Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of Women, who not only betray Secrets, but lie fearfully

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Gesta Romanorum Vol. II  (1871) 
Anonymous, translated by Charles Swan
Of Women, who not only betray Secrets, but lie fearfully



There were two brothers, of whom one was a layman and the other a parson. The former had often heard his brother declare that there never was a woman who could keep a secret[1]. He had a mind to put his maxim to the test in the person of his own wife, and one night he addressed her in the following manner: "My dear wife, I have a secret to communicate to you, if I were certain that it would remain so. Should you divulge it, it would cause me the greatest uneasiness and vexation." "My lord," answered his wife, "fear not; we are one body, and your advantage is mine. In like manner, your injury must deeply affect me." "Well, then," said he, "know that my bowels being oppressed to an extraordinary degree, I fell very sick. My dear wife, what will you think? I actually voided a huge black crow, which instantly took wing, and left me in the greatest trepidation and confusion of mind[2]." "Is it possible?" asked the innocent lady, "but, husband, why should this trouble you? You ought rather to rejoice that you are freed from such a pestilent tenant." Here the conversation closed: in the morning, the wife, whose thoughts had been running upon the black crow, got up rather quicker than usual, and hurried off to the house of a neighbour. "My best friend," said she, "may I tell you a secret?" "As safely as to your own soul," answered the fair auditor. "Why," replied the other, "a marvellous thing has happened to my poor husband. Being last night extremely sick, he voided two prodigious black crows, feathers and all, which immediately flew away. I am much concerned; but for your life not a word respecting it." The other promised very faithfully—and immediately told her neighbour, that three black crows had taken this most alarming flight. The next edition of the story made it four; and in this way it spread until it was very credibly reported that forty black crows had been evacuated by one unfortunate varlet. But the joke had gone farther than he dreamt of; he became much disturbed, and assembling his busy neighbours, explained to them that having wished to prove whether or not his wife could keep a secret, he had made such a communication. Soon after this, his wife dying, he ended his days in a cloister[3]. (29)


My beloved, the layman is any worldly-minded man, who, thinking to do one foolish thing without offence, falls into a thousand errors. But he assembles the people, that is, past and present sins, and by confession expurgates his conscience.

  1. In this scandalous story, the monks seemed to have introduced the Parson for the sake of conveying a species of wisdom which accords ill with his situation. But they were great monopolizers.
  2. I could not render this literally: the curious reader may therefore interpret for himself. "Cum ad privata accessissem ut opus naturæ facerem, corvus nigerrimus a parte posteriori evolabat."
  3. The original says, "where he wrote three letters; of which one was black; the second, red; and the third, white;" but this seems merely introduced to tell us in the application, that the black letter is recollection of our sins; the red, Christ's blood; and the white, the desire of heaven.

Note 29.Page 170.

From this story, with very beseeming alterations, Dr. Byrom wrote the following tale of


'Tale!' That will raise the question, I suppose,
'What can the meaning be of three black crows?'
It is a London story, you must know,
And happened, as they say some time ago.
The meaning of it custom would suppress,
Till to the end we come: nevertheless,
Though it may vary from the use of old,
To tell the moral ere the tale be told,

"We'll give a hint for once, how to apply
The meaning first, then hang the tale thereby.
People full oft are put into a pother
For want of understanding one another;
And strange amusing stories creep about,
That come to nothing if you trace them out;
Lies of the day, perhaps, or month, or year,
Which, having served their purpose, disappear.
From which, meanwhile, disputes of every size,
That is to say, misunderstandings rise,
The springs of ill, from bick'ring up to battle,
From wars and tumults down to tittle tattle.
Such as, for instance, (for we need not roam
Far off to find them, but come nearer home;)
Such as befall, by sudden misdivining,
On cuts, on coals, on boxes, and on signing,
Or on what now[1], in the affair of mills,
To us and you portends such serious ills.
To note how meanings, that were never meant,
By eager giving them too rash assent,
Will fly about, just like so many crows,
Of the same breed of which the story goes,—

It may, at least it should, correct a zeal,
That hurts the public, or the private weal.

Two honest tradesmen meeting in the Strand,
One took the other briskly by the hand;
'Hark ye,' said he, ''tis an odd story this
About the crows!' 'I don't know what it is.'
Replied his friend. 'No! I'm surprised at that,
Where I come from it is the common chat.
But you shall hear—an odd affair, indeed!
And that it happened, they are all agreed,
Not to detain you from a thing so strange,
A gentleman that lives not far from 'Change,
This week, in short, as all the alley knows,
Taking a puke, has thrown up three black crows!'

'Impossible!' 'Nay, but indeed 'tis true;
I had it from good hands, and so may you.'
'From whose I pray?' So having named the man,
Straight to enquire, his curious comrade ran.
'Sir, did you tell'—relating the affair,——
'Yes, sir, I did; and if 'tis worth your care,
Ask Mr. Such-a-one, he told it me;
But, by the bye, 'twas Two black crows, not Three.'
Resolved to trace so wondrous an event,
Whip to the third the virtuoso went.

'Sir—and so forth—'Why, yes; the thing is fact;
Tho' in regard to number not exact:
It was not Two black crows, 'twas only One;
The truth of that you may rely upon.
The gentleman himself told me the case.'
'Where may I find him?' 'Why, in such a place.'
Away goes he, and having found him out,
'Sir, be so good as to resolve a doubt.'

Then to his last informant he referred,
And begged to know if true what he had heard;
'Did you, sir, throw up a black crow?' 'Not I?'
'Bless me! how people propagate a lie!
'Black crows have been thrown up, Three, Two, and
And here, I find, all comes at last to none.
Did you say nothing of a crow at all?'
'Crow! crow! Perhaps I might, now I recal
The matter over.' 'And pray sir, what wasn't?'
'Why, I was horrid sick, and at the last,
I did throw up, and told my neighbour so.
Something that was as black, sir, as a crow!

Misc. Poems, Vol. 1. p. 31.

  1. "Some local matters were then in agitation at Manchester, particularly an application to Parliament for a Bill to abrogate the custom of grinding wheat at the school mills."