Gesta Romanorum Essay - Critical Essays

Gesta Romanorum


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.

Principal Works

Gesta Romanorum (translated by Charles Swan) 1824

Gesta Romanorum (translated by Charles Swan, edited by Wynnard Hooper) 1877


Charles Swan (essay date 1824)

SOURCE: Swan, Charles. Introduction to “Gesta Romanorum”: or, Entertaining Moral Stories; Invented by the Monks as a Fireside Recreation, and Commonly Applied in Their Discourses from the Pulpit: Whence the Most Celebrated of Our Own Poets and Others, from the Earliest Times Have Extracted Their Plots, translated by Charles Swan, revised by Wynnard Hooper, pp. xxx-xxxiv. London: George Bell and Sons, 1877.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1824, Swan, the first translator of the complete Gesta Romanorum into English, offers a brief history of the work.]

I now hasten to the Gesta Romanorum; and purpose giving a brief outline of its history, with a notice of certain stories which, without reference to their own individual merit, have been raised into higher importance by furnishing the groundwork of many popular dramas. I shall also take occasion to offer a few remarks upon the translation now before the public, elucidatory of certain points which seem to require explanation.

The Gesta Romanorum was one of the most applauded compilations of the Middle Ages. The method of instructing by fables is a practice of remote antiquity; and has always been attended with very considerable benefit. Its great popularity encouraged the monks to adopt this medium, not only for the sake of illustrating their discourses, but of making a more durable impression upon the minds of their illiterate auditors. An abstract argument, or logical deduction (had they been capable of supplying it), would operate but faintly upon intellects rendered even more obtuse by the rude nature of their customary occupations; while, on the other hand, an apposite story would arouse attention, and stimulate that blind and uninquiring devotion, which is so remarkably characteristic of the Middle Ages.

The work under consideration is compiled from old Latin chronicles of Roman, or rather, as Mr. Warton and Mr. Douce think, of German invention. But this idea, with all submission, derives little corroborative evidence from fact. There is one story, and I believe, but one, which gives any countenance to it. That a few are extracted from German authors (who may not, after all, be the inventors) is no more proof that the compiler was a German, than that, because some stories are found in the Roman annals, the whole book was the production of a Latin writer.

Oriental, legendary, and classical fables, heightened by circumstances of a strong romantic cast, form the basis of this singular composition. But the authorities cited for classical allusions are usually of the lower order. Valerius, Maximus, Macrobius, Aulus Gellius, Pliny, Seneca, Boethius, and occasionally Ovid, are introduced; but they do not always contain the relation which they are intended to substantiate; and it is invariably much disguised and altered. The oriental apologues are sometimes from the romance of Baarlam and Josaphat, and in several instances from a Latin work entitled, De Clericali Disciplina, attributed to Petrus Alphonsus, a converted Jew, godson to Alphonsus I. of Arragon, after whom he was named. There is an analysis of it by Mr. Douce inserted in Mr. Ellis's Specimens of Early English Romances. According to the former of these gentlemen, two productions bearing the title of Gesta Romanorum, and totally distinct from each other, exist. I confess I see no good reason for the assertion. I take the later work to be the same as its predecessor, with a few additions, not so considerable by any means as Mr. Douce imagines.1 This I shall show, by and by. Of the present performance, though it purports to relate the Gests of the Romans, there is little that corresponds with the title. On the contrary, it comprehends “a multitude of narratives, either not historical, or in another respect, such as are totally unconnected with the Roman people, or perhaps the most preposterous misrepresentations of their history. To cover this deviation from the promised plan, which, by introducing a more ample variety of matter, has contributed to increase the reader's entertainment, our collector has taken care to preface almost every story with the name or reign of a Roman emperor; who, at the same time, is often a monarch that never existed, and who seldom, whether real or supposititious, has any concern with the circumstances of the narrative.”2

The influence which this work has had on English poetry is not the least surprising fact connected with it. Not only the earlier writers of our country—Gower, Chaucer, Lydgate, Occleve, &c.—have...

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Wynnard Hooper (essay date 1877)

SOURCE: Hooper, Wynnard. Preface to “Gesta Romanorum”: or, Entertaining Moral Stories; Invented by the Monks as a Fireside Recreation, and Commonly Applied in Their Discourses from the Pulpit: Whence the Most Celebrated of Our Own Poets and Others, from the Earliest Times Have Extracted Their Plots, translated by Charles Swan, revised by Wynnard Hooper, pp. iii-xiv. London: George Bell and Sons, 1877.

[In the following excerpt, Hooper discusses the textual history of the Gesta Romanorum.]

It is somewhat remarkable that, in spite of the great interest attaching to the Gesta Romanorum, as the most popular story book of the Middle Ages, and as the source of...

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Herbert F. Schwarz (essay date 1919)

SOURCE: Schwarz, Herbert F. “John Fletcher and the Gesta Romanorum.Modern Language Notes 34, no. 3 (March 1919): 146-49.

