Gesta Romanorum Vol. I (1871)/Of the Cunning of the Devil and of the secret Judgments of God

Gesta Romanorum Vol. I (1871)
Anonymous, translated by Charles Swan
Of the Cunning of the Devil and of the secret Judgments of God
Anonymous2270187Gesta Romanorum Vol. I — Of the Cunning of the Devil and of the secret Judgments of God1871Charles Swan



There formerly lived a hermit, who in a remote cave passed night and day in the service of God. At no great distance from his cell, a shepherd tended his flock. It happened that this person one day fell into a deep sleep, and in the mean time a robber, perceiving his carelessness, carried off his sheep. When the keeper awoke and discovered the theft, he began to swear in good set terms that he had lost his sheep; and where they were conveyed was totally beyond his knowledge. Now the lord of the flock, nothing satisfied with his keeper's eloquence, commanded him to be put to death. This gave great umbrage to the hermit before mentioned; "Oh heaven," said he to himself, "seest thou this deed? the innocent suffers for the guilty: why permittest thou such things? If thus injustice triumph, why do I remain here? I will again enter the world, and do as other men do."

With these feelings he quitted his hermitage, and returned into the world; but God willed not that he should be lost: an angel in the form of a man was commissioned to join him. Accordingly, crossing the hermit's path, he thus accosted him—"My friend, where are you going?" "I go," said the other, "to the city before us." "I will accompany you," replied the angel; "I am a messenger from heaven, and come to be the associate of your way." They walked on together towards the city. When they had entered, they entreated for the love of God[1] harbourage during the night, at the house of a certain soldier, who received them with cheerfulness, and entertained them with much magnificence. The soldier had an only son lying in the cradle, whom he exceedingly loved. After supper, their bed-chamber was sumptuously decorated; and the angel retired with the hermit to rest. But about the middle of the night the former got up and strangled the sleeping infant. The hermit, horror-struck at what he witnessed, said within himself, "Never can this be an angel of God: the good soldier gave us every thing that was necessary; he had but this poor innocent, and he is strangled."—Yet he was afraid to reprove him.

In the morning both arose and went forward to another city, in which they were honourably entertained at the house of one of the inhabitants. This person possessed a superb golden cup which he highly valued; and which, during the night, the angel purloined. But still the hermit held his peace, for his apprehension was extreme. On the morrow they continued their journey; and as they walked they came to a certain river, over which a bridge was thrown; they ascended the bridge, and about mid-way a poor pilgrim met them. "My friend," said the angel to him, "shew us the way to yonder city." The pilgrim turned, and pointed with his finger to the road they were to take; but as he turned, the angel seized him by the shoulders, and precipitated him into the stream below. At this the terrors of the hermit were again aroused—"It is the devil," exclaimed he internally—"it is the devil, and no good angel! What evil had the poor man done that he should be drowned?" He would now have gladly departed alone; but was afraid to give utterance to the thoughts of his heart. About the hour of vespers they reached a city, in which they again sought shelter for the night; but the master of the house to whom they applied, sharply refused it. "For the love of heaven," said the angel, "afford us a shelter, lest we fall a prey to the wolves and other wild beasts." The man pointed to a stye—"That," said he, "is inhabited by pigs; if it please you to lie there you may—but to no other place will I admit you." "If we can do no better," returned the angel, "we must accept your ungracious offer." They did so; and in the morning the angel calling their host said, "My friend, I give you this cup:" and he presented to him the stolen goblet. The hermit more and more astonished at what he saw, said to himself, "Now I am certain this is the devil. The good man who received us with all kindness, he despoiled, and gives the plunder to this fellow who refused us a lodging." Turning to the angel, he exclaimed, "I will travel with you no longer. I commend you to God." "Dear friend," answered the angel, "First hear me, and then go thy way.


When thou wert in thy hermitage, the owner of the flock unjustly put to death his servant. True it is he died innocently, and therefore was in a fit state to enter another world. God permitted him to be slain, foreseeing, that if he lived he would commit a sin, and die before repentance followed. But the guilty man who stole the sheep will suffer eternally, while the owner of the flock will repair, by alms and good works, that which he ignorantly committed. As for the son of the hospitable soldier, whom I strangled in the cradle, know, that before the boy was born, he performed numerous works of charity and mercy; but afterwards grew parsimonious and covetous, in order to enrich the child, of which he was inordinately fond. This was the cause of its death; and now its distressed parent is again become a devout Christian. Then, for the cup which I purloined from him who received us so kindly, know, that before the cup was made, there was not a more abstemious person in the world; but afterwards he took such pleasure in it, and drank from it so often, that he was intoxicated twice or thrice during the day. I took away the cup, and he has returned to his former sobriety. Again, I cast the pilgrim into the river; and know, that he whom I drowned was a good Christian, but had he proceeded much further, he would have fallen into a mortal sin. Now he is saved, and reigns in celestial glory. Then, that I bestowed the cup upon the inhospitable citizen, know, nothing is done without reason. He suffered us to occupy the swine house, and I gave him a valuable consideration. But he will hereafter reign in hell. Put a guard, therefore, on thy lips, and detract not from the Almighty. For He knoweth all things." The hermit, hearing this, fell at the feet of the angel and entreated pardon. He returned to his hermitage, and became a good and pious Christian. (68)

