe," answered he, "very distinctly, that the clerk has missed the effigy, and that the arrow, rebounding, has entered his bowels, and destroyed him. My wife makes a hole under my bed, and there he is buried."

"Rise, then, dress yourself, and pray to God."

The knight returned sincere thanks for his life, and having performed his pilgrimage, journeyed toward his own home. His wife met and received him with much apparent pleasure. He dissembled for a few days, and then sending for her parents, said to them: "My dear friends, hear why I have desired your presence. This woman, your daughter and my wife, has committed adultery; and, what is worse, designed to murder me." The lady denied the accusation with an oath. The knight then began to relate the whole process of the affair; "And," he continued, "if you do not credit this, come and see where the clerk is buried." He then led them into the bed-chamber and dragged the body from its hiding-place. The judge was called, and sentenced her to be burnt; and her ashes to be scattered in the air. The knight soon afterwards espoused a beautiful virgin, by whom he had many children; and with whom he finished his days in peace. (10)


My beloved, the emperor is Christ; the knight is man, and the wife the flesh. To visit the Holy Land, is by good works to attain heaven. The wise master is a prudent confessor. The clerk is the devil, and the image represents human pride and vanity. The bath is confession; the glass, the Sacred Writings, which ward off the arrows of sin.



Note 10.Page 69.

"In Adam Davie's Gest, or romance of Alexander, Nectabanus, a king and magician, discovers the machinations of his enemies by embattling them in figures of wax. This is the most extensive necromantic operation of the kind that I remember, and must have formed a puppet-show equal to the most splendid pantomime.

Barons were whilome wise and good,
That this art well understood:

And one there was Nectabanus
Wise in this art, and malicious:
When king or earl came on him to war,
Quick he looked in the star;
Of wax made him puppéts,
And made them fight with bats[1]:
And so he learned, je vous dis,
Ay to quell his enemy,
With charms and with conjurisons[2]:
Thus he essayed the regiouns,
That him came for to assail,
In very manner of battaíle;
By clear candle in the night,
He made each one with other fight,
Of all manner of nations
That comen by ship or dromouns[3],
At the last of many londe
Kings thereof had great onde[4],
Well thirty[5] y-gathered beoth
And bespeaketh all his death,
King Philip of great thede[6],
Master was of that fede[7],

He was a man of mighty hand,
And with him brought of divers land,
Nine and twenty rich kings
To make on him bataylings[8]:
Nectabanus it understood;
Ychanged was all his mood;
He was afraid sore of harm:
Anon he did cast his charm,
His image he made anon,
And of his barons every one,
And afterward of his fone[9]
He made them together gone[10]
In a basin all by charm:
He saw on him fall the harm;
He saw fly of his baróns
Of all his land distinctions[11],
He looked, and knew in the star,
Of all these kings the great war.

"Afterwards he frames an image of the queen Olympias, or Olympia, while sleeping, whom he violates in the shape of a dragon.

"The lady lay upon her bed,
Covered well with silken web,

In a chaysel[12] smock she lay,
And in a mantle of douay[13];
Of the brightness of her face
All about shone the place,—
Herbs he took in an herber[14],
And stamped them in a mortar,
And wrung it in a box:
After, he took virgin wox[15],
And made a puppet of the queen,
His art-table he 'gan unwene[16];
The queen's name in the wax he wrote,
While it was some deal hot:
In a bed he did dight,
All about with candle-light,
And spread thereon of the herbis:
Thus charmed Nectanabus.
The lady in her bed lay
About midnight, ere the day,
Whiles he made conjuring,
She saw fly in her metyng[17]
She thought a dragon light;
To her chamber he made his flight,
In he came to her bower
And crept under her coverture."

"Theocritus, Virgil, and Horace, have left instances of incantations conducted by figures in wax. In the beginning of the last century, many witches were executed for attempting the lives of persons, by fabricating representations of them in wax and clay. King James the First, in his Dæmonologie, speaks of the practice as very common; the efficacy of which he peremptorily ascribes to the power of the devil[18]. His majesty's arguments, intended to prove how the magician's image operated on the person represented, are drawn from the depths of moral, theological, physical, and metaphysical knowledge. The Arabian magic abounded with these infatuations, which were partly founded on the doctrine of sympathy.

"But to return to the Gesta Romanorum. In this story one of the magicians is styled magister peritus, and sometimes simply magister. That is, a cunning man. The title magister in our universities has its origin from the use of this word in the middle ages. With what propriety it is now continued I will not say. Mystery, anciently used for a particular art[19], or skill in general is a specious and easy corruption of maistery or mastery, the English of the Latin magisterium, or artificium; in French maistrise, mestier, mestrie, and in Italian, magisterio, with the same sense[20]."—Warton.

"Niderus," says Heywood, (Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels, p. 475), "speaketh of one Œniponte, a most notorius witch, who, by making a picture of wax, and pricking it with needles in divers parts, and then burying it under the threshold of her neighbour's house, whom she much hated, she was tormented by such grievous and insufferable prickings in her flesh, as if so many needles had been then sticking at once in her body. But the image being found and burned, she was instantly restored to her former health and strength."

These kind of tales are innumerable, and appear to have been most implicitly believed.


  1. Clubs.
  2. Conjurations.
  3. Swift-sailing vessels. Gr. δρόμος. or from δρομάς a dromedary.
  4. "Jealousy or anger."—Warton.
  5. Near thirty; i.e. kings.
  6. Might.
  7. Feud.
  8. Battles.
  9. Foes.
  10. Go.
  11. Most distinguished.
  12. Qu. Choisel? i. e. choice.
  13. Kind of cloth.
  14. A receptacle for herbs.
  15. Wax.
  16. His table or book of art he began to unclose.
  17. "Dream."—Warton.
  18. Edit. 1603. 4to. B. ii. ch. iv. p. 44. et seq.
  19. For instance, "the art and mystery of printing."
  20. Chaucer calls his monk
    ——"fayre for the maistre,
    An out-rider that loved Venerie."—Prol. v. 165.
    and from many other instances which I could produce, I will only add, that the search of the Philosopher's Stone is called in the Latin Geber Investigatio Magisterii.