Gesta Romanorum Vol. I (1871)/Preface

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


The so called Gesta Romanorum is undoubtedly one of the most curious of those collections of tales which are found in the popular literature of most peoples. Such tales, indeed, appear to have been the means by which man communicated his sentiments and opinions to, and impressed them upon, his fellow men, from the earliest ages of human existence. They seem to have formed, if we may so express it, a natural accompaniment of the human mind. We find them thus existing among most of the peoples of the civilized world, among the Orientals especially, among the Greek and Latin races, among the Celts, and among the Teutons. And, which is still more remarkable, when we study and compare the popular tales in these different races, we find that so great numbers of them are exactly the same in each, are identical with each other throughout, that we are led almost unconsciously to the conclusion that these races in which they are thus found are all derived from one original source, whence they received their popular tales; in fact, these tales form almost a stronger proof of the relationship of races than language itself. In this point of view the study of them becomes more and more interesting.

These tales, among the people who possessed them, would naturally form the domestic entertainment of the family in its home; and we can easily understand how, when what we call a literature came into existence, they would be brought together into collections, under different forms, and, after the introduction of a written literature, they were thus written in books. Latin was the common book-language of the Middle Ages, and we find these tales in a Latin dress, scattered through the manuscripts, sometimes singly and sometimes in groups, from the twelfth century to the fifteenth. I have brought together a rather large selection from these manuscripts in a volume of Latin Stories printed for the Percy Society in 1842, from which their character will be fully understood. But the collections of these stories took sometimes very peculiar forms, which appear to have originated among the Orientals, and are found at a very early period among the literature of the Hindoos. The plan of these collections was to unite them in a regular plot, in which one or more of the personages are made to carry out their parts by telling stories. One of the earliest of these is said by the Sanscrit philologists to have been composed at a period not far distant from the beginning of the Christian era: and one of the later was the larger collection so well known as the Thousand and One Nights, or, as it is called in the English version, the Arabian Nights' Entertainments. It was in fact, like the other, known to Europe in the Middle Ages through the Arabic version. The first of these was known to the Hindoos in its Sanscrit form under the title of Sendabad. It found its way into Greece, where it appeared in a Greek version under the title of Syntipas; and it appeared among the Mediæval Jews in their Hebrew as the romance of Sendabar. Its plot is a simple one. A young prince is falsely accused by one of the wives of the king his father of having made a violent attempt upon her virtue, but he is defended by seven sages, or philosophers, who tell a series of stories calculated to expose the malice and perversity of the female sex, and the danger of a condemnation without proof. Several other collections compiled in this manner originated in India, and were taken thence into the Arabic language, and brought, through the Arabs and Jews, into Western Europe. The story of Sendabad was translated into Latin early in the thirteenth century by a monk of the Abbey of Haute Selve, in the bishopric of Nancy, in France, who is believed to have taken his version from the Hebrew, under the title of Historia Septem Sapientum Romæ, the History of the Seven Sages of Rome, and it soon became extremely popular in Western Europe, and was translated into French verse and into English verse.

The eastern form given to these collections of tales was thus introduced and became popular in Europe, and soon found imitators. I need hardly say that the most remarkable of the European collections of tales which arose in this manner was the well-known Decamerone of Giovanni Boccaccio, compiled in Italy, in the middle of the fourteenth century.

