Gesta Romanorum, A Story Book of the Middle Ages

I.—Of Love

Pompey was a wise and powerful king. He had one well-beloved daughter, who was very beautiful. Her he committed to the care of five soldiers, who were to guard her night and day. Before the door of the princess's chamber they hung a burning lamp, and, moreover, they kept a loud-barking dog to rouse them from sleep. But the lady panted for the pleasures of the world, and one day, looking abroad, she was espied by a certain amorous duke, who made her many fair promises.

Hoping much from these, the princess slew the dog, put out the light, and fled by night with the duke. Now, there was in the palace a certain doughty champion, who pursued the fugitives and beheaded the duke. He brought the lady home again; but her father would not see her, and thenceforward she passed her time bewailing her misdeeds.

Now, at court there was a wise and skilful mediator, who, being moved with compassion, reconciled the lady with her father and betrothed her to a powerful nobleman. The king then gave his daughter diverse gifts. These were a rich, flowing tunic inscribed with the words, "Forgiven. Sin no more"; and a golden coronet with the legend, "Thy dignity is from me." Her champion gave her a ring, engraved, "I have loved thee; learn thou to love." Likewise the mediator bestowed a ring, saying, "What have I done? How much? Why?" A third ring was given by the king's son, with the words: "Despise not thy nobility." A fourth ring, from her brother, bore the motto: "Approach! Fear not. I am thy brother." Her husband gave a golden coronet, confirming his wife in the inheritance of his possessions, and superscribed: "Now thou are espoused, sin no more."

The lady kept these gifts as long as she lived. She regained the affections of those whom her folly had estranged, and closed her days in peace.


My beloved, the king is our Heavenly Father; the daughter is the soul; the guardian soldiers are the five senses; the lamp is the will; the dog is conscience; the duke is the Evil One. The mediator is Christ. The cloak is our Lord's wounded body. The champion and the brother are likewise Christ; the coronet is His crown of thorns; the rings are the wounds in His hands and feet. He is also the Spouse. Let us study to keep these gifts uninjured.

II.—Of Fidelity

The subject of a certain king, being captured by pirates, wrote to his father for ransom; but the father refused, and the youth was left wasting in prison. Now, his captor had a beautiful and virtuous daughter, who came to comfort the prisoner. At first he was too disconsolate to listen to her, but at length he begged her to try to set him free. The lady feared her father's wrath, but at last, on promise of marriage, she freed the young man, and fled with him to his own country. His father said, "Son, I am overjoyed at thy return, but who is the lady under thy escort?"

When his son told him, he charged him, on pain of losing his inheritance, not to marry her.

"But she released me from deadly peril," said the youth.

The father answered, "Son, thou mayest not confide in her, for she hath deceived her own father; and, furthermore, although she indeed set thee free, it was but to oblige thee to marry her. And since it was an unworthy passion that was the source of thy liberty, I think that she ought not to be thy wife."

When the lady heard these reasons, she answered thus, "I have not deceived my parent. He that deceives diminishes a certain good. But my father is so rich that he needs not any addition. Wherefore, your son's ransom would have left him but little richer, while you it would have utterly impoverished. I have thus served you, and done my father no injury. As for unworthy passion, that arises from wealth, honours, or a handsome appearance, none of which your son possessed, for he had not even enough to procure his ransom, and imprisonment had destroyed his beauty. Therefore, I freed him out of compassion."

When the father heard this, he could object nothing more. So the son married the lady with great pomp, and closed his life in peace.


My beloved, the son is the human race, led captive by the devil. The father is the world, that will not redeem the sinner, but loves to detain him. The daughter is Christ.

III.—O Venial Sin

Julian, a noble soldier, fond of the chase, was one day pursuing a stag, which turned and addressed him thus, "Thou who pursuest me so fiercely shalt one day destroy thy parents."

In great alarm, Julian sought a far country, where he enlisted with a certain chieftain. For his renowned services in war and peace he was made a knight, and wedded to the widow of a castellan, with her castle as a dowry.

