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Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of the wonderful Dispensations of Providence, and of the rise of Pope Gregory





The emperor Marcus had an only son and daughter, to whom he was extremely attached. When he was much advanced in years, he was seized with a grievous sickness; and seeing his end approach, summoned into his presence the chief nobles of his empire. "My friends," said he, "know that this day my spirit will return to the God who gave it. All my concern resides in an only daughter, whom I have not yet bestowed in marriage. Therefore, do thou, my son and heir, upon my blessing, provide for her an honourable and befitting husband; and as long as thou livest, value her as thine own self." Saying these words, he turned toward the wall, and his spirit fled. The state made great lamentation, and interred him with much magnificence.

The young emperor commenced his reign with great wisdom, and in all that related to his sister, strictly fulfilled his father's dying injunction. He seated her in the same chair with him at table, and assigned to her a separate couch in the same apartment that he occupied himself. Here began their unhappiness. Tempted by the devil he gave way to the most horrible desires; and finally, in spite of the pleading of the wretched girl, violated every law both human and divine. Her tears, if tears could have retrieved the ignominy, had been enough: she wept bitterly, and refused all comfort; although the emperor attempted to console her, and evinced the excess of grief and love. About the middle of the year, as they sat at table, the brother narrowly scrutinized his sister's looks. "My beloved sister," said he, "why dost thou change colour? the upper part of thine eyelids darken." "No wonder," she returned, "for I bear the weight of thy most fearful wickedness." Hearing this, the emperor felt his spirit sink within him, and turning round, wept very bitterly—"Perish," said he, "the evil day that I was born; what is to be done?" "My brother," said the lady, "hear me; we are not, alas! the first who have grievously offended God. There is, as you well know, a certain ancient knight, one of the most approved counsellors of our late father: call him hither, and, under the seal of confession, let us tell him the whole sad story." The emperor assented—"but," said he, "let us study in the first place to be reconciled to God." They were then both confessed, and their contrition was perfect as sincere. Afterwards sending for the knight, they revealed, amid a flood of tears, their crime. "My lord," he replied, "that ye may be reconciled to God, hear what I counsel. As well for your own sins, as for the sins of your father, hasten to the Holy Land; and before you embark, call together the noblemen of the kingdom, and explain to them your intent. And because your sister is your only heir, charge them to be obedient to her. Then, turning to me, command that she be placed under my custody; and that, as I value my life, she be securely and happily lodged. I will so provide, that her parturition be kept secret, and every one remain ignorant of her fate—unless, indeed, my wife be made acquainted with it, in order to wait upon her in her necessity." "You counsel well," rejoined the king, "and I will do as you have said."

Immediately the noblemen were summoned, and preparations made for the emperor's departure to the Holy Land. His sister was conveyed to the knight's castle; and when his wife beheld her she enquired, very naturally, whom he had brought. He answered, "The king's sister; but wife! swear to me by all that thou boldest sacred, on penalty of thy life, never to communicate to a living soul that which I am about to impart." She swore accordingly; and the knight then informed her of the situation of the lady, and his desire that no one might attend her but herself. The obedient spouse promised compliance, and the lady was privately introduced into the hall appointed for her residence. She was splendidly attended, and when the time of her confinement came on, she was safely delivered of a beautiful boy. As soon as the knight understood this, he entreated permission to call in a priest for the purpose of performing the rite of baptism. But she positively refused, declaring that its shameful birth forbade her to interfere, since it would expose her to detection and disgrace. "Your crime indeed is heavy," returned the knight, "but consider, should your child, therefore, perish immortally?" "My vow is registered in heaven," said the lady; "I have sworn, nor will I add perjury to my faults. Moreover, I command you to prepare an empty cask." The knight obeyed; and the lady, placing therein the cradle with the new-born boy, inscribed on small tablets the following words,—"Know ye, to whomsoever chance may conduct this infant, that it is not baptized, because it is the unholy offspring of incestuous affection. For the love of God then, cause it to be baptized. Under the child's head you will discover a quantity of gold, and with this let it be nurtured. At the feet is an equal weight of silver, designed to assist it in the future prosecution of study." This done, she deposited the tablets by the infant's side, the gold at the head, and the silver at its feet; then enveloping it in silk garments embroidered with gold, she enclosed it in the cask, and directed the knight to cast it forthwith into the sea—trusting that by the over-ruling providence of God, it might be carried into a place of safety. The knight faithfully executed the lady's wishes; he threw the cask into the sea, and standing upon the shore, watched its progress, until it was at length lost to his sight.

