Gesta Romanorum Critical Essays

Introduction

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Gesta Romanorum

English collection of anecdotes, circa late 13th or early 14th century.

Considered by many scholars the greatest work in a genre popular during the late Middle Ages, the Gesta Romanorum is a collection of anecdotes, compiled anonymously and written in Latin, drawn from Eastern allegorical tales, legends collected by monks, classical narratives, and historical chronicles. Even though the title means “deeds of the Romans,” most of the stories in the Gesta Romanorum do not concern Rome or Romans. Originally designed for use by preachers in instilling Christian virtues and teaching theological doctrine, the tales in the Gesta Romanorum served as models for works by such authors as Giovanni Boccaccio, John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, William Morris, and George Bernard Shaw.

Textual History

The Gesta Romanorum dates from the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. Because of its popularity, the work was frequently copied as it traveled throughout western Europe. As the manuscript was copied, stories were often added or omitted. This makes it difficult to pin down a country of origin for the collection, but Hermann Oesterley, who edited the text in 1872, argues that it was originally composed in England and then passed to the Continent. By the middle of the fourteenth century three distinct groups of manuscripts are thought to have existed: the English group, written in Latin; the German group, written in Latin and German; and various printed editions. The various manuscripts differ in the number and arrangement of stories, and the first printed editions differ from the manuscripts as well as from each other. Versions printed at Utrecht and Cologne, Germany, appeared between 1472 and 1475 and were frequently reprinted. The 1475 edition, printed by Ulrich Zell at Cologne, was the largest collection, containing 181 stories, and is called the Vulgate. The first English translation was completed by Wynkyn de Worde around 1510. In 1521, the first French translation of the Gesta Romanorum was printed; it was republished in 1858 under the title Le Violier des Histoires Romaines.

Plot and Major Characters

The Gesta Romanorum includes a multitude of moralized stories, most of them dealing with religious subjects. Some typical examples cited by Joseph Albert Mosher are “how a clerk was saved by confession and penance from a compact with the devil; how a man was delivered for his piety; how certain tempting devils were vanquished; how a bishop was damned for neglecting God's warning; [and] how a rich man was punished for robbing a poor widow.” The collection also includes many secular tales—for example, of Lear and his three daughters, of Pericles, of the three caskets, and of the pound of flesh. These were used by Shakespeare for plot lines in King Lear, Pericles, and The Merchant of Venice. Chaucer used the story of Constance in “The Man of Law's Tale” in The Canterbury Tales; Charles Algernon Swinburne mined the tale of the the race of Atalanta for his Atalanta in Calydon; and George Bernard Shaw copied the story of Androcles and the lion for his play of the same name.

Major Themes

The recurrent theme pervading the Gesta Romanorum is the need to live a virtuously obedient life through the practice of Christian piety for the accomplishment of personal salvation. The individual tales provide numerous examples of characters who do exactly that. Many of the tales also demonstrate the corollary—the unfortunate consequences of wrong action and sinful behavior—and detail the fates of those who yield to vice. All the stories are intended to function as instruments of penitence and conversion, which, as they illustrate, are always possible. In addition to the primary theme, the Gesta Romanorum deal with matters such as the seven deadly sins and also feature such standard Christian tropes as prophetic destinies, exposed children, and merciful servants who disobey orders to kill helpless victims.

Critical Reception

The multitude of manuscript copies and printed editions of the Gesta Romanorumconfirms the observation of Charles Swan that the “Gesta Romanorum was one of the most applauded compilations of the Middle Ages.” Although it is not so popular with readers today, Gesta Romanorum continues to inspire scholars and critical debate. Ella Bourne, Eleanor Beatrice Miller, and Beryl Smalley have studied the various sources and antecedents of the Gesta Romanorum; correspondingly, Herbert F. Schwartz, Oscar Maurer, and R. J. Lyall, among others, have written about the influence of the Gesta Romanorum on later authors and works. The textual history of the work, too, still presents opportunities for exploration, and many scholars—for example, Stanley J. Kahrl and Geoffrey R. Hope—have pursued that avenue of research. More recent criticism has focused on the literary aspects of the Gesta Romanorum, with Diane Speed examining the medieval romance motifs that appear in the work, and John Weld and Shirley Marchalonis analyzing the discrepancy between the actual content of each tale and the moral and didactic purpose it was intended to serve. Because its stories have served as the basis for countless other works of literature, the Gesta Romanorum is recognized as one of the primary sources of western European literature.