Gesta Romanorum Vol. I (1871)/Of too much Pride; and how the Proud are frequently compelled to endure some notable Humiliation

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



When Jovinian was emperor, he possessed very great power; and as he lay in bed reflecting upon the extent of his dominions, his heart was elated to an extraordinary degree. "Is there," he impiously asked, "Is there any other god than me!" Amid such thoughts he fell asleep.

In the morning, he reviewed his troops, and said, "My friends, after breakfast we will hunt." Preparations being made accordingly, he set out with a large retinue. During the chase, the emperor felt such extreme oppression from the heat, that he believed his very existence depended upon a cold bath. As he anxiously looked around, he discovered a sheet of water at no great distance. "Remain here," said he to his guard, "until I have refreshed myself in yonder stream." Then spurring his steed, he rode hastily to the edge of the water. Alighting, he divested himself of his apparel, and experienced the greatest pleasure from its invigorating freshness and coolness. But whilst he was thus employed, a person similar to him in every respect—in countenance and gesture—arrayed himself unperceived in the emperor's dress, and then mounting his horse, rode off to the attendants. The resemblance to the sovereign was such, that no doubt was entertained of the reality; and straitway command was issued for their return to the palace.

Jovinian, however, having quitted the water, sought in every possible direction for his horse and clothes, and to his utter astonishment, could find neither. Vexed beyond measure at the circumstance (for he was completely naked, and saw no one near to assist him) he began to reflect upon what course he should pursue. "Miserable man that I am," said he, "to what a strait am I reduced! There is, I remember, a knight residing close by; I will go to him, and command his attendance and service. I will then ride on to the palace and strictly investigate the cause of this extraordinary conduct. Some shall smart for it." Jovinian proceeded, naked and ashamed, to the castle of the aforesaid knight, and beat loudly at the gate. The porter, without unclosing the wicket, enquired the cause of the knocking. "Open the gate," said the enraged emperor, "and you will see whom I am." The gate was opened; and the porter, struck with the strange appearance he exhibited, replied, "In the name of all that is marvellous, what are you?" "I am," said he, "Jovinian your emperor; go to your lord, and command him from me to supply the wants of his sovereign. I have lost both horse and clothes." "Infamous ribald!" shouted the porter, "just before thy approach, the emperor Jovinian, accompanied by the officers of his household, entered the palace. My lord both went and returned with him; and but even now sat with him at meat. But because thou hast called thyself the emperor, however madly, my lord shall know of thy presumption." The porter entered, and related what had passed. Jovinian was introduced, but the knight retained not the slightest recollection of his master, although the emperor remembered him. "Who are you?" said the former, "and what is your name?" "I am the emperor Jovinian," rejoined he; "canst thou have forgotten me? At such a time I promoted thee to a military command." "Why, thou most audacious scoundrel," said the knight, "darest thou call thyself the emperor? I rode with him myself to the palace, from whence I am this moment returned. But thy impudence shall not go without its reward. Flog him," said he, turning to his servants. "Flog him soundly, and drive him away." This sentence was immediately executed, and the poor emperor, bursting into a convulsion of tears, exclaimed, "Oh my God, is it possible that one whom I have so much honoured and exalted should do this? Not content with pretending ignorance of my person, he orders these merciless villains to abuse me! However, it will not be long unavenged. There is a certain duke, one of my privy-counsellors, to whom I will make known my calamity. At least, he will enable me to return decently to the palace." To him, therefore, Jovinian proceeded, and the gate was opened at his knock. But the porter, beholding a naked man, exclaimed in the greatest amaze, "Friend, who are you, and why come you here in such a guise?" He replied, "I am your emperor; I have accidentally lost my clothes and my horse, and I have come for succour to your lord. Inform the duke, therefore, that I have business with him." The porter, more and more astonished, entered the hall, and communicated the strange intelligence which he had received. "Bring him in," said the duke. He was brought in, but neither did he recognize the person of the emperor. "What art thou?" was again asked, and answered as before. "Poor mad wretch," said the duke, "a short time since, I returned from the palace, where I left the very emperor thou assumest to be. But ignorant, whether thou art more fool or knave, we will administer such remedy as may suit both. Carry him to prison, and feed him with bread and water." The command was no sooner delivered, than obeyed; and the following day his naked body was submitted to the lash, and again cast into the dungeon.