Another characteristic found in the mediæval collection of stories given in the present volumes appears to have been derived from the East. Among the Oriental peoples there was a tendency, which dates perhaps from as remote an antiquity as the tales themselves, to use them as illustrations of moral or political sentiments. It is thus, in fact, that they are introduced in the collections to which I have just alluded. In Sendabad, when the vizier or sage tells a story, its object is to assist the narrator in setting the king right in some sentiment in which he is supposed to have gone wrong. It is evident that in a certain state of not very high mental culture such a method of reasoning would have great force; and it appears to have been taken up with great eagerness by the Christian clergy of the West, who used these tales largely in their sermons, and gave them a religious interpretation of their own. It was for this purpose that the stories were, as I have said before, collected in the old manuscripts, where we constantly find them singly or in groups forming smaller or larger collections, and written in Latin, which was the language of the mediæval church. As the priests, who had to repeat them in their sermons, which were delivered in Latin, might sometimes be at a loss for the exact details of the story, they committed them to writing in a manuscript for reference; and, in the same way, to help them in their religious interpretations, they sometimes entered in their manuscript the comment on the story. These were called moralisationes, moralizations, and it is hardly necessary to remark that these are sometimes very singular and almost droll.

It is difficult to say exactly when the employment of the popular tales in this manner began among the European clergy. It certainly existed in the twelfth century, and was well known in the thirteenth century, but appears to have reached its highest degree of popularity during the fourteenth and fifteenth. In the middle of the former century there lived in France a learned writer named Pierre Bercheure, who was prior of the Benedictine House of St. Eloi in Paris, and died in 1362. In his time more than one collection of stories with their commentaries in this style were compiled, and are found in the manuscripts, under the title of moralitates. One of these, the work of a Dominican friar, named Robert Holkot, was entitled Moralitates pulchræ in usum Prædicatorum, "beautiful moralities for the use of preachers." This book was printed at a later period. Pierre Bercheure, who seems to have been well acquainted with this class of literature as it then existed, formed the plan of a collection of tales, of what would then be considered a rather more important character. At this time, in what was considered as the Roman church, it was natural enough to look back for historical examples to the times of the Romans. As we have seen, when the Oriental Sendabad was published in the West in a Latin dress, the translator imagined the eastern viziers to be wise men of Rome, and he gave to his book the title of Historia septem sapientum Romæ. Bercheure was led by the same feelings, and apparently without any special design, he takes all his stories as events which had occurred in Rome, and generally in more or less close relation to the emperor himself. Hence he gave to this new collection the title of Gesta Romanorum, the word Gesta, in the Latin of that time, meaning historical exploits, or acts. A history of the crusades was entitled Gesta Dei per Francos, and a history of England would be called Gesta Anglorum. But the gesta told in the collection of Pierre Bercheure have no more relation to history than most of the emperors in whose reigns they are supposed to have occurred, among whom we find such names as Mereclus, Solemius, Bononius, Bertoldus, Ciclades, Lamartinus, and the like. To show the ignorance of Roman history, or of any history, displayed by the compiler, I need only state that in one tale we find living together at the same time in Rome the emperor Claudius, the philosopher Socrates, and king Alexander. Pompey, too, is introduced among the Roman emperors. In another tale we are told of a statue raised to the honour of Julius Cæsar, in the capitol, twenty-two years after the foundation of Rome.

It appears to be now the general opinion of scholars in the history of mediæval literature that Pierre Bercheure was, in this manner, the author of the Gesta Romanorum. This curious book appears, from its first publication, to have been received with great favour by the Romish clergy. Its popularity was very great during the fifteenth century, to which period a large portion of the existing manuscripts, especially of those found in England, belongs.

