The background of the Gesta Romanorum is very hard to establish: it is late medieval collection of tales and legends that was assembled perhaps in the thirteenth century. There are many different Latin manuscripts of the Gesta, along with translations into the languages of both western and eastern Europe (there is even an early Polish translation, for example).
One of the remarkable features of the Gesta is that it includes an elaborate allegory for each story, in which the characters are interpreted in bonum or in malum, as signs of Christ or of the Devil, according to the style of interpretation which we saw earlier in the semester with the Physiologus and Hrabanus Maurus.
Another distinctive feature of the Gesta is the immense variety of stories that it includes: there are lives of the saints, Aesop's fables, historical legends about the Greeks and Romans, strange stories about animals (like in the Physiologus), jokes, and mystical riddles.
In order to give you some background for the Gesta Romanorum, I have made a list of some of the other important story collections that circulated in the ancient world, and some important story collections of the European Middle Ages. This will give you a sense of the genre to which the Gesta Romanorum collection belongs, and it will also help you when we come to the Liber Kalilae et Dimnae a little bit later in the semester. Unlike the collections listed here, the Gesta Romanorum does not have a "framing tale" in which stories are told within a larger story.
- Panchatantra. Each of the five books of the Sanskrit Panchatantra is a "frame tale" in which there is a set of characters (talking animals, actually) who in turn tell stories to each other. The first book tells the story of two intriguing jackals in the course of the lion-king. It is not clear when this set of stories first took shape in Sanskrit; it might date to around the 3rd century B.C.E., although this is far from certain.
- Metamorphoses of Ovid. This collection of Greek and Roman mythology in verse (approximately late 1st century B.C.E.) weaves stories together with occasional frametales, but no clear overarching structure. Even though it is written in Latin, Ovid's poem is one of our most important sources for the Greek mythological tradition.
- Kalila wa-Dimna. This Arabic version of the Panchatantra by Ibn al-Muqaffa (8th century C.E.) was profoundly influential for both Arabic and later for Persian literature. It was translated into both Greek and into Latin in the Middle Ages; we will be reading selections from one of the Latin versions of this story collection later this semester.
- Manteq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds) by Attar. This 12th century classic of Sufi literature is organized around the story of a group of birds who are going on a pilgrimage in search of the great "Simurgh", as they tell stories to one another along the way.
- Dolopathos (or The Seven Sages of Rome). In this collection of stories, a young man has been falsely accused of trying to rape his stepmother; each day his execution is postponed when a wandering sage shows up and tells a story about female deceptions and the dangers of acting in haste. The Dolopathos is a 12th century Latin version of this popular tradition in which the seventh and final sage is none other than Vergil himself.
- Directorium Humanae Vitae. This is one of the medieval Latin translations of the Kalila wa-Dimna, thus bringing the Panchatantra tradition into western Europe. It dates to the late 13th century.
- Arabian Nights, or the 1001 Nights. This popular Arabic collection circulates in many different versions, with the main strand of the manuscripts dating back to the 14th century. Again, it is a frametale: this time organized around the story of a woman, Scheherezade, who is able to save her life by postponing the ending of each night's story until the following night.
- Decameron by Boccaccio. This 14th century Italian collection is organized around ten days of storytelling (Greek deka - hemera). Driven out of the city by the threat of the plague, a group of ten men and women each agree to tell a story for ten days, resulting in a collection of one hundred tales.
- Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. This 14th century collection of tales in middle English is organized around a group of travellers who are making a pilgrimage to Canterbury.
Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring
2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit http://www.ou.edu/online/
for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Last updated:
December 29, 2002 7:12 PM