  1. The common mode of supplication, and will be frequently noticed in these volumes.

Note 68.Page 280.

"This is the fable of Parnell's Hermit, which that elegant and original writer has heightened with many masterly touches of poetical colouring, and a happier arrangement of circumstances. Among other proofs which might be mentioned of Parnell's genius and address in treating this subject, by reserving the discovery of the angel to a critical period at the close of the fable, he has found means to introduce a beautiful description, and an interesting surprise."—Warton.

That the reader may compare the two stories the more readily, it is inserted here.


"Far in a wild, unknown to public view,
From youth to age a reverend hermit grew,

The moss his bed, the cave his humble cell,
His food the fruits, his drink the crystal well:
Remote from men, with God he pass'd his days,
Pray'r all his business, all his pleasure praise.
"A life so sacred, such serene repose,
Seem'd heaven itself, till one suggestion rose;
That vice should triumph, virtue vice obey,—
This sprung some doubt of Providence's sway:
His hopes no more a certain prospect boast,
And all the tenour of his soul was lost:
So when a smooth expanse receives imprest
Calm nature's image on its wat'ry breast,
Down bend the banks, the trees depending grow,
And skies beneath with answering colours glow:
But if a stone the gentle sea divide,
Swift ruffling circles curl on every side,
And glimmering fragments of a broken sun,
Banks, trees, and skies in thick disorder run.
"To clear this doubt, to know the world by sight,
To find if books, or swains, report it right,
(For yet by swains alone the world he knew,
Whose feet came wand'ring o'er the nightly dew)
He quits his cell; the pilgrim's staff he bore,
And fix'd the scallop in his hat before;
Then with the sun a rising journey went,
Sedate to think, and watching each event.

"The morn was wasted in the pathless grass,
And long and lonesome was the wild to pass;
But when the southern sun had warm'd the day,
A youth came posting o'er the crossing way!
His raiment decent, his complexion fair,
And soft in graceful ringlets wav'd his hair.
Then near approaching, Father, hail! he cried,
And hail, my son, the rev'rend sire replied;
Words follow'd words, from question answer flow'd,
And talk of various kind deceiv'd the road,
'Till each with other pleas'd, and loth to part,
While in their age they differ, join in heart.
Thus stands an aged elm in ivy bound,
Thus youthful ivy clasps an elm around.
"Now sunk the sun; the closing hour of day,
Came onward, mantled o'er with sober grey:
Nature in silence bid the world repose;
When near the road a stately palace rose;
There by the moon thro' ranks of trees they pass,
Whose verdure crown'd their sloping sides with grass:
It chanc'd the noble master of the dome,
Still made his house the wand'ring stranger's home.
Yet still the kindness, from a thirst of praise,
Prov'd the vain flourish of expensive ease.
The pair arrive; the liv'ry'd servants wait;
Their lord receives them at the pompous gate.

The table groans with costly piles of food,
And all is more than hospitably good.
Then led to rest, the day's long toil they drown,
Deep sunk in sleep, and silk, and heaps of down.
"At length, 'tis morn, and at the dawn of day,
Along the wide canals the zephyrs play:
Fresh o'er the gay parterres the breezes creep,
And shake the neighbouring wood to banish sleep.
Up rise the guests, obedient to the call;
An early banquet deck'd the splendid hall;
Bich luscious wine a golden goblet grac'd,
Which the kind master forc'd his guests to taste.
Then pleas'd and thankful, from the porch they go;
And, but the landlord, none had cause for woe;
His cup was vanish'd; for in secret guise,
The younger guest purloin'd the glittering prize.
"As one who spies a serpent in his way,
Glist'ning and basking in the sunny ray,
Disorder'd stops to shun the danger near,
Then walks with faintness on, and looks with fear:
So seem'd the sire; when, far upon the road,
The shining spoil his wily partner shew'd:
He stopp'd with silence, walk'd with trembling heart,
And much he wish'd, but durst not ask, to part;
Murmuring he lifts his eyes, and thinks it hard,
That generous actions meet a base reward.

