Gesta Romanorum Tales
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How the mind loves to grasp at mystery. - Charles Swan
The Gesta Romanorum is a collection of 181 stories from medieval times. The Latin word Gesta meant historical exploits, or acts, and Romanorum means "of the Romans".
It happens to many good stories that they get transmuted into more fantastic ones as the decades go by. Some characters are rendered wild and fabulous; others are presented in a terrible light, and their vices may be grossly exaggerated. There is partiality in many stories, superstition abounds, and sets of attitudes are maintained.
In medieval times many such stories went into manuscript collections at the hands of monks. Gesta Romanorum, Deeds of the Romans, is a medieval collection of this kind of anecdotes and tales. Probably compiled around 1300 CE, it was one of the most popular books of the time and also a source of much literature in medieval times and later centuries, and a a source of dramatic episodes. The work includes the germs of later stories and romance by famous authors, such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Schiller, and others.
Who wrote the collection is uncertain. And it is debated whether the Gesta Romanorum was collected in Germany, France, or England. German editions are among the earliest ones. Hermann Oesterley has recognised a German group of manuscripts and a group that is represented by the common printed text, also called the vulgate. An English translation was published about 1510-1515. A revised edition of it from 1577 became highly popular.
The work served as a manual for preachers. The name, Deeds of the Romans, is only partially fit since the work contains fragments of different origins, both oriental and European, aside from stories related to Greek and Latin history and legend or transferred to such settings in medieval times. The Gesta Romanorum contains varied material and has a loose structure - Medieval manuscripts of it contain different stories. What unites the Gesta is its moral purpose.
Charles Swan and Wynnard Hooper
A translation by Reverend Charles Swan was first published in two volumes in 1824. His work was re-edited by Wynnard Hooper in 1877, and I take off from such a Swan/Hooper edition from 1905 (book data at bottom).
Wynnard Hooper rectified Swan's translation considerably, and informs in his preface of 1876 that the Gesta Romanorum Swan translated from, was first printed about 1473.
However, before the collection of stories was printed, there existed a great number of manuscripts all over Western Europe, and no two of them were exactly like another.
Hooper concurred with Swan that an English version should certainly not be a literal translation. And although Swan's translation was careless and faulty in many places; many of his notes were erroneous and faulty; and considerable corrections and amendments were needed; and Swan omitted the greater part of all but a few moralisation at the start, Hooper tells that Swan's translation, in many ways faulty, "kept to the original with tolerable fidelity", and that moralisation additions have been shortened because they were too inferior and uninteresting, by and large.
Hooper further tells that Swan also expanded the Latin in his translation so as to express what was really implied in the original, and included two very good stories in his introduction. Swan very often paraphrased; and amplified narratives too.
Points from an Introduction
In the introduction to the Swan and Hooper edition of 1905 we read:
Stories have been fit for domestic entertainment. The use of telling popular tales and adding some moralisation to them, got momentum among the European clergy in the 1100s, and was well known in the 1200s. It probably reached its highest degree of popularity during the 1300s and 1400s. At that time tales were written down in Latin and formed collections that were called "beautiful moralities for the use of preachers". It became a class of literature, and it was used to furnish illustrations of sentiments, opinions, and norms too.
The medieval collection of stories that go into the Swan and Hooper work, is in part derived from the East. Why it was called "Acts of the Romans" is clearly related to the Roman church: It wanted to tally the entertaining stories to Rome and famous historical persons of antiquity in its sphere of influence. In this way, by and by Eastern viziers became wise men of Rome; stories of events from other places were related to some Roman emperor, and in turn the collection was given the title of Gesta Romanorum - despite the fact that many of its stories are from other places than Rome, and about other people than those put into the stories in time.
Examples: In one tale we find living together at the same time in Rome the emperor Claudius (10 BCE - 54 CE), the philosopher Socrates (c. 469 - 399 BCE), and king Alexander (356 - 323 BCE). In another tale we are told of a statue raised in honour of Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE), in the capitol, twenty-two years after the foundation of Rome. However, the established legend tells that Rome was founded on 21 April 753 BCE. Ignorance of Roman history - any history - is displayed by Medieval compiler(s), affirm the translators.
Popular Narratives Used to DiscourseYet the Gesta was the most popular story book in the Middle Ages, and one of the most applauded compilations at that time. Through a period of five hundred years the stories afforded popular entertainment.
The method of instructing by fables is from antiquity, and most of the time it has been considered to confer benefits. Already Greek orators used fables to sway opinions and thereby win public cases, say Olivia and Robert Temple [Cs xvi]. The great popularity of fables and other didactic tales encouraged monks to adopt stories to illustrate their discourses and make better impressions on the minds of illiterate listeners throughout.
Such stories are found at a very early period in Buddhist and Hindu literature. Jerome Bruner theorises that story-telling conforms to a main way of learning, and that good stories help humans develop. Simply put: humans are well instructed in some fields and walks of life by stories. Such a way of communicating principles and ideas may have great force, and it was taken up with great eagerness by the Christian clergy of the West, says Swift.
The clergy added a religious interpretation of their own making to the stories, by and large. These additions were called moralisations, and were "sometimes very singular and almost droll".
Swan, Charles, and Wynnard Hooper. Gesta Romanorum: Translated from the Latin by the Rev. Charles Swan. Revised and Corrected by Wynnard Hooper, M. A. London: George Bell and Sons, 1905.
Cs: Aesop. The Complete Fables. Translated by Olivia and Robert Temple. London: Penguin, 1998.
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