Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of Nature and the Returns of Ingratitude

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Gesta Romanorum Vol. II  (1871) 
Anonymous, translated by Charles Swan
Of Nature and the Returns of Ingratitude



An emperor rode out in the afternoon to hunt. Happening to pass a certain wood, he heard a serpent, which some shepherds had caught, and bound firmly to a tree, making a most horrible clamour. Moved by pity, he loosed it, and warmed its frozen body in his own bosom. No sooner, however, did the animal find itself recovered, than it began to bite its benefactor, and shot a flood of poison into the wound. "What hast thou done?" said the emperor, "wherefore have you rendered evil for good?" The serpent, like the ass of Balaam, being suddenly endowed with voice, replied, "The propensities which nature has implanted, no one can destroy. You have done what you could; and I have only acted according to my nature. You exhibited towards me all the kindness in your power, and I have recompenced you as well as I might. I offered poison; because, except poison, I had nothing to offer. Moreover, I I am an enemy to man; for through him I became punished with a curse." As they thus contended, they entreated a prophet to judge between them, and to state which was in the wrong. "I know these matters," answered the umpire, "only by your relation; but I should like to see the thing itself upon which I am to pronounce judgment. Let the serpent, therefore, be bound to the tree, as he was in the first instance, and let my lord the emperor again release it; I shall then determine better between you." This was done accordingly. "Now you are bound," said the prophet, addressing the serpent, "loose yourself if you can." "I cannot," said the serpent, "I am bound so fast, that I can scarcely move." "Then die," rejoined the prophet, "by a just sentence. You were always ungrateful to man, and you always will be. My lord, you are now free; shake the venom from your bosom, and go your way: do not repeat your folly. Remember that the serpent is only influenced by his natural propensities." The emperor thanked the prophet for his assistance and advice, and departed[1]. (103)


My beloved, the emperor is any good ecclesiastic, the wood is the world, and the serpent is the devil. The shepherds are the patriarchs, Christian preachers, &c. The prophet is a discreet confessor.

  1. This fable is in Alphonsus, De Clericali Disciplinâ.

Note 103.Page 378.

"About the year 1470, a collection of Latin fables in six books, distinguished by the name of Esop, was published in Germany."—Warton,

From a work of this kind, probably the same, the following fable has been extracted, derived, no doubt, from the Gesta Romanorum.

"None ought to render evil for good; and they that help ought not to be hurt, as this fable sheweth, of a dragon which was within a river; and as the river was diminished of water, the dragon abode at the river, which was all dry; and thus for lack of water he could not stir him. A labourer, or villain, came that way, and demanded of the dragon, saying, What doest thou here? And the dragon said, Here I am without water, without the which I cannot move; but if thou wilt bind me, and set me upon thy asse, and lead me into a river, I shall give thee abundance of gold and silver; and the villain, for covetousnesse bound him, and led him into a river: and when he had unbound him, he demanded of him his salary or payment. The dragon said to him, because thou hast unbound me, thou wilt be paid; and because that I am now hungry, I will eat thee. And the villain answered and said, for my labour wilt thou eat and devour me? And as they strived together, the fox being within the forest, and hearing their questioning, came to them, and said in this manner: Strive ye no more together, for I will accord, and make peace betwixt you; let each of you tell me his reason, for to wit which of you have right. And when each of them had told his tale, the fox said to the villain, shew to me how thou unboundest the dragon, that I may give thereof a lawful sentence. And the villain put the dragon upon his asse, and bound him as he did before. Then the fox demanded of the dragon, held he thee so fast bound as thou art now? And the dragon answered, yea, my lord, and yet more hard. And the fox said to the villain, bind her yet harder; for he that well bindeth, well can unbind. And when the dragon was fast bound, the fox said to the villain, bear him again where thou didst first bind him, and there leave him bound as he is now, and so he shall not eat and devour thee."—Æsop's Fables, 18mo. 1658, p. 144.