Somewhere in Europe, probably around the end of the 13th or the beginning of the 14th century, someone put together a book of tales. Likely this someone was a cleric who wanted to compile a manual to use in sermons and preaching. The texts were written in Latin and featured stories of all sorts: romances, travellers’ tales, fragments of Pliny and Herodotus and Aesop. A number were brief and didactic, if not prosaic, describing some uninteresting event or propounding a riddle a nearby wise man quickly answered with too pat an explanation — but others of the tales were filled with miracles and adventure and magic, with angels and saints and knights and dragons. Each was given a detailed moral, with every incident and character shown to have allegorical significance. Whether because it boasted wonder-stories, because it made those wonder-stories Christian parables, or both, the book quickly became immensely popular. This being well before the age of print, manuscripts proliferated, gaining and losing stories along the way.
Most of the tales claimed to take place in “Rome,” which superficially meant little: there was no attempt to create any sense of place or setting. A story might be said to take place in the reign of a given Emperor, but even if said Emperor happened to share a name with a recorded ruler of Rome, the Emperor of the tale typically had nothing to do with the Emperor of history. At any rate, this conceit gave the collection of stories a name: Gesta Romanorum, The Deeds of the Romans.
The book was first put in print in the late fifteenth century and an English translation appeared in the first decade of the sixteenth, by which time the book had already had tremendous influence on European literature. It had presented writers like Chaucer and Boccaccio and John Gower with narratives and narrative seeds that they’d develop in their own writings. It continued to be popular through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the longest single story in the book is a version of the romance of Apollonius, Prince of Tyre, one of the most popular tales of the Middle Ages, and it seems that the Gesta’s version directly or indirectly inspired Shakespeare’s take on the story, Pericles.
The translation I read was a 1959 Dover reprint of a nineteenth-century English translation (you can read an edition of the book from 1905 here). I mention this because the scholarly apparatus around the Gesta text was a significant part of the reading experience; and indeed the text itself was clearly shaped by the scholarship of its times. The Reverend Charles Swan wrote the translation in 1824, and his work was edited and corrected by Wynnard Hooper in 1876. It reads, at least in part, like a nineteenth-century idea of the Middle Ages; Hooper’s preface states that Swan “very often paraphrased; and where the Latin contained too bald a statement of facts, he considered himself justified in amplifying the narrative.” Hooper himself claimed to “have expunged whatever was an unnecessary departure from the text,” restored omissions, and generally corrected the translation. He also provided footnotes of his own over top of Swan’s own often-extensive notes.
The result is a charmingly cantankerous piece of scholarship. The text’s hedged in with multiple introductions (which include summaries of tales included in other versions of the Gesta text than the one translated here), notes, appendices, and transcriptions of parallels in other authors. The later editor snipes at the earlier. One of the men makes a point of following some of the stories with anti-Catholic diatribes, notably the legend of Saint Alexis. It is, in the end, a book that reflects a sense of the strata of literary history and of cultural shifts over time.
Which is also to say that it is deeply strange, even when the Gesta’s read on its own. It’s fair to say that the medieval mind is different from the modern one, and was interested in different things, leading to different shapes for its preferred stories. But many of these tales aren’t really stories at all. They may be as simple as a paragraph relating facts, seeming to exist purely to set up the concluding moral. The impression I have is that for the Gesta writer the moral often was the point: the story was less important than the clever exegesis of the story, the extraction of meaning from incident. If some of the morals seem strained, that strain is itself a kind of success. The mere narrative is important, perhaps, as the cause of interpretation (and it must be said the Gesta’s compiler would not be the first and certainly not the last critic to be beguiled by this notion). Maybe the audience is expected to know the story already; maybe the skeleton of plot is meant to be given flesh by a preacher, so what we read is merely a synopsis. Either way, the weight of importance seems now to be in the wrong place. The book wrong-foots us.
The stories themselves often assume strange things, or people behaving strangely. It’s surprisingly common for the starting point of one of the tales to be an Emperor passing a peculiar law, which is then thwarted or subverted by one of his subjects. More peculiar, the explanation for the allegory may then cast the Emperor as God. So:
OF JUST JUDGMENT.
A CERTAIN emperor decreed, that if any woman were taken in adultery, she should be cast headlong from a very high precipice. It chanced that a woman, convicted of the crime, was immediately conveyed to the place of punishment, and thrown down. But she received no injury in the fall. They therefore brought her back to the judgment-seat; and when the judge perceived that she was unharmed, he commanded that she should again be led to the precipice, and the sentence effectually executed. The woman, however, addressing the judge, said, “My Lord, if you command this, you will act contrary to the law, which punishes not twice for the same fault. I have already been cast down as a convicted adultress, but God miraculously preserved me. Therefore, I ought not to be subjected to it again.” The judge answered, “Thou hast well said; go in peace:” and thus was the woman saved.
My beloved, the emperor is God, who made a law that if any one polluted the soul (which is the spouse of Christ) by the commission of any mortal sin, he should be precipitated from a high mountain — that is, from heaven; as befell our first parent, Adam. But God, by the sufferings of His Son, hath preserved us. When man sins, God does not instantly condemn him, because His mercy is infinite; but “by grace we are saved,” and not cast headlong into hell.