As he returned to his castle, a king's messenger met him, whom he thus accosted:

"Friend, whence come you?"

"From the Holy Land."

"Indeed! what rumours are abroad?"

"My lord the king is dead; and we have brought his corpse to one of his own castles."

Hearing this, the good knight could not refrain from tears. At that moment, his wife approached, and, learning the unwelcome tidings, joined her tears to his. But the knight, recovering somewhat of the dejection of spirit into which the intelligence had thrown him, said to his wife, "Weep not, I pray thee, lest our mistress should perceive it, and enquire the cause. It were better to keep silence on this unwelcome subject, until she be risen from her child-bed." Saying this, the knight entered the queen's apartment, followed by his wife. But the manifest sorrow on their countenances, could not escape the penetration of the lady, and she eagerly asked the occasion. "Dear lady, we are not sad," they said, "but rather joyful at your rapid recovery." "That is not true," replied she; "I conjure you, conceal nothing, be it for good or evil." "A messenger," answered the knight, "has just returned from the Holy Land, conveying intelligence of my lord, your brother."

"What does the messenger say? Let him be called hither."

This was done; and the lady asked after the king. "He is dead," said the messenger, "and we have brought the body to his own kingdom, to be buried according to the rites of his country." The lady, possessed of this fatal intelligence, fell upon the ground; and the knight and his wife, participating in her extreme grief, cast themselves beside her. For a length of time, they all three continued in this attitude; and so intense was their sorrow, that neither sound nor sense appeared remaining. The lady arose first; tore her hair, wounded her face, and exclaimed in a shrill voice, "Woe is me! May that day perish in which I was conceived! May that night be no more remembered in which so great a wretch was born. How vast is my iniquity! In me all things are fulfilled. My hope is broken, and my strength; he was my only brother—the half of my soul. What I shall do hereafter, alas! I know not." The knight arose and said, "Dearest lady, listen to me. If you suffer yourself to be thus concerned, the whole kingdom will perish. You only are left; and you are the lawful heir. Should you destroy yourself, the nation will remain at the mercy of foreign powers. Arise then, and direct the body to be brought hither, and honorably interred. Afterwards, we will debate concerning the prosperity of the kingdom." Quieted, if not comforted, by the knight's words, she arose, and proceeded with a noble company to the castle, where her brother's body lay. It was placed upon a bier; and no sooner had the queen entered, than she fell upon the corpse and kissed it, from the crown of his head, even to the soles of his feet. Now, the soldiers, perceiving the violent grief of their queen, drew her from the bier, and led her into the hall; and then, with great pomp, carried the body to its sepulchre.

A short period after this, a certain duke of Burgundy sent messengers to demand the lady in marriage; but she declared her fixed determination never to marry. Irritated at her refusal, the duke observed, "If she had married me, I should indeed have been king of the country; but since it is her pleasure to despise me, she who fills the throne, shall enjoy little satisfaction." Whereupon he collected his troops, and devastated every place to which he marched. He perpetrated an immensity of ill, and subdued all opposition. The queen, in this extremity, fled to a strongly fortified city, where there was a castle well appointed and defended; and here she continued many years.

Let us now return to the boy, who was thrown into the sea. The cask in which he was placed floated through many countries, until it reached, at length, a certain monastery, about the sixth festival[1]. On that day, the abbot of the monastery was preparing to fish; and whilst they were casting their nets, the vessel was tossed by the motion of the waves upon the shore. The abbot observed it, and said to his servants, "See ye that cask? open it, and find out what is within." They did so, and behold, it was a newly born boy covered with very rich clothing. No sooner had it looked upon the abbot, than it smiled. The sight greatly concerned the worthy monk, "Oh, my God," said he, "how comes it, that we find a child in this deplorable situation?" Raising it with his own hands, he perceived the tablets under its side, which the unfortunate mother had placed there; and when he had read them, and discovered that it was the offspring of an incestuous bed, and not yet baptized—when he saw how this sacrament was implored for the sake of heaven; and lastly, how gold and silver were deposited for his nurture and education, he immediately baptized and called him after his own name, Gregory. He then entrusted him to a fisherman to nurse, with the gold and the silver found upon him. The boy grew up universally beloved. In his seventh year, the abbot provided for his studies, which he mastered in a surprizing manner; insomuch that the monks were as fond of him, as though he had been of their own order. In a short time, he acquired more knowledge than them all.