Meanwhile, his parents sought him sorrowing, and coming at length to Julian's castle in his absence, they told his wife their story. The lady, for the love she bore her husband, put them into her own bed, and early in the morning went forth to her devotions. Julian returned, and softly entering his wife's apartment, saw two persons therein, and was filled with terrible alarm for his lady's fealty.

Without pause, he slew both, and hurried out. Meeting his wife in the church porch, he fell into amazement, and asked who they might be. Hearing the truth, he was shaken with an agony of tears, and cried, "Accursed that I am! Dearest wife, forgive, and receive my last farewell!"

"Nay," she replied. "Wilt thou abandon me, beloved, and leave me widowed? I, that have shared thy happiness will now share thy grief!"

Together they departed to a great and dangerous river, where many had perished. There they built a hospital, where they abode in contrition, ferrying over such as wished to cross the river, and cherishing the poor. After many years, Julian was aroused at midnight by a dolorous voice calling his name. He found and ferried over a leper, perishing with cold. Failing to warm the wretch by other means, Julian placed him in his own bed, and strove by the heat of his own body to restore him. After a while he who seemed sick and cold and leprous appeared robed in immortal splendour, and, waving his light wings, seemed ready to mount up into heaven. Turning upon his wondering host a look of the utmost benignity, the visitant exclaimed, "Julian, the Lord hath sent me to thee to announce the acceptance of thy contrition. Ere long thou and thy partner will sleep in Him."

So saying, the angelic messenger disappeared, and Julian and his wife, after a short time occupied in good works, died in peace.

IV.—Of the End of Sinners

Dionysius records that Perillus, wishing to become the artificer of Phalaris, the cruel tyrant of Agrigentum, presented him with a brazen bull. In its side was a secret door, for the entry of those who should be burned to death within. The idea was that the agonised cries of the victim, resembling the roaring of a bull and nothing human, should arouse no feeling of mercy. The king, highly applauding the invention, said, "Friend, the value of thy industry is still untried; more cruel even than the people account me, thou thyself shalt be the first victim."

There is no law more equitable than that "the artificer of death should perish by his own devices," as Ovid hath observed.

V.—Of Too Much Pride

As the Emperor Jovinian lay abed, reflecting on his power and possessions, he impiously asked, "Is there any other god than I?"

Amid such thoughts he fell asleep.

Now, on the morrow, as he followed the chase, he separated himself from his followers in order to bathe in a stream. And as he bathed, one like him in all respects took the emperor's dress, and arraying himself in them, mounted the monarch's horse, and joined the royal retinue, who knew him not from their master. Jovinian, horseless and naked, was vexed beyond measure.

"Miserable that I am," he exclaimed, "I will to a knight who lives hard by. Him have I promoted; haply he will befriend me." But when he declared himself to be Jovinian, the knight ordered him to be flogged. "Oh, my God!" exclaimed the emperor, "is it possible that one whom I have loaded with honours should use me thus?"

Next he sought out a certain duke, one of his privy counsellors, and told his tale.

"Poor, mad wretch," said the duke. "I am but newly returned from the palace, where I left the emperor."

He therefore had Jovinian flogged, and imprisoned. Contriving to escape, he went to the palace. "Surely," he reflected, "my servants will know me." But his own porter denied him. Nevertheless, he persuaded the man to take a secret sign to the empress, and to demand his imperial robes. The empress, sitting at table with the feigned emperor, was much disturbed, and said, "Oh, my lord, there is a vile fellow at the gate who declares the most hidden passages of our life, and says he is my husband."

Being condemned to be dragged by a horse's tail, Jovinian, in despair, sought his confessor's cell. But the holy man would not open to him, although at last, being adjured by the name of the Crucified, he gave him shrift at the window. Thereupon he knew the emperor, and giving him some clothes, bade him show himself again at the palace. This he did, and was received with due obeisance. Still, none knew which was the emperor, and which the impostor, until the feigned emperor spake.

"I," said he, "am the guardian angel of the king's soul. He has now purged his pride by penance; let your obedience wait on him."

