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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical Introduction

By Gesta Romanorum

WHAT are the ‘Gesta Romanorum’? The most curious and interesting of all collections of popular tales. Negatively, one thing they are not: that is, they are not Deeds of the Romans, the acts of the heirs of the Cæsars. All such allusions are the purest fantasy. The great “citee of Rome,” and some oddly dubbed emperor thereof, indeed the entire background, are in truth as unhistorical and imaginary as the tale itself.

Such stories are very old. So far back did they spring that it would be idle to conjecture their origin. In the centuries long before Caxton, the centuries before manuscript-writing filled up the leisure hours of the monks, the ‘Gesta,’ both in the Orient and in the Occident, were brought forth. Plain, direct, and unvarnished, they are the form in which the men of ideas of those rude times approached and entertained, by accounts of human joy and woe, their brother men of action. Every race of historic importance, from the eastern Turanians to the western Celts, has produced such legends. Sometimes they delight the lover of folk-lore; sometimes they belong to the Dryasdust antiquarian. But our ‘Gesta,’ with their directness and naïveté, with their occasional beauty of diction and fine touches of sympathy and imagination,—even with their Northern lack of grace,—are properly a part of literature. In these ‘Deeds’ is found the plot or ground-plan of such master works as ‘King Lear’ and the ‘Merchant of Venice,’ and the first cast of material refined by Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, Schiller, and other writers.

Among the people in mediæval times such tales evidently passed from mouth to mouth. They were the common food of fancy and delight to our forefathers, as they gathered round the fire in stormy weather. Their recital enlivened the women’s unnumbered hours of spinning, weaving, and embroidery. As the short days of the year came on, there must have been calls for ‘The Knights of Baldak and Lombardy,’ ‘The Three Caskets,’ or ‘The White and Black Daughters,’ as nowadays we go to our book-shelves for the stories that the race still loves, and ungraciously enjoy the silent telling.

Such folk-stories as those in the ‘Gesta’ are in the main made of, must have passed from district to district and even from nation to nation, by many channels,—chief among them the constant wanderings of monks and minstrels,—becoming the common heritage of many peoples, and passing from secular to sacerdotal use. The mediæval Church, with the acuteness that characterized it, seized on the pretty tales, and adding to them the moralizing which a crude system of ethics enjoined, carried its spoils to the pulpit. Even the fables of pagan Æsop were thus employed.

In the twelfth century the ecclesiastical forces were appropriating to their use whatever secular rights and possessions came within their grasp. A common ardor permitted and sustained this aggrandizement, and the devotion that founded and swelled the mendicant orders of Francis and Dominic, and led the populace to carry with prayers and psalm-singing the stones of which great cathedrals were built, readily gave their hearth-tales to illustrate texts and inculcate doctrines. A habit of interpreting moral and religious precepts by allegory led to the far-fetched, sometimes droll, and always naïve “moralities” which commonly follow each one of the ‘Gesta.’ The more popular the tale, the more easily it held the attention; and the priests with telling directness brought home the moral to the simple-minded. The innocent joys and sad offenses of humanity interpreted the Church’s whole system of theology, and the stories, committed to writing by the priests, were thus preserved.

The secular tales must have been used in the pulpit for some time before their systematic collection was undertaken. The zeal for compiling probably reached its height in the age of Pierre Bercheure, who died in 1362. To Bercheure, prior of the Benedictine Convent of St. Eloi at Paris, the collection of ‘Gesta Romanorum’ has been ascribed. A German scholar, however, Herr Österley, who published in 1872 the result of an investigation of one hundred and sixty-five manuscripts, asserts that the ‘Gesta’ were originally compiled towards the end of the thirteenth century in England, from which country they were taken to the Continent, there undergoing various alterations. “The popularity of the original ‘Gesta,’” says Sir F. Madden, “not only on the Continent but among the English clergy, appears to have induced some person, apparently in the reign of Richard the Second, to undertake a similar compilation in this country.” The ‘Anglo-Latin Gesta’ is the immediate original of the early English translation from which the following stories are taken, with slight verbal changes.

The word Gesta, in mediæval Latin, means notable or historic act or exploit. The Church, drawing all power, consequence, and grace from Rome, naturally looked back to the Roman empire for historic examples. In this fact we find the reason of the name. The tales betray an entire ignorance of history. In one, for example, a statue is raised to Julius Cæsar twenty-two years after the founding of Rome; while in another, Socrates, Alexander, and the Emperor Claudius are living together in Rome.

It is a pleasant picture which such legends bring before our eyes. The old parish church of England, which with its yards is a common meeting-place for the people’s fairs and wakes, and even for their beer-brewing; the simple rustics forming the congregation; the tonsured head of the priest rising above the pulpit,—a monk from the neighboring abbey, who earns his brown bread and ale and venison by endeavors to move the moral sentiments which lie at the root of the Anglo-Saxon character and beneath the apparent stolidity of each yokel. Many of the tales are unfit for reproduction in our more mincing times. The faithlessness of wives—with no reference whatever to the faithlessness of husbands—is a favorite theme with these ancient cenobites.

It is possible, Herr Österley thinks, that the conjecture of Francis Douce may be true, and the ‘Gesta’ may after all have been compiled in Germany. But the bulk of the evidence goes to prove an English origin. The earliest editions were published at Utrecht and at Cologne. The English translation, from the text of the Latin of the reign of Richard II., was first printed by Wynkyn de Worde between 1510 and 1515. In 1577 Richard Robinson published a revised edition of Wynkyn de Worde’s. The work became again popular, and between 1648 and 1703 at least eight issues were sold. An English translation by Charles Swan from the Latin text was first published in 1824, and reissued under the editorship of Thomas Wright in 1872 as a part of Bohn’s Library.