It happened, that, one day, as he played at ball with the son of the fisherman, his presumed father, by chance he struck him with the ball. The lad wept bitterly, and running home, complained to his mother that he had been struck by his brother Gregory. Instantly, the angry mother issued out of doors, and harshly reproved him, exclaiming, "Audacious little vagabond, why hast thou struck my son? Thou!—of whose origin and country we know nothing—how darest thou do this?" "Dear mother," answered Gregory, "am I not your son? Why do you speak to me in this manner?" "My son!" said the woman, "no, in good troth; neither do I know whose thou art; all I know is, that thou wert one day discovered in a cask, and that the abbot has brought thee up." When the boy heard this, he burst into tears, and ran hastily to the superior, and said, "Oh, my lord, I have been a long time with you, and I believed that I was the fisherman's son; but I learn that it is not so: consequently, I am ignorant who my parents are. If it please you, my lord, suffer me to become a soldier, for here I will not remain." "My son," said the abbot, "think not of it. The monks all love you, and I doubt not, after my decease, will promote you to the abbacy." "My good lord," answered Gregory, "I know not my parents, and I will not continue longer than I can help in this intolerable suspense." The abbot, finding solicitation useless, entered the treasury and brought to him the tablets which he had found in the cradle. "My son," he said, "read this; and what you are will be clear to you." When he had read, he fell to the earth, and exclaimed, "Alas! are such then my parents? I will hasten to the Holy Land, and do battle for the sins of the unhappy authors of my being; and there I will end my life. I entreat you, therefore, my lord, without delay to make me a knight." (1) The abbot complied, and when his departure was made known, the whole convent and neighbourhood were loud in their lamentation.

Straightway, he agreed with certain sailors for his passage to the Holy Land, and embarked. But as they sailed the wind became contrary; and they were suddenly driven upon the coast of that country in which his mother's castle stood. What the state was, and who reigned there, the sailors knew not, but as Gregory entered the city, a citizen met him, and said, "My lord, whither are you going?" "To seek an inn," was the reply. On which the hospitable citizen led him to his own house, and entertained him magnificently. As they sat at table, Gregory inquired of his host, what state it was, and who was the lord of it. "Sir," returned the other, "awhile ago, we had a very powerful emperor, but he died in the Holy Land, and left his throne to his sister. The Duke of Burgundy would have married her, but she was pleased to refuse his offer. Whereupon he has forcibly made himself master of the whole kingdom, save a single city in which the queen resides." "May I" returned the young knight, "declare with safety, the secret wish of my heart?"

"With the greatest safety."

"I am," continued the other, "a soldier of fortune: if it please you, go to-morrow to the palace, and obtain for me a communication with the seneschal, and if he will promise to remunerate me, I will fight for this year in behalf of the lady." "I doubt not, my lord." answered the citizen, "but that he will acquiesce with alacrity. To-morrow I will do as you desire." He went accordingly; and declared the occasion of his coming. The seneschal, not a little exhilarated, immediately sent off a messenger for Gregory; and, on his arrival, presented him to the queen, who expressed herself well satisfied with her champion. But she had not the remotest suspicion that it was her son, for she thought him long since overwhelmed in the waves. The seneschal, therefore, in the presence of his mistress, covenanted that he should serve a full year. On the morrow, he prepared for war, and assembled a large host. So judicious were his movements, that Gregory triumphed in every engagement, and penetrated to the very palace of the duke, whom he finally took and beheaded.

This exploit soon enabled him to reduce the other cities that yet held out; and the fame of his great prowess retained them in obedience. Thus, before the completion of the year which he had covenanted to serve, he had wrested the whole kingdom from the hands of their enemies. He demanded therefore, his hire, intending to pass into another country. "My lord," said the seneschal, "you have merited much more than our agreement stipulated; let us hasten to the queen, and there conclude as to the recompense." They went accordingly: and the seneschal thus spoke. "My dear lady, I would say something, which will be to your advantage. From the absence of a head, we have sustained many grievous afflictions. It were desirable, therefore, to take a husband, who is able to defend us from a return of the like troubles. Your kingdom is rich enough, so that I would not advise you to select a spouse for his wealth. And this being allowed, I know not where you could find one in every respect so suitable and beneficial to the state, as my lord Gregory." The lady, as we have seen before, rejected a second marriage; but overcome by the arguments and urgency of her seneschal, appointed a day, on which, after mature deliberation, she would give an answer. That day came; and in the presence of all the assembled nobles, she arose and spoke thus. "Since my lord Gregory has valiantly and effectually liberated both us and our kingdom from the thraldom of oppressive foes, I will receive him for my husband." The audience rejoiced; and an early period was fixed for the celebration of their nuptials. They were then espoused with the approbation of the whole country—the son to his own mother: but both were ignorant of the relationship. They loved each other tenderly: it happened, however, that the lord Gregory, on one particular occasion went out to hunt; and a handmaid of the queen, said to her, "Dear lady, have you not offended my lord in something?" "Surely not," returned she, "I believe that there is not in the whole world a married pair so mutually attached to each other, as we are. But why do you ask?" "Because," said the handmaid, "every day my lord enters his private chamber in great apparent pleasure; but when he returns it is with lamentation and wailing. After that he washes his face; but why all this is done, I do not comprehend."

