Gesta Romanorum Vol. II (1871)/Of the discomfiture of the Devil

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There is in England, as Gervase tells us, on the borders of the episcopal see of Ely, a castle called Cathubica; a little below which, is a place distinguished by the appellation of Wandlesbury[1], because, as they say, the Vandals, having laid waste the country, and cruelly slaughtered the Christians, here pitched their camp. (85) It was on the summit of a hill, on a round plain, and encompassed by trenches, to which but one entrance presented itself. Upon this plain, as it is commonly reported, on the authority of remote traditions, during the hush of night, while the moon shone, if any knight called aloud, he was immediately met by another, who started up from the opposite quarter, ready armed and mounted for combat. The encounter invariably ended in the overthrow of one party. This fact, related upon the faith of many to whom it was well known, I have myself heard, both from the inhabitants of the place and others[2].

There was once in Great Britain, a knight, whose name was Albert, strong in arms, and adorned with every virtue. It was his fortune to enter the above-mentioned castle, where he was hospitably received. At night, after supper, as is usual in great families, during the winter, the household assembled round the hearth, and occupied the hour in relating divers tales[3]. At last, they discoursed of the wonderful occurrence, before alluded to; and our knight, not satisfied with the report, determined to prove the truth of what he had heard, before he implicitly trusted it. Accompanied, therefore, by a squire of noble blood, he hastened to the spot, armed in a coat of mail. He ascended the mount, and then dismissing his attendant, entered the plain. He shouted, and an antagonist, accoutred at all points, met him in an instant. What followed? Extending their shields, and directing their lances at each other, the steeds were driven to the attaint; and both the knights shaken by the career. Their lances brake, but from the slipperiness of the armour, the blow did not take effect[4]. Albert, however, so resolutely pressed his adversary, that he fell; and rising immediately, beheld Albert making a prize of his horse. On which, seizing the broken lance, he cast it in the manner of a missile weapon, and cruelly wounded Albert in the thigh. Our knight, overjoyed at his victory, either felt not the blow, or dissembled it; and his adversary suddenly disappeared. He, therefore, led away the captured horse, and consigned him to the charge of his squire. He was prodigiously large, light, and of a beautiful shape. When Albert returned, the household crowded around him; struck with the greatest wonder at the event, and rejoicing at the overthrow of the hostile knight, while they lauded the bravery of the magnanimous baron. When, however, he put off his cuishes, one of them was filled with clotted blood. The family were alarmed at the appearance of the wound; and the servants were aroused and despatched here and there. Such of them as had been asleep, admiration of the exploit now induced to watch. As a testimony of conquest, the horse, held by the bridle, was exposed to public inspection. His eyes sparkled like fire; and he arched his neck proudly; his hair was of a lustrous jet, and he bore a war-saddle on his back. The cock had already begun to crow, when the animal foaming, curveting, snorting, and furiously striking the ground with his feet, broke the bonds that held him, and escaped. He was immediately pursued, but disappeared in an instant. The knight retained a perpetual memento of that severe wound; for every year, upon the night of that encounter, it broke out afresh. Some time after, he crossed the seas, and fell, valiantly fighting against the pagans. (86)


My beloved, the knight is Christ; his antagonist is the devil, who is armed with pride; the castle is the world.


  1. Near Cambridge.
  2. This exordium does not greatly favour Mr. Douce's hypothesis. See the Introduction.
  3. We have here an interesting picture of the olden times; and it is such pictures that give an invaluable character to these stories.
  4. "Ictuque evanescenti per lubricum."


Note 85.Page 304.

Wandlesbury. There is no account of this place in Camden's Britannia.

Note 86.Page 308.

From this story we learn, (as Warton observes,) "that when a company was assembled, if a jugler or minstrel were not present, it was the custom of our ancestors to entertain themselves by relating or hearing a series of adventures. Thus the general plan of the Canterbury Tales, which at first sight seems to be merely an ingenious invention of the poet to serve a particular occasion, is in great measure founded on a fashion of ancient life: and Chaucer, in supposing each of the pilgrims to tell a tale as they are travelling to Becket's shrine, only makes them adopt a mode of amusement which was common to the conversations of his age. I do not deny that Chaucer has shewn his address in the use and application of this practice."