Thus afflicted, he gave himself up to the wretchedness of his untoward condition. In the agony of his heart, he said, "What shall I do? Oh! what will be my destiny? I am loaded with the coarsest contumely, and exposed to the malicious observation of my people. It were better to hasten immediately to my palace, and there discover myself—my wife will know me; surely, my wife will know me!" Escaping, therefore, from his confinement, he approached the palace and beat upon the gate. The same questions were repeated, and the same answers returned. "Who art thou?" said the porter. "It is strange," replied the aggrieved emperor, "It is strange that thou shouldest not know me; thou, who hast served me so long!" "Served thee!" returned the porter indignantly, "thou liest abominably. I have served none but the emperor." "Why," said the other, "thou knowest that I am he. Yet though you disregard my words, go, I implore you, to the empress; communicate what I will tell thee, and by these signs, bid her send the imperial robes, of which some rogue has deprived me. The signs I tell thee of, are known to none but to ourselves." "In verity," said the porter, "thou art specially mad: at this very moment my lord sits at table with the empress herself. Nevertheless, out of regard for thy singular merits, I will intimate thy declaration within; and rest assured, thou wilt presently find thyself most royally beaten." The porter went accordingly, and related what he had heard. But the empress became very sorrowful and said, "Oh, my lord, what am I to think? The most hidden passages of our lives are revealed by an obscene fellow at the gate, and repeated to me by the porter. On the strength of which he declares himself the emperor, and my espoused lord!" When the fictitious monarch was apprized of this, he commanded him to be brought in. He had no sooner entered, than a large dog, which couched upon the hearth, and had been much cherished by him, flew at his throat, and, but for timely prevention, would have killed him. A falcon also, seated upon her perch, no sooner beheld him, than she broke her jesses (57) and flew out of the hall. Then the pretended emperor, addressing those who stood about him, said, "My friends, hear what I will ask of yon ribald. Who are you? and what do you want?" "These questions," said the suffering man, "are very strange. You know I am the emperor and master of this place." The other, turning to the nobles who sat or stood at the table, continued, "Tell me, on your allegiance, which of us two is your lord and master?" "Your majesty asks us an easy thing," replied they, "and need not to remind us of our allegiance. That obscene wretch cannot be our sovereign. You alone are he, whom we have known from childhood; and we entreat that this fellow may be severely punished as a warning to others how they give scope to their mad presumption." Then turning to the empress, the usurper said, "Tell me, my lady, on the faith you have sworn, do you know this man who calls himself thy lord and emperor?" She answered, "my lord, how can you ask such a question? Have I not known thee more than thirty years, and borne thee many children? Yet, at one thing I do admire. How can this fellow have acquired so intimate a knowledge of what has passed between us?"

The pretended emperor made no reply, but addressing the real one, said, "Friend, how darest thou to call thyself emperor? We sentence thee, for this unexampled impudence, to be drawn, without loss of time, at the tail of a horse. And if thou utterest the same words again, thou shalt be doomed to an ignominious death." He then commanded his guards to see the sentence put in force, but to preserve his life. The unfortunate emperor was now almost distracted; and urged by his despair, wished vehemently for death. "Why was I born?" he exclaimed; "my friends shun me; and my wife and children will not acknowledge me. But there is my confessor, still. To him will I go; perhaps he will recollect me, because he has often received my confessions." He went accordingly, and knocked at the window of his cell. "Who is there?" said the confessor. "The Emperor Jovinian," was the reply; "open the window, and I will speak to thee." The window was opened; but no sooner had he looked out than he closed it again in great haste. "Depart from me," said he, "accursed thing: thou art not the emperor, but the devil incarnate." This completed the miseries of the persecuted man; and he tore his hair, and plucked up his beard by the roots. "Woe is me," he cried, "for what strange doom am I reserved?" At this crisis, the impious words which, in the arrogance of his heart, he had uttered, crossed his recollection. Immediately he beat again at the window of the confessor's cell, and exclaimed, "For the love of him who was suspended from the Cross, hear my confession." The recluse opened the window, and said, "I will do this with pleasure;" and then Jovinian acquainted him with every particular of his past life; and principally how he had lifted himself up against his Maker.

The confession made, and absolution given, the recluse looked out of his window, and directly knew him. "Blessed be the most high God," said he, "now do I know thee. I have here a few garments: clothe thyself, and go to the palace. I trust that they also will recognize thee." The emperor did as the confessor directed. The porter opened the gate, and made a low obeisance to him. "Dost thou know me?" said he; "Very well, my lord!" replied the menial; "but I marvel that I did not observe you go out." Entering the hall of his mansion, Jovinian was received by all with a profound reverence. The strange emperor was at that time in another apartment with the queen; and a certain knight going to him, said, "My lord, there is one in the hall to whom every body bends; he so much resembles you, that we know not which is the emperor." Hearing this, the usurper said to the empress, "go and see if you know him." She went and returned greatly surprized at what she saw. "Oh, my lord," said she, "I declare to you that I know not whom to trust. " "Then," returned he, "I will go and determine you." And taking her hand, he led her into the hall and placed her on the throne beside him. Addressing the assembly, he said, "By the oaths you have taken, declare which of us is your emperor." The empress answered, "It is incumbent on me to speak first; but heaven is my witness, that I am unable to determine which is he." And so said all. Then the feigned emperor spoke thus, "My friends, hearken! That man is your king, and your lord. He exalted himself to the disparagement of his Maker; and God, therefore, scourged and hid him from your knowledge. But his repentance removes the rod; he has now made ample satisfaction, and again let your obedience wait upon him. Commend yourselves to the protection of heaven." So saying he disappeared. The emperor gave thanks to God, and surrendering to him all his soul, lived happily and finished his days in peace (58)


