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Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of the avaricious Pursuit of Riches, which leads to Hell




A certain carpenter, residing in a city near the sea, very covetous and very wicked, collected a large sum of money, and placed it in the trunk of a tree[1], which he stationed by his fire-side, and which he never lost sight of. A place like this, he thought, no one could suspect; but it happened, that while all his household slept, the sea overflowed its boundaries, broke down that side of the building where the log was situated, and carried it away. It floated many miles from its original destination, and reached, at length, a city in which there lived a person who kept open house. Arising early in the morning, he perceived the trunk of a tree in the water, and thinking it would be of service to him, he brought it to his own home. He was a liberal kind-hearted man; and a great benefactor to the poor. It one day chanced that he entertained some pilgrims in his house; and the weather being extremely cold, he cut up the log for fire-wood. When he had struck two or three blows with the axe, he heard a rattling sound; and cleaving it in twain, the gold pieces rolled out in every direction. Greatly rejoiced at the discovery, he deposited them in a secure place, until he should ascertain who was the owner.

Now the carpenter, bitterly lamenting the loss of his money, travelled from place to place in pursuit of it. He came, by accident, to the house of the hospitable man, who had found the trunk. He failed not to mention the object of his search; and the host, understanding that the money was his, reflected whether his title to it were good. "I will prove," said he to himself, "if God will that the money should be returned to him." Accordingly, he made three cakes, the first of which he filled with earth; the second with the bones of dead men; and in the third, he put a quantity of the gold which he had discovered in the trunk. Friend," said he, addressing the carpenter, "we will eat three cakes, composed of the best meat in my house. Chuse which you will have." The carpenter did as he was directed; he took the cakes and weighed them in his hand, one after another, and finding that with the earth weigh heaviest, he chose it. "And if I want more, my worthy host," added he, "I will have that—" laying his hand upon the cake containing the bones. "You may keep the third cake yourself." "I see clearly," murmured the host, "I see very clearly that God does not will the money to be restored to this wretched man." Calling therefore, the poor and the infirm, the blind and the lame, and opening the cake of gold in the presence of the carpenter, to whom he spoke, "Thou miserable varlet; this is thine own gold. But thou preferredst the cake of earth, and dead men's bones. I am persuaded, therefore, that God wills not that I return thee thy money. Without delay, he distributed the whole amongst the paupers, and drove the carpenter away in great tribulation. (16)


My beloved, the carpenter is any worldly-minded man; the trunk of the tree denotes the human heart, filled with the riches of this life. The host is a wise confessor. The cake of earth is the world; that of the bones of dead men is the flesh; and that of gold is the kingdom of heaven.


  1. Truncus. Warton calls it a chest.


Note 16.Page 98.

A similar story is in the Decameron. "The king conducted him then into the great hall, where (as he had before given order) stood two great chests fast locked, and in the presence of all his lords, the king thus spake. 'Signior Rogiero, in one of these chests is mine imperial crown, the sceptre royal, the mound, and many more of my richest girdles, rings, plate, and jewels, even the very best that are mine: the other is full of earth only. Chuse one of these two, and which thou makest election of, upon my royal word thou shalt enjoy it.'"  Tenth day, Novel I.

In Gower's "Confessio Amantis" it again occurs, fol. 96.

"Anon he let two coffers make,
Of one semblance, of one make;
"His own hands that one chest
Of fine gold, and of fine perie[1],
The which out of his treasury
Was take, anon he filled full:
That other coffer of straw and mull[2],
With stones mened[3] he filled also,
Thus be they full both two."

As in the other stories the courtiers chuse the wrong casket; and

"Thus was the wise king excused,
And they left off their evil speech,
And mercy of the king beseech."

It may also be found in the LXV. Nov. of the Cento Novelle Antiche.

"The story, however, as it stands in Gower, seems to be copied from one which is told by the hermit Barlaam to King Avenamore, in the spiritual romance, written originally in Greek, about the year 800, by Joannes Damascenus, a Greek monk, and entitled, Barlaam and Josaphat. But Gower's immediate author, if not Boccace[4], was perhaps Vincent of Beauvais, who wrote about the year 1290, and who has incorporated Damascenus's history of Barlaam and Josaphat, who were canonised, into his Speculum Historiale. As Barlaam's fable is probably the remote, but original source, of Shakspeare's Caskets, in the Merchant of Venice[5], I will give the reader a translation of the passage in which it occurs, from the Greek original, never yet printed.

"'The king commanded four chests to be made: two of which were covered with gold, and secured by golden locks, but filled with rotten bones of human carcasses. The other two were overlaid with pitch, and bound with rough cords; but replenished with the most precious stones and exquisite gems, and with ointments of the richest odour. He called his nobles together, and placing these chests before them, asked which they thought the most valuable. They pronounced those with the golden coverings to be the most precious, supposing they were made to contain the crowns and girdles of the king. The two chests covered with pitch they viewed with contempt. Then said the king, I presumed what would be your determination: for ye look with the eyes of sense. But to discern baseness or value which are hid within, we must look with the eyes of the mind. He then ordered the golden chests to be opened, which exhaled an intolerable stench, and filled the beholders with horror[6].'

"In the Metrical Lives of the Saints, written about the year 1300, these chests are called four fates, that is, four vats or vessels."—Warton.

The historian goes on to observe, that the romantic legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, contains strong traces of oriental composition; and that it possibly originated with the monk whose name it bears; or at least, with "some devout and learned ascetic of the Greek church, and probably before the tenth century."


  1. Pearls.
  2. Rubbish.
  3. Accompanied.
  4. This is most probable.
  5. The immediate source of Shakspeare's "Merchant of Venice," will be found in the Introduction.
  6. MSS. Laud. c. 72. Bibl. Bodl. Compare Caxton's Golden Legende, fol. 393. b. and Surius Vita Sanctorum.