Sir Walter Scott, in his notes to the third Canto of "Marmion," cites this story immediately from Gervase of Tilbury, (Otia Imperial, ap. Script, rer. Brunsvic. Vol. 1. p. 797), without knowing apparently of its existence in the Gesta Romanorum. The knight's name in Gervase is Osbert, which seems to form the only difference in the stories: Sir Walter mentions the adventure of two Bohemian knights, but not altogether as it occurs in the authority he has given. I shall transcribe the original.

"Niderius telleth this story: In the borders of the kingdome of Bohemia lieth a valley, in which divers nights together was heard clattering of armour, and clamors of men, as if two armies had met in pitcht battell. Two knights that inhabited neere unto this prodigious place, agreed to arme themselves, and discover the secrets of this invisible army. The night was appointed, and accommodated at all assayes they rode to the place, where they might descry two battels ready ordered for present skirmish; they could easily distinguish the colours and pravant liveries of everie company: but drawing neere, the one (whose courage began to relent) told the other that he had seene sufficient for his part, and thought it good not to dally with such prodegies, wherefore further than he was he would not go. The other called him coward, and prickt on towards the armies; from one of which an horseman came forth, fought with him, and cut off his head. At which sight the other fled, and told the newes the next morning. A great confluence of people searching for the body, found it in one place, the head in another, but neither could discern the footing of horse or man; onely the print of birds feet, and those in myrie places, &c." Heywood's "Hierarchie of the Blessed Angels," p. 554, 5–1635.

"The most singular tale of the kind," says Sir Walter Scott, "is contained in an extract communicated to me by my friend Mr. Surtees of Mainsforth, in the Bishopric, who copied it from a MS. note in a copy of Burthogge 'On the nature of Spirits,' 8vo. 1694, which had been the property of the late Mr. Gill, attorney-general to Egerton, Bishop of Durham."—Notes to Marmion. This extract is in Latin; as it is certainly very curious I annex a translation.

"It will not be tedious if I relate, upon the faith of a very worthy and noble person, a wonderful thing of this kind, which happened in our times. Ralph Bulmer, leaving the camp (at that time pitched near Norham) for the sake of recreation, and pursuing the farther bank of the Tweed with his harriers, met by accident a certain noble Scot, formerly, as he thought, well known to him. The latter commenced a furious attack; and as it was permitted amongst foes during a contest (there being but a very brief space for question) they met one another with rapid course and hostile minds. Our knight, in the first career, unable to withstand the impetuous attack of his adversary, was thrown, horse and man, to the ground; and discharged copious streams of blood from wounds in the head and breast. He resembled a dying man, which the other observing, addressed him with soothing words; and promised assistance if he would follow his instructions, and abstain from every thought of sacred things. Moreover, on condition that he offered neither prayers nor vows either to God, the Virgin Mary, or to any saint whatever, he engaged to restore him to health and strength in a short time. The condition being complied with, in consequence of the agony he suffered, the cunning knave murmuring, I know not what kind of dishonest murmur, took him by the hand; and sooner than it is said, raised him upon his feet whole, as before. But our knight, struck with the greatest terror at the unheard of novelty of the case, exclaimed, 'My Jesus!' or something like it. Looking about him immediately afterward, he saw neither his enemy nor any one else; and the steed, which but very lately had been afflicted with a grievous wound, was feeding quietly by the riverside. He returned to the camp in great astonishment; and fearful of obtaining no credit, in the first instance concealed the circumstance; but on the completion of the war he declared the whole to his confessor. There is no doubt but it was a delusion; and the vile deceit of that subtle cozener is apparent by which he would have seduced a Christian hero to use forbidden aid. The name of this person (in other respects noble and distinguished) I forbear to mention; since there is no question but the devil, by permission of God, may assume what shape he pleases; nay, even that of an angel of light; as the hallowed eye of the Almighty observes."

The MS. chronicle, Sir Walter adds, from which this extract was taken, cannot now be found.