So saying, he disappeared. The emperor gave thanks to God, lived happily after, and finished his days in peace.

VI.—Of Avarice

A covetous and wicked carpenter placed all his riches in a log, which he hid by his fireside. Now, the sea swept away that part of his house, and drifted the log to a city where lived a generous man. He found the log, cleft it, and laid the gold in a secure place until he should discover the owner.

Now, the carpenter, seeking his wealth with lamentations, came by chance to the house of him that had found it. Mentioning his loss, his host said to himself, "I will prove if God will that I return his money to him." He then made three cakes, one filled with earth, the second with dead men's bones, and the third with some of the lost gold. The carpenter, being invited to choose, weighed the cakes in his hand, and finding that with earth heaviest, took it.

"And if I want more, my worthy host," said he, "I will choose that," laying his hand on the cake containing the bones. "The third you may keep for yourself."

"Thou miserable varlet," cried the host. "It is thine own gold, which plainly the Lord wills not that I return to thee."

So saying, he distributed all the treasure among the poor, and drove the carpenter away from his house in great tribulation.

VII.—Of Temporary Tribulation

Antiochus, king of Antioch, had one lovely daughter, who was much courted. But her father, seeking to withhold her from marriage, proposed a riddle to every suitor, and each one who failed to guess the answer was put to death. Among the suitors came Apollonius, the young Prince of Tyre, who guessed the riddle, the answer to which revealed a shameful secret of the king's life. Antiochus, loudly denying that the young man had hit upon the truth, sent him away for thirty days, and bade him try again, on pain of death. So Apollonius departed.

Now, Antiochus sent his steward, Taliarchus, to Tyre, with orders to destroy Apollonius; but by the time the steward arrived the prince had put to sea in a fleet laden with treasure, corn, and many changes of raiment. Hearing this, Antiochus set a price on the head of Apollonius, and pursued him with a great armament. The prince, arriving at Tharsus, saved that city from famine by the supplies he brought, and a statue was raised in his honour. Then, by the advice of one Stranguilio and his wife, Dionysias, he sailed to Pentapolis. On the way he suffered shipwreck, and reached that city on a plank. There, by his skill in athletics and music, he won the favour of Altistrates, the king, who gave him his daughter to wife.

Some time after, hearing that the wicked Antiochus and his daughter had been killed by lightning, Apollonius and his wife set sail to take up the sovereignty of Antioch, which had fallen to him. On the way the lady died, leaving a new-born daughter. The prince placed his wife's body in a coffin smeared with pitch, and committed it to the deep. In the coffin he put money and a tablet, instructing anyone who found the body to bury it sumptuously. Apollonius returned to Pentapolis and gave his infant daughter into the care of Stranguilio and Dionysias. Then he himself sailed away and wandered the world in deep grief. In the meantime, his wife's body was cast up at Ephesus, and was found by the physician Cerimon, one of whose pupils revived the lady, who became a vestal of Diana.

Years passed, and the child, who was called Tharsia, incurred the jealousy of Dionysias, because she was fairer than her own child Philomatia. Dionysias sought to kill Tharsia, who, at the critical moment, was carried away by pirates, and sold into slavery at Machylena. There her beauty and goodness protected her, so that none who came to her master's evil house would do her wrong. She persuaded her owner to let her earn her bread by her accomplishments in music and the unravelling of hard sayings. Thus she won the love of the prince of that place, Athanagoras, who protected her.

Some time afterwards a strange fleet came to Machylena. Athanagoras, struck by the beauty of one of the ships, went on board, and asked to see the owner. He found a rugged and melancholy man, who was none other than Apollonius. In due time that prince was joyfully reunited with his child, who was given in marriage to her perserver. Speedy vengeance overtook Tharsia's cruel owner, and later Stranguilio and Dionysias suffered for their misdeeds. Being warned by a dream to return to Ephesus, Apollonius found his wife in the precinct of the vestals, and, together with her, he reigned long and happily over Antioch and Tyre. After death he went into everlasting life. To which may God, of His infinite mercy, lead us all.