It’s difficult here to make any logical sense of the Application. The Emperor is God, but God preserved the woman thrown from the precipice. God has infinite mercy, but in the story the Emperor’s prepared to punish the woman a second time before the law is cited to him. It’s also difficult to see much of a sense of story in the tale as written: this happens, then that happens. You can see the outline of a story — the weird law, the clever criminal outwitting the bad logic of the judge — but it doesn’t really come together.
At least, in this case. There are a hundred and eighty other stories in the book, and most of them make some kind of sense. That’s sometimes because they’re familiar, one way or another, presenting tales better known from some other telling. The Gesta’s full of motifs, ideas, and even entire stories that were handed on from elsewhere, and in turn would be handed on to other tellers. It puts its own spin on a tale, gets out of it what it wants, and moves on to the next.
It’s tempting to look at the book with an eye to what known history has made it into the stories; to treat it as matter for a source study. To think about what things the Middle Ages remembered from the past, and how: the strata of literary history and culture, again. Alexander and Aristotle appear. So does Julius Caesar’s conflict with Pompey, after a fashion. It’s a very distinctive Caesar, as a fantastical twist is put on Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon:
Here a phantom of immense stature, standing in the middle of the water, opposed his passage. It said, “Caesar, if your purpose be the welfare of the state — pass on; but if not, beware how you advance another step.” Caesar replied, “I have long fought for, and am still prepared to undergo every hardship in defence of Rome; of which I take the gods whom I worship to be my witnesses.” As he said this, the phantom vanished. Caesar then spurred his war-horse and crossed the river; but having effected his passage, he paused on the opposite bank: — ‘“I have rashly promised peace,” said he; “for in this case, I must relinquish my just right.” From that hour he pursued Pompey with the utmost virulence, even to the death; and was himself slain afterwards by a band of conspirators.
Caesar, it turns out, represents Adam. The Rubicon is baptism. Pompey, surprisingly, is the Creator.
Perhaps, all in all, it is wrong to look at the Gesta as reflecting history, however distantly.
What I mean is this: The Gesta is one of a number of what are effectively medieval anthologies. The Middle Ages seemed to love these collections of stories — The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, Confessio Amantis. There’s no frame narrative here, though. Instead, what gives the stories of the Gesta a kind of unity is its creation of a setting.
It would be wrong to say that the Gesta imagines ‘Rome’ as a coherent place with a coherent history. But over the course of the book a modern reader can perhaps see an otherworldly Rome emerge. It is a place of whimsical Emperors, sometimes tyrannical and sometimes just. It is a place of weirdness and prodigies, of symbolic actions and of impossibilities. It is a place of knights and kings and ladies, just as the Gesta’s writer knew them; and sometimes they get mixed up with various kinds of supernatural incidents.
It is possible, then, to read the Gesta’s Rome as a fairy-tale kingdom. As a country of romance and adventure. I make this point because I think it’s the opposite of the way many modern readers instinctively approach the text. Much as I thought I knew better, I couldn’t help but read it as confused history rather than what it is: a set of stories in their own right. There is Julius Caesar in the book. But not the Caesar we know. There is an Alexander, king of the world, who is a pupil of a wise philosopher called Aristotle; but these aren’t necessarily the Alexander and Aristotle we know, and it really doesn’t matter whether they are or not. The point is the young king, the wisest of all teachers, and the relationship between them. That is where the story lies.
Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” wrote of the cauldron of story; here Aristotle and Alexander have become ingredients in the stew, as has Caesar, as has the whole idea of Caesars. And the idea of Imperial Rome itself, Rome as the home of Emperors, as the ruler of the world. In the way it imagines all these things, the Gesta creates a piece of the land of faërie that is to be called “Rome,” but not to be imagined as we imagine Rome: it is a Rome of fable. Is it a fantasy? In a literal sense, yes, of course. In a formal genre sense, it’s not what is meant by the contemporary label of ‘fantasy’ but seems to me to be related. I think the Gesta is a proto-fantasy, or collection of proto-fantasies, from a time and culture in which the idea of ‘story’ had a different relation to what was understood of ‘reality’ than we ascribe to it — and indeed that ‘story’ and ‘reality’ had different meanings as well. One could argue that ‘reality’ was itself understood as what we would call story: as part of a Christian narrative. So the sub-stories created within that overall story had to be related back to the overall master pattern of narrative. Either way, the stories seem mostly to aim at (again, in Tolkien’s phrase) the “arresting strangeness” of fantasy, but instead of attempting to produce “the inner consistency of reality” through means we’re familiar with, it reads to me as though they make the strangeness consistent not with the everyday world but with the Christian reality believed by the intended audience — that the morals of the stories are the equivalent of characterisation and all that goes to us under the name ‘verisimilitude.’
I mentioned Tolkien’s essay above, and I’m reminded weirdly of his idea of the eucatastrophe, “the sudden joyous ‘turn’” that makes the plot of a fairy story resolve happily. The move from story to “application” is perhaps a kind of eucatastrophe, or was at least for some of the original readers. Tolkien described the eucatastrophe as causing a kind of intense and poignant joy brought about by “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a ‘consolation’ for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’” The Gesta comes from a time later than that of Tolkien’s main interest, but I wonder whether he didn’t catch something of its spirit when he observed that “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.” So much as Tolkien may have cordially disliked allegory, as he says elsewhere, for the medieval allegorist it perhaps made sense to view all stories as ultimately allegories of the largest story around. A way, perhaps, to establish that “Legend and History have met and fused.”
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.