Gesta Romanorum Vol. I (1871)/Of the execrable Devices of old Women

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Gesta Romanorum Vol. I  (1871) 
Anonymous, translated by Charles Swan
Of the execrable Devices of old Women



In the kingdom of a certain empress there lived a soldier who was happily espoused to a noble, chaste and beautiful wife. It happened that he was called upon to take a long journey, and previous to his departure he said to the lady—"I leave you no guard but your own discretion; I believe it to be wholly sufficient." He then embarked with his attendants. Pleased with the confidence reposed in her, she continued at her own mansion, in the daily practice of every virtue. A short period had elapsed, when the urgent entreaties of a neighbour prevailed with her to appear at a festival; where, amongst other guests, was a youth, upon whom the excellence and beauty of the lady made a deep impression. He became violently enamoured of her, and despatched various emissaries to declare his passion, and win her to approve his suit. But the virtuous lady received his advances with the utmost scorn, and vehemently reproached him for his dishonesty. This untoward repulse greatly disconcerted the youth, and his health daily declined. It chanced, that on one occasion he went sorrowfully towards the church; and, upon the way, an old woman accosted him, who, by pretended sanctity had long obtained an undue share of reverence and regard. She demanded the cause of the youth's apparent uneasiness. "It will nothing profit thee to know," said he. "But," replied the old woman, "it may be much to your advantage: discover the wound, and it is not impossible but a remedy may be procured. With the aid of Heaven it may easily be effected—shew it me." Thus urged, the youth made known to her his love for the lady. "Is that all?" said the beldam—"return to your home, I will find a medicine that shall presently relieve you." Confiding in her assurances, he went his way, and the other commenced her devices.

It seems she possessed a little dog, which she had accustomed to fast for two successive days; on the third, she made bread of the flour of mustard, and placed it before the pining animal. As soon as it had tasted the bread, the pungent bitterness caused the water to spring into its eyes, and the whole of that day tears flowed copiously from them. The old woman, accompanied by her dog, posted to the house of the lady whom the young man loved; and the opinion entertained of her sanctity secured her an honourable and gracious reception. As they sat together, the lady noticed the weeping dog, and was curious to ascertain the cause. The crone told her not to inquire, for that it involved a calamity too dreadful to communicate. Such a remark, naturally enough, excited still more the curiosity of the fair questioner, and she earnestly pressed her to detail the story. This was what the old hag wanted, and, assuming a hypocritical whine, she said, "That little dog was my daughter—too good and excellent for this world. She was beloved by a young man, who, thrown into despair by her cruelty, perished for her love. My daughter, as a punishment for her hard-hearted conduct, was suddenly changed into the little dog, respecting which you inquire." Saying these words, a few crocodile tears started into her eyes; and she continued, "Alas! how often does this mute memorial recall my lost daughter, once so beautiful and virtuous: now—oh, what is she now? degraded from the state of humanity, she exists only to pine away in wretchedness, and waste her life in tears. She can receive no comfort; and they who would administer it, can but weep for her distresses, which surely are without a parallel." The lady, astonished and terrified at what she heard, secretly exclaimed—"Alas! I too am beloved; and he who loves me is in like manner at the point of death"—and then, instigated by her fears, discovered the whole circumstance to the old woman, who immediately answered, "Beautiful lady, do not disregard the anguish of this young man: look upon my unhappy daughter, and be warned in time. As she is, you may be." "Oh!" returned the credulous lady, "my good mother, counsel me; what would you have me do? Not for worlds would I become as she is." "Why then," answered the treacherous old woman, "send directly for the youth, and give him the love he covets—thus, you will prevent his death, and your own irremediable calamity." The lady blushed, and said, "May I entreat your holiness to fetch him: there might be some scandal circulated if another went." "My dear daughter," said she, "I suffer with you, and will presently bring him hither."—She did so; but in the night the husband returned, and put the whole party to a shameful death. Thus, did the wicked project of an old woman involve many in ruin. (26)


My beloved, the soldier is Christ; the wife is the soul—to which God gave free will. It is invited to the feast of carnal pleasures, where a youth—that is, the vanity of the world, becomes enamoured of it. The old woman is the devil; the dog, the hope of a long life, and the presumptuous belief of God's clemency, which lead us to deceive and soothe the soul. But Christ will come during the night, and condemn the sinner to death.

Note 26.Page 124.

The demon-hunter in Boccacio is brought to mind by this story. There the lady's apprehensions "grew so powerful upon her, that to prevent the like heavy doom from falling on her, she studied (and therein bestowed all the night season) how to change her hatred into kind love, which at length she fully obtained."—Decameron, 5th Day, Nov. 8. The catastrophe in the text I have added, as affording a better moral. The same story occurs in the 12th chapter of Alphonsus de Clericali Disciplina. It appears in an English garb amongst a collection of Æsop's Fables, published in 1658. Mr. Ellis, or rather Mr. Douce in his Analysis of Alphonsus (see Ancient Metrical Romances) has not noticed this translation.