On hearing this, the lady immediately entered the private chamber before alluded to, and narrowly inspected every closet and crevice. At length, she came to the place wherein the tablets, inscribed with the ignominy of his birth, and which he was wont to read day by day, were deposited; and then she wept most piteously. For they were the same which she had laid in the cradle; and which, when they now started up before her, as it were, by magic, she remembered too well. She opened them, and recognized her own hand-writing. "Alas!" she exclaimed, "how has he obtained this dark testimony of my crime, if he be not my son?" And then bursting into a lamentable cry, "Woe is me, that I ever saw the light of heaven—would that I had died ere I was born." The soldiers in the hall, hearing the clamour produced by the anguish and perturbation of her mind, ran into the chamber, and found her stretched upon the earth. They stood around her a considerable time before she was able to ejaculate, and when at length she could speak, she said, "If ye desire me to live, hasten immediately for my lord." The spectators hearing her wish, mounted their horses, and rode to the king. They explained to him the imminent danger of his wife; and he forthwith returned to the castle, and entered the chamber where the queen lay. When she saw him, she said, "Oh, my lord, command us to be left alone; what I have to say is for your private ear." The room was accordingly cleared; and the lady eagerly besought him to say, of what family he was. "That is a singular question," replied he, "but know, that I am a native of a distant country." "Oh," returned the lady, "I solemnly vow to God, that unless you declare to me the whole truth, I will kill myself." "And I," said the king, "shall be poor and wretched—possessed of nothing but the arms with which I freed you and the kingdom from slavery." "Only tell me," urged the lady, "from what country you came, and who are your parents; and unless you speak truly, I will never more touch food." "You shall be satisfied," said the king, "I was brought up by an abbot from my earliest age; and from him I learnt, that I was found cradled in a cask." Here the queen shewed him the tablets, and said, "Dost thou remember these?" He looked, and fell prostrate on the earth. "My son!" cried she, "for thou art so; my only son, and my husband, and my lord! Thou art the child of my brother and myself. Oh, my son, I deposited in the cask with thee these tablets. Woe is me! why, oh, God, didst thou permit my birth, since I was born to be guilty of so much wickedness! Would that the eye which looks upon me, might reduce me to ashes; would that I had passed from the womb to the grave!" Then striking her head against the wall, she cried, "Oh thou Almighty Being, behold my son—my husband, and the son of my brother." "I thought," replied Gregory, "to shun this danger, and I have fallen into the snares of the devil. Dismiss me, lady, to bewail my misery: woe! woe! my mother is my mistress—my wife! See how Satan hath encompassed me!" When the mother perceived the agony of her child, she said, "Dear son, for the residue of my life, I will expiate our crimes, by hardships and wanderings. Thou shalt govern the kingdom." "Not so," returned he, "do you remain, my mother. I will roam about, until our sins are forgiven."

The same night he arose; broke his lance, and put on the dress of a pilgrim. He bade his mother farewell, and, with naked feet, walked till he reached the uttermost boundaries of the kingdom. Having entered a certain city, he sought out the house of a fisherman, with whom he requested permission to lodge. When the fisherman had considered him attentively, and observed the comeliness of his person, and the grace of his form, he said, "Friend, you are no true pilgrim; this is evident from the elegance of your body." "Well," answered the other, "though I be not a true pilgrim, yet, for the love of God, I beseech you to give me harbourage." Now the fisherman's wife, looking upon him, was moved with a devout feeling, and entreated that he might be sheltered. He entered therefore; but directed his bed to be made for him, at the gate. Fish, with water and bread were given him. Amongst other things, the fisherman said, "Pilgrim, if you would become holy, go into some remote place." "Sir," answered Gregory, "I would willingly follow your advice, but I know of no such place." "On the morrow," returned he, "I will myself conduct you." "May God reward you," said the pilgrim. The next morning, the fisherman bade him rise, and hurried him so much that he left his tablets behind the gate where he had slept.