[In the following essay, Schwarz argues that Renaissance dramatist John Fletcher used episodes from the Gesta Romanorum in several plays he helped to write.]

Some years ago I pointed out (Mod. Lang. Notes XXIV, 76-77) the fact that the dénouement (Act V, sc. 4) of The Queen of Corinth by Fletcher, Massinger, and Field is derived from the tale of the two maidens and their seducer found in the Gesta Romanorum (Early English Text Society, Extra Series 33, p. 440). This story presents the rival claims of two...

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Ella Bourne (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: Bourne, Ella. “Classical Elements in The Gesta Romanorum.” In Vassar Medieval Studies, edited by Christabel Forsyth Fiske, pp. 345-76. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923.

[In the essay below, Bourne examines the themes and sources of a number of tales in the Gesta Romanorum.]

The popularity of the Gesta Romanorum during the Middle Ages is abundantly shown by the enormous number of manuscripts which are still to be found in the libraries of England and of continental Europe. Its importance for the history of literature, particularly since the thirteenth century, can be no less clearly seen by a glance at the tables at the end of Oesterley's...

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Eleanor Beatrice Miller (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: Miller, Eleanor Beatrice. “The Gesta Romanorum.” In “Romance Elements in the Gesta Romanorum. Master's thesis, pp. 1-24, University of Vermont, 1949.

[In the following essay, Miller surveys the characteristics, sources, and influences of the Gesta Romanorum.]


The Gesta Romanorum was one of the most popular collections of moralized stories in the Middle Ages. The stories do not concern Roman history, as the title might indicate, although many of them come from classical sources. The framework, if the tenuous connection which unites the stories may be called that, is simply the...

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Roger J. Trienens (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Trienens, Roger J. “The Symbolic Cloud in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 5, no. 2 (spring 1954): 211-13.

[In the following essay, Trienens traces the relationship of the cloud-shaped whale—which Hamlet points out to Polonius– in Hamlet to the Gesta Romanorum's depiction of the whale as a signifier of lust.]

When Polonius informs Hamlet of the Queen's urgent desire to see him, Hamlet feigns madness and points to the sky:

Do you see that cloud that's almost in shape like a camel?
By the mass, and it's like a camel, indeed.

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Beryl Smalley (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Smalley, Beryl. “Robert Holcot.” In English Friars and Antiquity in the Early Fourteenth Century, pp. 144-46, 183. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1960.

[In the following excerpt, Smalley argues that many of the entries in the Gesta Romanorum were derived from a book of exempla for sermons by the fourteenth-century preacher and teacher Robert Holcot.]

The title of the collection [of Sermons by Robert Holcot from around 1334, called] ‘Sermons for Sundays and weekdays’, does not mean that each Sunday and weekday has its sermon. Christmas Day, the Epiphany, Easter Sunday and Sundays 8-17 after Trinity Sunday are omitted. Yet the feast of the...

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Oscar Maurer (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Maurer, Oscar. “William Morris and Gesta Romanorum.” In Studies in Language, Literature, and Culture of the Middle Ages and Later, edited by E. Bagby Atwood and Archibald A. Hill, pp. 367-81. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, Maurer examines how William Morris used tales from the Gesta Romanorum in his The Earthly Paradise.]

“When you are using an old story,” Morris once observed, “read it through, then shut the book and write it in your own way.” This was his practice, especially to be seen in the composition of the medieval tales in The Earthly Paradise. What happens after he has “shut the...

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Stanley J. Kahrl (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Kahrl, Stanley J. “The Medieval Origins of the Sixteenth-Century Jest-Books.” Studies in the Renaissance, 13 (1966): 166-83.

[In the following essay, Kahrl links sixteenth-century jest-books to the Gesta Romanorum, comparing the tales and exempla appearing in those books with tales in the Gesta Romanorum and similar collections.]

Saynt Bede tellis in ‘Gestis Anglorum’ how, when Englond was oute of þe belefe, þe pope sente in-to it to preche a bisshop þat was a passyng sutell clerk, and a well-letterd; and he vsid so mekull soteltie and strange saying in his sermons, þat his prechyng owder litle profettid or...

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Joseph Albert Mosher (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Mosher, Joseph Albert. “The Latin Exemplum in England.” In The Exemplum in the Early Religious and Didactic Literature of England, pp. 66-67, 74-83. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1966.

[In the following excerpt, Mosher discusses the Gesta Romanorum in the context of preceding and succeeding collections of moralized stories.]

[The] collection of fables and tales by the English preacher and fable writer, Odo de Ceritona,1compiled between 1219-21, is apparently the earliest in which fables are accompanied with moralizations. Although preachers used this collection as a source-book for illustrations, it was probably compiled to reform clerical...

