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.

I Love Old Books! (Part 3)

Happy New Year!  I wonder what books 2013 holds!

I enjoy everything about old books: hunting for them, inhaling the smell of leather and studying them: their covers, publishers, inscriptions, signs of aging, and knowing that I am holding something that was on this earth in a different century. I don’t necessarily need to read all the gems that I find; it’s enough to surround myself with them. But reading them is the frosting on the cake!

In my first post on old books, I mentioned McGuffey’s Eclectic Fourth Reader, published in 1853 by Winthrop B Smith. After digging it out of storage (behind some other books), I thumbed through it and was curious to know what exactly the students were learning from those readers at that time. So I started on page one and made the commitment to read the entire book (over 300 pages of small font). It was a big commitment because I assumed that the lessons were going to be hitting-over-the-head moralizing, boring history, monotonous poetry and irrelevant essays.

But I was in for a pleasant surprise. I wish my school reading assignments (and my children’s) had been as full of such disturbing, dramatic, eye-opening fiction and non-fiction as these. They would motivate a student to read. Even the moralizing stories were great. Yes, there was tough slogging through some, but I was usually rewarded by the end of the piece.

I admit that I skipped most of the diction, articulation, pronunciation and vocabulary lessons. But from time to time, I would read those, and I found it humorous to see how the “incorrect” pronunciations were a Southern U.S. accent:

“E-spe-cial-ly, not ‘spe-cial-ly…
Gov-erns, not gov-uns…
Win-dow-blind, not win-der-bline”

As I was noting my favorite selections, I was curious to know a bit more about the authors, and found most of them well-represented on the internet. One that stood out for me was The Steamboat Trial, by Jacob Abbott, and not so easy to find online, so I’ve included the first 2 pages here, and the last 2 pages here.

Here are a few other poems, plays and essays well worth checking out: Washing Day, by Mrs. Anna Letitia Barbauld, Shylock (from The Merchant of Venice, by Shakespeare), Remarkable Preservation by Professor Wilson, and Religion the Only Basis of Society by William Ellery Channing.  Hope you find something that grabs you!

There is Much More to this Shakespeare than Culture

Ah, it’s finally summertime! You’re making plans to go camping on a lake, watch the sunset on the beach, hike to a mountain vista, or perhaps…stay in for a night in the city? Sure, why not? It’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park-Time, and I’m so excited!

Aside from hiking, the summer treat that thrills me the most is Calgary’s outdoor presentation of Shakespeare in the Park (SITP). Many cities around the world feature this outdoor theatre experience for the whole family, and here it is produced by the Drama Department of Mount Royal University and Theatre Calgary.

Now, if you are not “into Shakespeare” and can’t imagine sitting through an evening of it, please hear me out. I am not the type of person who gravitates toward the theatre, nor am I a student of Shakespeare. So what draws me to SITP?

First, it’s outdoors. When the weather report shows pictures of smiling suns I make plans to head downtown with my lawn chair, picnic supper, and a friend who has never been to SITP. The visually stunning venue is Prince’s Island Park in the Bow River where it flows alongside downtown Calgary. It is a short walk across the pedestrian bridge from a parking area and beside colorful Eau Claire Market, which features hanging baskets of multi-colored flowers, a wading pool full of children in their swim suits, street performers, wildlife and a fountain.

After receiving a program from one of the young volunteers, you set up your lawn chair near the top of the hill, or spread your blanket nearer the stage, surrounded by a park full of lush grass and enormous shade trees. Or, if you want to be right in front of the stage, you can reserve a spot up front. During the performance the sun gradually drops low on your left, but just as it starts to shine in your eyes, the poplars block it.

Instead of packing your own picnic, you can pre-order a creative dinner basket of food from the nearby River Cafe, the listed options including such words as hummus, seasonal, red-fife ciabatta, organic, Portabella, arugula, brie, hand-rolled, house-made, and goodie-filled. If you didn’t bring your own food or order it, or you want a treat during the intermission, the little Bard’s Bistro at the top just behind the lawn chairs provides drinks and simple snacks of popcorn, hot dogs and ice cream. When was the last time you were able to enjoy a double-scoop of Rocky Road during a theatre intermission?

I always look forward to some very un-Shakespearian costumes and music incorporated into the wholly-Shakespeare dialogue. During a recent performance, for example, the costumes were 1930’s wear, and the prop transitions and scene entrances featured music by Queen. The previous summer costumes included pink hoop skirts with embroidered kitty cats, bobby socks and oxfords, and fifties’ music.

Although very entertaining, I find that the acting is not the only activity attracting my attention. During the performance I enjoy watching the myriads of skateboarders, bikers, dog-walkers, and roller-bladers that pass by. Many of them are curious to find out what the crowd and music and laughter are all about and they’ll stop to watch a few minutes of the performance before continuing on. It gives me a thrill to see so many people enjoying the warm evenings in so many ways.

It’s fun to keep an eye out for the comings and goings of the actors and actresses to the backstage area. There is only one “building” that houses the entire production—a two-story set which is ingeniously versatile—and sometimes I catch the performers trying to escape unnoticed by walking slowly in a wide arc away from the stage and through the trees in order to get to the hill above and behind the audience.

A new scene often begins with several players speaking their opening lines as they skip down the steep grassy pathway in the midst of the audience. Scenes also often end with actors leaping off the stage and sprinting up that same center path until they are out of sight behind the snack shack. The whole thing charms me no end.
Since one of the annual sponsors of SITP is the Calgary Flames Hockey Team, once or twice during the breaks in action the director will shout out a trivia question about a Shakespearean play, and the first person to run up the hill and tell the answer wins tickets to a Flames game.

The payment for the performance is “pay what you will,” with a suggested donation of $25, and you can drop money in a box at any time before, during, or after the play. But I hold on to mine until the end, when the actors and actresses meander through the blankets and lawn chairs with a donation basket and chat with members of the audience. I like to tell them face-to-face how much I enjoyed the play and thank them for an all-around full and satisfying evening.

This summer features A Midsummer Night’s Dream June 27th to August 10th, Wednesday through Sunday evenings at 7 P.M. and weekend matinees at 2 P.M.  (note that there are no performances July 25-29).

Wherever you live, check out your own performance of Shakespeare in the Park. I promise that if you do, you will have a new appreciation for the theatre. Who knows? You might even admit to your friends that you are into Shakespeare!