Gesta Romanorum, A Story Book of the Middle Ages
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
There is no law more equitable than that "the artificer
of death should perish by his own devices," as Ovid hath
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
So saying, he distributed all the treasure among the
poor, and drove the carpenter away from his house in
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
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
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.