"While thus they pass, the sun his glory shrouds,
The changing skies hang out their sable clouds;
A sound in air presag'd approaching rain,
And beasts to covert scud across the plain.
Warn'd by the signs, the wand'ring pair retreat,
To seek for shelter at a neighb'ring seat.
'Twas built with turrets on a rising ground,
And strong, and large, and unimprov'd around;
Its owner's temper, tim'rous and severe,
Unkind and griping, caus'd a desert there.
"As near the miser's heavy doors they drew,
Fierce rising gusts with sudden fury blew;
The nimble light'ning mix'd with show'rs began,
And o'er their heads loud rolling thunders ran.
Here long they knock, but knock or call in vain,
Driv'n by the wind, and batter'd by the rain.
At length some pity warm'd the master's breast,
('Twas then his threshold first receiv'd a guest.)
Slow creaking turns the door with jealous care,
And half he welcomes in the shiv'ring pair;
One frugal faggot lights the naked walls,
And nature's fervour thro' their limbs recalls:
Bread of the coarsest sort, with eager[1] wine,
(Each hardly granted) serv'd them both to dine;
And when the tempest first appear'd to cease,
A ready warning bade them part in peace.

"With still remark the pond'ring hermit view'd,
In one so rich, a life so poor and rude:
And why should such, within himself he cry'd,
Lock the lost wealth a thousand want beside?
But what new marks of wonder soon took place,
In every settling feature of his face;
When from his vest the young companion bore
That cup the generous landlord own'd before,
And paid profusely with the precious bowl
The stinted kindness of the churlish soul.
"But now the clouds in airy tumult fly;
The sun emerging opes an azure sky;
A fresher green the smelling leaves display,
And, glitt'ring as they tremble, cheer the day;
The weather tempts them from the poor retreat,
And the glad master bolts the wary gate.
While hence they walk, the pilgrim's bosom wrought
With all the travel of uncertain thought;
His partner's acts without their cause appear,
'Twas there a vice and seem'd a madness here;
Detesting that, and pitying this, he goes,
Lost and confounded with the various shows.
"Now night's dim shades again involve the sky.
Again the wand'rers want a place to lie;
Again they search, and find a lodging nigh.
The soil improv'd around, the mansion neat,
And neither poorly low, nor idly great:

It seem'd to speak its master's turn of mind,
Content,—and not for praise, but virtue kind.
"Hither the walkers turn with weary feet,
Then bless the mansion, and the master greet:
Their greeting fair, bestow'd with modest guise,
The modest master hears, and thus replies:
'Without a vain, without a grudging heart,
To him, who gives us all, I yield a part;
From him you come, for him accept it here,
A frank and sober, more than costly cheer.
He spoke, and bid the welcome table spread,
Then talk'd of virtue till the time of bed,
When the grave household round his hall repair,
Warn'd by a bell, and close the hours with pray'r.
At length the world, renew'd by calm repose,
Was strong for toil, the dappled morn arose;
Before the pilgrims part, the younger crept
Near the closed cradle, where an infant slept,
And writh'd his neck: the landlord's little pride,
O strange return! grew black, and gasp'd and died.
Horror of horrors! what! his only son!
How look'd the hermit when the fact was done;
Not hell, tho' hell's black jaws in sunder part,
And breathe blue fire, could more assault his heart.
"Confus'd, and struck with silence at the deed,
He flies, but trembling fails to fly with speed.

His steps the youth pursues; the country lay
Perplex'd with roads, a servant show'd the way:
A river cross'd the path; the passage o'er
Was nice to find; the servant trod before;
Long arms of oak an open bridge supply'd,
And deep the waves beneath the bending branches glide.
The youth, who seem'd to watch a time for sin,
Approach'd the careless guide, and thrust him in;
Plunging he falls, and rising lifts his head,
Then flashing turns, and sinks amongst the dead.
Wild, sparkling rage inflames the father's eyes,
He bursts the bands of fear, and madly cries,
Detested wretch—but scarce his speech began,
When the strange partner seem'd no longer man.
His youthful face grew more serenely sweet:
His robe turn'd white and flow'd upon his feet;
Fair rounds of radiant points invest his hair;
Celestial odours breathe thro' purple air;
And wings, whose colours glitter'd on the day,
Wide at his back their gradual plumes display.
The form etherial bursts upon his sight,
And moves in all the majesty of light.
"Tho' loud at first the pilgrim's passion grew,
Sudden he gaz'd, and wist not what to do;
Surprize in secret chains his words suspends,
And in a calm his settling temper ends.

