Gesta Romanorum Vol. I (1871)/Of remembering Death

Gesta Romanorum Vol. I  (1871) 
Anonymous, translated by Charles Swan
Of remembering Death



A certain Prince derived great pleasure from the chase. It happened, on one occasion, that a merchant accidentally pursued the same path; and observing the beauty, affability, and splendour of the Prince, he said in his heart; "Oh, ye heavenly powers! that man has received too many favors. He is handsome, bold, and graceful; and even his very retinue are equipped with splendour and comfort." Under the impression of such feelings, he addressed himself to one of the attendants, "My friend," said he, "is your master very powerful?"—"He is," replied the other, "the despotic lord of an extensive territory; his treasury is filled with silver and gold; and his slaves are exceedingly numerous."—"God has been bountiful to him," said the merchant; "he is more beautiful than any one I ever beheld; and his power vouches for his wisdom." Now the person with whom he conversed, related all that the merchant had said, to his master; and as the Prince turned homeward about the hour of vespers, he besought the merchant to tarry there all night. The entreaty of a potentate is a command; and the merchant, therefore, though with some reluctance, entered the palace. The prodigious display of wealth; the number of beautiful halls, ornamented in every part with gold, surprised and delighted him. But supper-time approached, and the merchant, by express command of the Prince, was seated at his own table. This honor so enraptured the poor tradesman, that he secretly exclaimed, "Oh, Heaven! the Prince possesses every thing that his heart wishes; he has a beautiful wife, fair daughters, and brave sons. His family establishment is too extensive." As he thus thought, the meat was placed before him; but what was his consternation to observe that it was deposited in the skull of a human being, and served from thence to the Prince and his guests on silver dishes. Horror-struck at what he saw, the merchant felt as if his own head must presently make part of the same diabolical service, and frequently did he internally ejaculate, "I am a dead man! I am a dead man!"

In the meantime, the lady of the mansion comforted him as much as she could. The night passed on, and he was shewn into a bed-chamber hung round with cauldrons; and in one corner of the room several lights were burning. As soon as he had entered, the door was fastened without; and the unlucky merchant was left a solitary prey to his own increasing terror. Casting his eyes around him in despair, he distinguished two dead men hanging by the arms from the ceiling. This shocking circumstance so agonized him, that the cold sweat dropped from his brow, and of rest he was morally incapable. In the morning, he got up, but with augmented apprehensions. "Alas!" cried he, "they will assuredly hang me by the side of these murdered wretches. What will become of me?" When the Prince had risen, he commanded the merchant to be brought into his presence. "Friend," said he, "what portion of my family establishment best pleases you?" The man answered, "I am well pleased with every thing, my lord, except that my food was served to me out of a human head,—a sight so sickening that I could touch nothing. And when I would have slept, my repose was destroyed by the terrific objects which were exhibited to me. And, therefore, for the love of God, suffer me to depart." "Friend," replied the Prince, "the head out of which you were served, and which stood exactly opposite to my wife—my beautiful, but wicked wife!—is the head of a certain duke. I will tell you why it was there. He whom I have punished in so exemplary a manner, I perceived in the act of dishonoring my bed. Instantly prompted by an uncontrollable desire of vengeance, I separated his head from his body. To remind the woman of her shame, each day, I command this memento to be placed before her, in the hope that her repentance and punishment may equal her crime. But the misfortunes of my family end not here; a son of the deceased duke slew two of my kindred, whose bodies you observed hanging in the chamber which had been appropriated to you. Every day, I punctually visit their corpses, to keep alive the fury which ought to animate me to revenge their deaths. And recalling the adultery of my wife, and the miserable slaughter of my kindred, I feel that there is no joy reserved for me in this world. Now then go in peace; and forget not the useful lesson which I have wished to impart. Remember that external appearances are deceitful; and that human life, in its most gorgeous condition, is still accompanied by the revolting emblems of mortality." The merchant gladly availed himself of the permission to depart; and returned with greater satisfaction to the toils of traffic. (56)


My beloved, the Prince is intended to represent any good Christian, whose wife is the soul that sins, and being punished, remembers its iniquity and amends. The adulterer is the devil; to cut off his head, is to destroy our vices. The slain kinsmen of the Prince, are love to God and to our neighbour, which the sin of our first parent annihilated. The merchant is any good prelate or confessor, to whom the truth should always be exposed.

Note 56.Page 188.

"Caxton has the history of Albrone, a king of the Lombards, who having conquered another king, 'lade awaye wyth hym Rosomounde his wyf in captyvyte, but after he took hyr to hys wyfe, and he dyde make a cuppe of the skulle of that kynge, and closed in fyne golde and syluer, and dranke out of it[1]." Gold Leg. f. ccclxxxvii. a edit. 1493. "This, by the way, is the old Italian tragedy of Messer Giovanni Rucellai, planned on the model of the antients, and acted in the Rucellai Gardens, at Florence, before Leo the Tenth, and his Court in the year 1516. Davenant has also a tragedy on the same subject, called Albovine, king of the Lombards, his Tragedy.

"A most sanguinary scene in Shakspeare's Titus Andronicus, an incident in Dryden's or Boccace's Tancred and Sigismonda, and the catastrophe of the beautiful metrical romance of the Lady of Faguel, are founded on the same horrid ideas of inhuman retaliation and savage revenge; but in the last two pieces, the circumstances are so ingeniously imagined, as to lose a considerable degree of their atrocity, and to be productive of the most pathetic and interesting situations."—Warton.

  1. This is an historical fact, and may be found in Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Vol. VIII. page 129. 1811.