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John Weld (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Weld, John. Introduction to ”Gesta Romanorum”: A Record of Auncient Histories Newly Perused by Richard Robinson (1595). Delmar, N. Y.: Scholars's Facsimiles & Reprints, 1973.

[In the following excerpt, Weld accounts for the disjunction between the written tales in the Gesta Romanorum and their oral versions.]

The Gesta Romanorum, a collection of allegorized stories compiled in the early fourteenth century, was one of the greatest—and longest enduring—popular successes of all time. “No other production of the middle ages, the Golden Legend excepted,” wrote Professor J-.Th. Welter, “enjoyed a parallel success”...

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Shirley Marchalonis (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Marchalonis, Shirley. “Medieval Symbols and the Gesta Romanorum.The Chaucer Review 8, no.4 (spring 1974): 311-19.

[In the following essay, Marchalonis argues that symbolism in the Gesta Romanorum stories is externally imposed rather than internally developed.]

Since the theories of D. W. Robertson, Jr., were first proposed, their validity has been the subject of much scholarly discussion.1 It seems unlikely that any more can be said about Robertson's ideas in general statements; what is needed now are systematic and painstaking attempts to apply the theories to specific works of medieval literature. In this paper I would like to...

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R. J. Lyall (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Lyall, R. J. “The Sources of The Thre Prestis of Peblis and Their Significance.”The Review of English Studies XXXI, no. 123 (August 1980): 257-70.

[In the following essay, Lyall argues that the fifteenth-century Scots poem The Thre Prestis of Peblis, was not influenced by the Gesta Romanorum, as crtiics who interpret it as a harbinger of humanism, rather than an echo of medievalism, have argued.]

The fifteenth-century Scots poem The Thre Prestis of Peblis1 is a composite of three linked tales, involving no less than seven narrative elements. The first, the basic narrative framework, concerns the carousing of the...

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Timothy R. Jackson (review date 1996)

SOURCE: Jackson, Timothy R. Review of “Gesta Romanorum,” I: Untersuchungen zu Konzeption und Überlieferung; 2: Texte, Verzeichnisse, by Brigitte Weiske. Speculum 71, no.2 (April 1996): 503-04.

[In the following review, Jackson summarizes some of the major ideas in Weiske's study of the Gesta Romanorum.]

In the Gesta Romanorum we have the most popular collection of exempla to have been produced in medieval Europe. That popularity is attested by our knowledge of some 270 Latin manuscripts, not to mention a substantial corpus of versions in English and German. The tradition extends down through early printings to Cammerlander's reworking of the text in...

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Geoffrey R. Hope (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Hope, Geoffrey R. “Tales of Literacy and Authority in the Violier (1521): The French Gesta Romanorum.Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance LIX, no. 2 (1997): 353-63.

[In the following essay, Hope examines the French translation of an assortment of tales from the Gesta Romanorum.]

The Gesta Romanorum is an anonymous collection of moralized tales in the exemplum tradition identified with Franciscan and Benedictine preaching orders in England and southern Germany1. It reached a wide European readership in a great many manuscripts mostly in Latin that begin around the early 14th century2. The first imprints...

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Diane Speed (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Speed, Diane. “Middle English Romance and the Gesta Romanorum.” In Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance, edited by Rosalind Field, pp. 45-56. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999.

[In the following essay, Speed catalogs a series of motifs that appear both in the stories of the Gesta Romanorum and in medieval romances.]


Amongst scholarly efforts to locate both individual Middle English romances and the amorphous entity ‘Middle English Romance’ in shifting generic discourses, one recurrent topic has been the parallels observable between certain romances and the Gesta Romanorum, ultimately...

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Amanda Mabillard (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Mabillard, Amanda. “Sources for The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Online, 2000.

[In the following essay, Mabillard explores Shakespeare's use of the Gesta Romanorum as the basis of the three caskets motif in The Merchant of Venice.]

There are many possible texts that Shakespeare could have used in constructing The Merchant of Venice, and while we can confirm that he relied upon two particular sources, the others sources I will mention were likely, though not definitely, influences on Shakespeare. His chief source was a tale in an Italian collection...

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James D. Johnson (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Johnson, James D. “Walter W. Skeat's Canterbury Tale.The Chaucer Review 36, no. 1 (2001): 16-27.

[In the following essay, Johnson shows how Chaucer scholar W. W. Skeat used a tale from the Gesta Romanorum as the basis for an additional tale he composed for The Canterbury Tales.]

All Chaucerians are familiar with the scholarly publications of the Reverend Walter W. Skeat (1835-1912).1 Although Skeat ranged widely in medieval studies—producing numerous editions of Old and Middle English texts and writing a seemingly endless stream of articles and notes—some of his most significant work was in Chaucer studies. Skeat did much to...

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Further Reading


Archibald, Elizabeth. Incest and the Medieval Imagination. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001, 295 p.

Discusses several tales in the Gesta Romanorum that deal with incestuous relations.

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