But silence here the beauteous angel broke,
(The voice of music ravish'd as he spoke.)
"Thy pray'r, thy praise, thy life to vice unknown,
In sweet memorial rise before the throne:
These charms success in our bright region find,
And force an angel down to calm thy mind;
For this commission'd, I forsook the sky:—
Nay cease to kneel—thy fellow-servant I.
"Then know the truth of government divine,
And let these scruples be no longer thine,
The Maker justly claims the world he made,
In this the right of Providence is laid;
Its sacred majesty thro' all depends,
On using second means to work his ends;
'Tis thus, withdrawn in state from human eye,
The Power exerts his attributes on high,
Your actions uses, nor controuls your will,
And bids the doubting sons of men be still.
"What strange events can strike with more surprize,
Than those which lately struck thy wond'ring eyes?
Yet, taught by these, confess the Almighty just,
And, where you can't unriddle, learn to trust!
"The great vain man, who far'd on costly food,
Whose life was too luxurious to be good;
"Who made his iv'ry stands with goblets shine,
And forc'd his guests to morning draughts of wine,

Has, with the cup, the graceless custom lost,
And still he welcomes, but with less of cost.
"The mean, suspicious wretch, whose bolted door
Ne'er mov'd in pity to the wand'ring poor;
With him I left the cup, to teach his mind
That heav'n can bless, if mortals will be kind.
Conscious of wanting worth, he views the bowl,
And feels compassion touch his grateful soul.
Thus artists melt the sullen ore of lead,
With heaping coals of fire upon his head;
In the kind warmth the metal learns to glow,
And loose from dross the silver runs below.
"Long had our pious friend in virtue trod,
But now the child half-weaned his heart from God;
(Child of his age) for him he liv'd in pain,
And measur'd back his steps to earth again.
To what excesses had his dotage run?
But God, to save the father, took the son.
To all, but thee, in fits he seem'd to go,
(And 'twas my ministry to deal the blow,)
The poor fond parent, humbled in the dust,
Now owns in tears the punishment was just.
But how had all his fortunes felt a wrack,
Had that false servant sped in safety back;
This night his treasur'd heaps he meant to steal,
And what a fund of charity would fail!

Thus heav'n instructs thy mind: this trial o'er,
Depart in peace, resign and sin no more.
"On sounding pinions here the youth withdrew,
The sage stood wond'ring as the seraph flew.
Thus look'd Elisha, when to mount on high,
His Master took the chariot of the sky;
The fiery pomp ascending left the view;
The prophet gaz'd, and wish'd to follow too.
"The bending hermit here a pray'r begun,
Lord, as in Heav'n, on Earth thy will be done.
Then, gladly turning, sought his ancient place,
And pass'd a life of piety and peace."

"The same apologue occurs, with some slight additions and variations for the worse, in Howell's Letters; who professes to have taken it from the speculative Sir Philip Herbert's Conceptions to his Son, a book which I have never seen. These Letters were published about the year 1650. It is also found in the Divine Dialogues of Doctor Henry More, who has illustrated its important moral with the following fine reflections.

"'The affairs of this world are like a curious, but intricately contrived comedy; and we cannot judge of the tendency of what is past, or acting at present, before the entrance of the last act, which shall bring in righteousness in triumph: who, though she hath abided many a brunt, and has been very cruelly and despitefully used hitherto in the world, yet at last, according to our desires, we shall see the knight overcome the giant. For what is the reason we are so much pleased with the reading romances and the fictions of the poets, but that here, as Aristotle says, things are set down as they should be; but in the true history hitherto of the world, things are recorded indeed as they are, but it is but a testimony, that they have not been as they should be? Wherefore, in the upshot of all, when we shall see that come to pass, that so mightily pleases us in the reading the most ingenious plays and heroic poems, that long afflicted virtue at last comes to the crown, the mouth of all unbelievers must be for ever stopped. And for my own part, I doubt not but that it will so come to pass in the close of the world. But impatiently to call for vengeance upon every enormity before that time, is rudely to overturn the stage before the entrance into the fifth act, out of ignorance of the plot of the comedy; and to prevent the solemnity of the general judgment by more paltry and particular executions.'

"Parnell seems to have chiefly followed the story as it is told by this Platonic theologist, who had not less imagination than learning. Pope used to say, that it was originally written in Spanish. This I do not believe: but from the early connection between the Spaniards and Arabians, this assertion tends to confirm the suspicion, that it was an oriental tale[2]."—Warton.

  1. Sour
  2. "I must not forget, that it occurs, as told in our Gesta, among a collection of Latin apologues, quoted above, MSS. Harl. 463. fol. 8. a. The rubric is, De angelo qui duxit Heremitam ad diversa Hospitia."—Warton.