Gesta Romanorum: A unique glimpse into history

Gesta Romanorum is Latin for “Deeds of the Romans”, which makes it sound like this book is a narration of the early culture of Rome, its history and battles.

However, it is actually a Latin compilation of morality stories believed to be written approximately at the end of the 13th century.

There are 181 stories. I have read a number of the tales, which range from half a page to several pages long, and found them interesting and easy to read. The simple plots center around royalty, family, daring exploits, rescues, faith, good morals, courage, and loyalty.

The stories have a pattern: the tale number, title and text of the tale, followed by an explanation for the “beloved” reader of the story’s deeper meaning, from a spiritual perspective.

The book’s main claim to fame is as a source of later works by Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and others. It was apparently one of the most popular books of the time and some consider these to be some of the first short stories published.

An image from Gesta Romanorum – Donaueschingen 145, a manuscript from Upper Swabia in Germany from circa 1452.
A public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

It’s an interesting little book. My little green hardcover copy, which I found at a thrift store, was published in 1877. What fascinates me the most is how arduously these tales were originally recorded eight centuries ago, preserved, and are now readily available for anyone to read today.

…invented by 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

from the title page of Gesta Romanorum

“They” (the Monks) might be disposed occasionally to recreate their minds with subjects of a light and amusing nature; and what could be more innocent or delightful than the stories of the GESTA ROMANORUM?”

Douce’s Illustrations of Shakespeare

Example of one of the tales

A tremendous amount of research has been done regarding its origins. The first 68 pages of my copy consist of an 11-page Preface about the origins, translation, revision and printings of the book; the Introduction, including14 pages on the History of Romantic Fabling and 4 pages about the history of the stories in Gesta Romanorum; 30 pages of “Annexed Tales”, and finally, a 10-page table of contents (“Outlines of the Tales”). More notes are included after the tales (which appear to be Swan’s notes).

Illustration from Gesta Romanorum, Image 32v Gesta Romanorum – Donaueschingen. A public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

After Tale number CLXXXI (181) on page 349 is a final note–from the original, not from the editor:

Remarkable Histories, from the Gesta Romanorum, combined with numerous moral and mystical applications, treating of vices and virtues, Printed and diligently revised, at the expense of that provident and circumspect man, John Rynman, of Oringaw; at the workshop of Henry Gran, citizen of the imperial town of Hagenaw, concluded happily, in the year of our safety, one thousand five hundred and eight: March the 20th.

Page after the final tale, Tale CLXXXI

It’s fascinating to touch medieval history through this book! I highly recommend having a look at Gesta Romanorum.

The actual book and plenty of information are easily available online. Wikisource offers an excellent eBook of the 1871 version in two volumes, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Project Gutenberg offers what looks to be only a selection of stories from the original, called Tales from the Gesta Romanorum (which is completely different from my version, but looks interesting and easy to read); the 1845 version of this book for free, here. If you’re interested in getting a hardcopy, as an example, my 1877 hardcover copy sells for about $18.00 USD on Abe Books.