The Gesta Romanorum, indeed, appears to have been especially popular among the English priesthood, one of whom, who seems to have had an imperfect copy, appears to have completed it with tales taken from other sources, to have exchanged some of the tales for others, and to have re-written most of those which he retained, which in this edition present many variations when we compare them with the originals. This is the text found in the original manuscripts, and is usually spoken of by scholars as the Anglo-Latin Gesta. Sir Frederick Madden believed that this Anglo-Latin text was compiled in England, in the reign of Richard II. It was from this text that the first English translation was made, which was first printed by Wynkyn de Worde, about 1510 or 1515. The first French translation, after being long known in manuscript, was printed in Paris in 1521. It is unnecessary to add that many editions followed in both countries, and that the book was translated also into German and into other languages. It was no doubt very popular in England, and it exercised a great influence on our English poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; at which we need not be surprised, for there is poetry both in the tales themselves, and in the manner in which they are told. In our own country the Gesta Romanorum continued long to be reprinted both in the original Latin and in the English translation, which was a popular book in the earlier ages of printing, and this popularity continued down to the seventeenth century. Then, for a long period, the Gesta Romanorum was regarded as a curious and interesting old book, but which you only saw by accident, or met with in the libraries of collectors of old books, and in the last century and earlier part of the present it was read only by those who took an interest in our older literature, or who sought illustrations of our old poetry. In the latter half of the last century, the attention of scholars was indeed drawn anew to these curious tales by the appearance of Warton's History of English Poetry, in which he gave an excellent and very learned "Dissertation on the Gesta Romanorum;" but it was not until the year 1824, that a member of the university of Cambridge, a scholar of Catherine Hall, whose taste had led him to the study of our early English literature, sought to make this curious book better known, and to render it more popular, by giving to the public a new translation into modern English. This was the Rev. Charles Swan, whose translation, now reprinted, appeared in two volumes in the year just mentioned, and it is through this modern translation that the celebrated tales of the Gesta Romanorum are now best known to English readers. Charles Swan was evidently impressed deeply with the general interest of the subject he had taken up, and had entered upon the study of it with great zeal, and his translation is a very sufficient representation of the substance and spirit of the original.

And this original is full of interest for us. It not only breathes poetry in most of its stories, but it presents pictures of mediæval life, public and domestic, which we should seek in vain elsewhere. Some of these are naive in the extreme, and throw curious light upon the manners and sentiments of these remote ages. For from whatever sources the stories may have been derived, and there can be no doubt that a very large amount of Eastern fiction was introduced into Western Europe after the time of the crusades, the details of the stories of the Gesta Romanorum are, in their character, perfectly those of Western Europe in the thirteenth century. We know that in the East, at the time of the Crusades, the taste for telling stories and moralizing upon them, had become almost a passion among the Oriental peoples, but it no doubt existed among the Arab population of the West also, the Maurs of Africa and Spain, and when we consider the influence which the Arabian science and literature exercised on those of Christian Europe, we can understand how naturally the popular fiction of those peoples would be imported hither.

However, as I have already said, the same tastes and sentiments which are embodied in these stories, and appear in the manner in which they were employed, are found to have been common to all the different branches of the Asiatic and European races with the literary history of whom we are acquainted. We find them developed at a much earlier period than those of which I have been speaking in the Fables of Æsop. Æsop's Fables, belonging to a date several centuries before the Christian era, may be regarded as an early prototype of the Gesta Romanorum, under sentiments of a slightly different character, and influenced by the same system of moralization. The old Greek took for his examples anecdotes of animals acting with the sentiments of men. The clerical writer of mediæval times introduced Roman emperors, chieftains, and philosophers, acting as if they were men of his own time. The moralizations of the fables of Æsop, are similar in character and spirit to those of the Gesta Romanorum, and were calculated for serving the same purpose. Thus the mediæval compilers of the Gesta Romanorum might have found their models in the fables of Æsop, just as well as in the Eastern stories. In fact the Oriental taste for such collections of stories moralized may probably be considered as derived originally from the early classical times. The Æsopean fables were certainly known in Western Europe before the knowledge of these Eastern collections was imported hither, and they were used by the mediæval preachers much in the same manner for the same purpose. We are informed of this fact by Vincent of Beauvais, a well known writer of the thirteenth century, in his great work, entitled Speculum Historiale (the Mirror of History). Vincent approves of this practice, but with qualifications which would seem to show that in his time it was carried by the Western clergy to a rather extravagant degree.

It would thus appear that in Western Europe, as well as probably among the Eastern peoples, the use of these stories with moralizations or applications, had been in fact derived from the ancients. The Æsopean fables had paved the way for the Oriental apologues, and for the subsequent formation of the Gesta Romanorum.


London, Nov. 1871.