Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gervase of Tilbury

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GERVASE of Tilbury (fl. 1211), author of the ‘Otia Imperialia,’ was no doubt a native of Tilbury in Essex, though he appears to have been brought up in Rome, and to have spent some years of his early life in Italy. He took orders, and studied and taught law at Bologna, having among his pupils John Pignatelli, afterwards archdeacon of Naples, with whom he kept up a friendship in later years (Otia, ed. Leibnitz, i. 964). In 1177 he was present at the meeting of the Emperor Frederick I and Pope Alexander III at Venice. It is possible that he may have supplied an account of the interview to Roger of Hoveden, Gervase of Canterbury, and the chronicler known as the Abbot Benedict, for they seem to have had some common source of information (Stubbs). Soon after this he appears to have been in England for some time; he had interest at court, for he was connected with Earl Patrick of Salisbury, and the earl's son Philip was his close friend (Otia, p. 964). He attached himself to the young king Henry, son of Henry II, wrote for his amusement a volume, now lost, called ‘Liber Facetiarum’ (ib. p. 914), and evidently was much distressed at his death, which took place on 11 June 1183 (ib. p. 947). Possibly this event led to his leaving England. While still a young man he was a clerk in the household of William, archbishop of Rheims (cons. 1176, d 1202), brother of the third wife of Louis VII, the father-in-law of the young king Henry. This was during the time when the archbishop was especially active in persecuting the ‘publicani’ or ‘paterins,’ and probably not earlier than 1183 (Robert of Auxerre, Chronicle of St. Martin's, Chronicle of Anchin; Recueil, xviii. 251, 291, 536). In later life he told Ralph of Coggeshall how at this time he one day tried to seduce a young woman, and gathered from the answer with which she repelled his advances that she was a ‘paterin.’ The archbishop came up while they were talking; Gervase told him of his suspicions, and the girl and her old instructress were condemned and burnt as heretics (Coggeshall, pp. 122–4). Like many other Englishmen at this period, he visited Sicily, and there entered the service of William II, the son-in-law of Henry II of England, and stood high in his favour. William gave him a house at Nola in order that he might have a place to which to retire from the heat and bustle of Palermo (Otia, p. 964). He was at Salerno at the time of the siege of Acre by the Christians, 1190–1. As Earl Patrick of Salisbury was uncle of the Countess Ela, wife of William Longsword, uncle of the Emperor Otto IV, he had interest with the emperor, who was the grandson of Henry II. Otto took him into his service, and made him marshal of the kingdom of Arles. He seems to have married at Arles, for he had a palace there in right of his wife (ib. p. 991), and was related to Humbert, the archbishop, by marriage (ib. p. 988). To Otto he dedicated his book entitled ‘Otia Imperialia,’ on which he was engaged in 1211, the year in which Otto, having been excommunicated by Innocent III, was disowned by the German princes. Although he wrote for the emperor, Gervase does not use violent language about this quarrel; he recommends peace, and says that Otto ought to gratify the pope, to whose help he owed his crown, and who was the vicar of God (ib. p. 941). In one passage he advances the theory that Charles (Charlemagne) owed the imperial title to papal beneficence (ib. p. 944). The ‘Otia’ is full of queer scraps about natural history, geography, politics, and folklore. The style is lucid and natural, such as would be used by an educated man of the world who was constantly in the habit of writing Latin. It is evident that Gervase had little if any acquaintance with ancient literature, or indeed with patristic writings. He divides his work into three parts (decisiones). In the first he treats of the events recorded in the early chapters of Genesis. While discussing the temptation of Eve he illustrates the probability of the theory that the serpent had a woman's face by the existence of werewolves in England. He further treats of fairies and sylvan spirits, of the sons of Adam, the origin of music, and other matters. His second part is mainly devoted to geography, politics, and history; it contains a topographical description of Rome (ib. ii. 767), and an account of the history of Britain and of the kings of England down to his own day, together with a good deal of political geography. A special value attaches to his view of the theory of the empire and his remarks on the history of the imperial election (ib. i. 941, 943). The third part is a record of marvels, and presents a most curious picture of the beliefs of the time. Gervase probably ended his days in England; he was a canon when he told Ralph of Coggeshall the story of the ‘paterin’ girl, his wife was then perhaps dead, and the changes in the empire must have caused his resignation or loss of place. The ‘Otia Imperialia’ is the only work of his which is now known to exist. Besides this book and the ‘Facetiarum Liber’ he also wrote a book entitled ‘De transita B. Virginis et gestis discipulorum’ (Otia, i. 928, 968, 976). For a long time he was believed to be the author of the ‘Dialogus de Scaccario’ and the lost ‘Tricolumnus.’ Madox first showed this was impossible. Two books attributed to him by Bale, ‘De Mundi descriptione’ and ‘De Mirabilibus Orbis,’ are parts of the ‘Otia,’ and a third, the ‘Galfridi Munmuthensis Illustrationes,’ was probably a compendium from Geoffrey's work. There is a manuscript of the ‘Otia Imperialia’ in Cotton MS. Vespasian, E. iv., and others in the National Library in Paris (Stevenson). Portions of it were printed in Duchesne's ‘Historiæ Francorum Scriptores,’ iii. 363–379, Paris, 1641, fol., and separately by J. J. Mader, Helmstadt, 1673, 4to. Large portions, though, according to Mr. Stevenson, not the whole, were published by G. G. Leibnitz in his ‘Scriptores Rerum Brunsvicensium,’ i. 884–1004; with emendations and additions, ii. 751–84; Hanover, 1707–10. The third part was edited with notes by F. Leibrecht, Hanover, 1856, 8vo, and extracts are given by Stevenson in his edition of Ralph of Coggeshall, Rolls Series.

[Otia Imperialia, Scriptt. Rerum Brunsvic. ed. Leibnitz, vol. i. Introd. sec. 63, pp. 811–1004, ii. 751–84; Stubbs's Gervase of Canterbury, Pref. p. xxviii sq. (Rolls Ser.), Lectures, pp. 140, 166; Stevenson's Ralph of Coggeshall, Pref., pp. xxiii, xxix, 122–4, 419 sq. (Rolls Ser.), Bale's Scriptt. i. 250; Pits, De Angliæ Scriptt. p. 274; Hardy's Catalogue, i. 298, iii. 25, 26 (Rolls Ser.); Wright's Bibl. Brit. ii. 283–9; Madox's History of the Exchequer, ii. 410.]

W. H.