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GESTA ROMANORUM or The Acts of the Romans.
The following text is based on Hermann Hesse’s preface to these fairy tales, originally published by Insel Verlag. Here is what Hesse has to say about these tales:
The Gesta Romanorum are a collection of stories, legends and anecdotes that were popular in the late Middle Ages. It is assumed that priests or clergy added the strong moral overtones to these tales, which were esteemed both as entertainment and edification by medieval readers. As the title suggests, all of these stories were originally taken from Roman history and saga, and over time a number of legends of the saints were added.
The author-or compiler - of this strange but influential book is unknown. It is rare to have such an important work of ancient literature, which has been so intensively studied, but about which surprisingly little is known. Here is not the place to offer conjecture but rather to describe in few words what we actually know about the Gesta Romanorum.
The oldest handwritten copy of the Latin text Gesta Romanorum was published in England in the year 1342. From that time until the beginning of the 16th century numerous copies, usually in Latin, were in circulation. There were also several English and German translations or reformulations of the text. Often these reformulations contained new material whereas the translations into other languages were strict reproductions of the original Latin. Thus it is assumed that the Gesta were written in England or Germany some time after 1300. Nothing is known about the author, and only a few scholarly, unconvincing theories have been offered. All that we know for certain is that this book of moral anecdotes enjoyed enormous popularity especially in Germany, where it was copied many times over, reworked and reprinted. With the arrival of the Reformation, it gradually disappeared but a portion of its popular material was transferred into early versions of German folktales. Starting in the mid-16th century if not earlier, the tales of the Gesta began to slip into obscurity.
[The version printed by Insel-Verlag/Germany* and selected by Hermann Hesse was translated by Johan Georg Theodor Graesse and originally published in 1842. Hesse compared this 19th century translation to a German version from the 15th century, and found it was not a simple matter to take an archaic text and create a new and vibrant translation. He adds that the version presented by Graesse seemed extremely readable, true to the original and not without appeal.
(* and the basis of the English translations provided here.)]
Fairy Tale of the Memento of Mortality
A long time ago a certain prince took enormous pleasure in the hunt. But it happened that when he rode out one day, he met a merchant, quite by accident, on the same road. When the merchant caught sight of the prince and saw how handsome and pleasant it was to gaze upon him, his fine and expensive garments, he said to himself:
“Dear God, you must love this man dearly; look, how beautiful he is, lively and wonderful to watch! And see how everyone in his company is dressed so decently.” As soon as he thought these thoughts, he spoke to one of the servants of the prince: “Tell me, dear man. Who is your master?” The servant replied: “He is master of many lands and indeed mighty because of his riches in gold, silver and servants.”
The merchant now spoke: “God must hold this man very dearly in his heart, because he is the most handsome and most wise man of all. I have never before laid eyes on such a man!” When the servant heard this, he secretly told every word the merchant had uttered to his master. When the prince now returned toward evening time to his home, he invited the merchant to overnight with him. The man did not think it proper to object, instead, he made his way with the prince toward his kingdom.
When he had entered the castle, the merchant viewed so many chambers beautifully adorned with gold and so many riches that he soon became spell-bound. When the hour of dinner approached, the prince called the merchant to table and offered the seat next to his wife. When the merchant saw this beautiful and dear lady, it unsettled him. He admitted to himself: “O my God, this prince has everything that his heart desires: a beautiful wife and daughter, sons and servants, and more than too many.” As he was mulling it over, food was brought to him and the queen. But look, the most delicious delicacies were served on a skull and placed before the lady. And the assembled were attended to in the great hall and many silver platters were carried by the servants.
When the merchant now saw the skull placed before him, he said to himself: “Woe is me. I fear I shall pay with my life here.”
The lady calmed him as well she could. When night came they led him to a well-appointed chamber, where he found a bed made, around which curtains had been hung. In one corner of the room was a large candalabra. When he lay down in bed, the servants closed the doors and the merchant was alone in the room and gazed upon the corner of the room, where a little light twinkled. There he saw two dead men, hanging by their arms. When he saw them, he was gripped by an unbearable fear, so that he could not sleep. In the morning he got up early and said: “Woe is me! I fear I shall also hang next to the others this day.” When the prince rose, he called the merchant to him and said: “My dear man, how do you like it here?” The merchant replied: “I like everything except being served at table with food presented on a skull platter. I was seized by such incredible revulsion and loathing, I could not eat. And when I lay down in bed, I saw two youth hanging in the corner of the chamber, and was seized by such overwhelming fear, that I could not sleep. That is why, for God’s sake, you must please let me travel on!”
The prince replied: “My dear man, you saw my too beautiful wife and a skull before her. The reason is as follows: The man whose head was placed before you, was once a noble duke, who seduced my wife. When I found them together, I took my sword and chopped off his head. Now, as sign of her shame, I place his head before her every day so that she keeps the sin she has committed in her memory. Thereupon, the son of the murdered man killed two youth related to me, who are now hanging in the chamber. I visit their corpses every day so that I remember to take revenge. When I reflect on the faithlessness of my wife and the death of those youth, I can have no more happiness. My dear man, go in peace and do not judge the life of a man by outward appearances before you know the complete truth of his circumstances.” The merchant took leave from him and went on his way to transact his business.