The fisherman, with his companion, embarked upon the sea, and sailing about sixteen miles came to a huge rock, having chains at its feet, which, without a key, could not be unloosed. After the fisherman had undone them, he cast the keys into the sea, and returned home. The pilgrim remained in that place seventeen years, with every feeling of the most perfect penitence.

About this period the pope died; and at the moment of his decease, a voice from heaven cried out, "Search after a man of God, called Gregory, and appoint him my vicar." The electors, greatly rejoiced at what they heard, sent messengers into different parts of the world to seek him. At length, some of them lodged in the house of the fisherman, and as they sat at supper; one said, "My friend, we are much harassed by journies through town and country, in pursuit of a holy man, called Gregory, whom, when we find, we are to place in the pontificate." The fisherman, then recollecting the pilgrim, answered, "It is now seventeen years since a pilgrim named Gregory, lodged in this house. I conducted him to a certain rock in the midst of the sea, and there I left him. But it is so long ago that he may be dead." It happened that on the same day, a number of fishes were caught; and as he gutted one of them, he found the keys which seventeen years before he had cast into the sea (2). Immediately he shouted, "Oh, my friends, behold these keys! I cast them into the sea; and I draw from this circumstance a good omen respecting the success of your labors." The messengers were much pleased with the man's prognostication; and early in the morning, desired him to bring them to the rock. He did so; and there finding Gregory, they said, "Man of God, go up with us; by the command of the Omnipotent, go up with us: for it is His will that thou shouldst be appointed his vicar upon earth." To which Gregory replied, "God's will be done," and then followed them from the rock. As soon as he approached the city, the bells rang of their own accord, which the citizens hearing, crossed themselves, and hastened to meet him whom they acknowledged the legitimate vicar of Christ. St. Gregory, thus appointed, conducted himself worthily in every respect; and multitudes from every part of the world came to ask his counsel and assistance. Now his mother, hearing of the remarkable sanctity of the reigning pope, thought that no where could she find help sooner than from so holy a man. But that he was her son and husband she knew not. Hastening, therefore, to Rome, she confessed herself to the vicar of God; nor was it till after confession that the pope recollected his unhappy mother. He then spoke thus: "Dearest mother, and wife, and mistress, the devil dreamt of bringing us to hell; but, by the grace of God, we have evaded his toils." At these words, she fell at his feet; and even for very joy, wept bitterly. But the pope raised her up, and tenderly embraced her. He founded a monastery over which he made her abbess, and a short time afterwards, both yielded up their souls to God.


My beloved, the emperor is Christ, who gave his daughter, that is, the human soul, to the charge of the brother, that is, the flesh. They lay in one chamber, that is, in one heart, or in one mind. The son born of these is all mankind. The cask is the Holy Spirit, which floats upon the sea of the world. The duke of Burgundy is the devil, who invades the soul, exposed by sin, and conquers it; until the Son, that is Christ, who is God and man, enfranchises it, and marries the mother, that is the soul. The tablets are the ten commandments. The abbot is God, who saved us by his only-begotten Son. The fisherman-nurse is any prelate; the ship St. Gregory afterwards embarks in is the Church. The seneschal is a confessor. The broken lance, is to put away or destroy an evil life. The rock is penitence.


  1. That is six monkish holydays from the time of its departure.



Note 1.Page 13.

The power of the superior of a convent to create knights, is a well-known fact in chivalry.

Upon a passage in the Romance of "Sir Eglamour of Artoys," Mr. Ellis has remarked that "The author in this place certainly appears to quote the 'Gesta Romanorum' for this singularly absurd story; but I have not been able to discover it in that collection."—Early Eng. Rom. Vol. III. p. 274. The story which Mr. Ellis could not find, is unquestionably the present. In the romance, a child and its mother is deposited in a vessel, and left to float upon the waves. Here some variation occurs, but the infant, as in the gest, is conveyed to a place of safety, and received under the protection of a king, who is hunting; he educates and finally confers knighthood upon him. The youth afterwards marries his mother. Farther than this, the tales have nothing in common, but here ia enough to prove imitation.

Note 2.Page 23.

This incident is purely oriental; and occurs frequently both in the "Arabian Nights' Entertainments," and in the "Persian Tales."