My beloved, the emperor represents any one whom the pride and vanity of life wholly engross. The knight to whom Jovinian first applied, is Reason; which ever disclaims the pomps and fooleries of life. The duke is conscience; the savage dog, is the flesh, which alarms the falcon, that is, divine Grace. The wife is the human soul; the clothes in which the emperor was at last arrayed, are the virtues that befit the true sovereign, that is, the good Christian.



Note 57[1].Page 203.

"Broke her Jesses."

Jesses are the leather straps with which a hawk was confined. It is not, however, in the Latin.

Note 58.Page 208.

"On this there is an ancient French Moralite, entitled, L'Orgueil et Presomption de l'Empereur Jovinian.' This is also the story of Robert king of Sicily, an old English poem or romance."—Warton.

An entertaining abstract of this old romance is here added, from Mr. Ellis's Specimens.[2]


"Robert king of Sicily, brother to Pope Urban and to Valemond, emperor of Germany, was among the most powerful and valorous princes of Europe; but his arrogance was still more conspicuous than his power or his valour. Constantly occupied by the survey of his present greatness, or by projects for its future extension, he considered the performance of his religious duties as insufferably tedious; and never paid his adorations to the Supreme Being without evident reluctance and disgust. His guilt was great; and his punishment was speedy and exemplary.

"Once upon a time, being present during vespers on the eve of St. John, his attention was excited by the following passage in the Magnificat; 'deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles.' He inquired of a clerk the meaning of these words; and, having heard the explanation, replied that such expressions were very foolish, since he, being the very flower of chivalry, was too mighty to be thrown down from his seat, and had no apprehension of seeing others exalted at his expense. The clerk did not presume to attempt any remonstrance; the service continued; Robert thought it longer and more tedious than ever; and at last fell fast asleep.

"His slumber was not interrupted, nor indeed noticed by any of the congregration, because an angel having in the mean time assumed his features, together with the royal robes, had been attended by the usual officers to the palace, where supper was immediately served. Robert, however, awaked at the close of day: was much astonished by the darkness of the church, and not less so by the solitude which surrounded him. He began to call loudly for his attendants, and at length attracted the notice of the sexton, who, conceiving him to be a thief secreted in the church for the purpose of stealing the sacred ornaments, approached the door with some precaution, and transmitted his suspicions through the key-hole. Robert indignantly repelled this accusation, affirming that he was the king; upon which the sexton, persuaded that he had lost his senses, and not at all desirous of having a madman under his care, opened the door, and was glad to see the supposed maniac run with all speed to the palace. But the palace gates were shut; and Robert, whose temper was never very enduring, and was now exasperated by rage and hunger, vainly attempted by threats of imprisonment, and even of death, to subdue the contumacy of the porter. While the metamorphosed monarch was venting his rage at the gate, this officer hastened to the hall, and, falling on his knees, requested his sovereign's orders concerning a madman, who loudly asserted his right to the throne. The angel directed that he should be immediately admitted; and Robert at length appeared, covered with mud, in consequence of an affray in which he had flattened the porter's nose, and had been himself rolled in a puddle by the porter's assistants.

"Without paying the least attention to the accidental circumstances, or the clamours of the wounded man, who loudly demanded justice, he rushed up to the throne; and, though a good deal startled at finding not only that, and all the attributes of royalty, but even his complete set of features in the posession of another, he boldly proceeded to treat the angel as an impostor, threatening him with the vengeance of the pope and of the emperor, who he thought could not fail of distinguishing the true from the fictitious sovereign of Sicily.

"'Thou art my fool!' said the angel;
'Thou shalt be shorn every deal
'Like a fool, a fool to be;
'For thou hast now no dignity.
'Thine counsellor shall be an ape;
'And o'[3] clothing you shall be shape.—
'He shall ben thine own fere:
'Some wit of him thou might leere,
'Hounds, how so it befalle,
'Shall eat with thee in the hall.
'Thou shalt eaten on the ground;
'Thy 'sayer shall ben an hound,
'To assay thy meat before thee;
'For thou hast lore thy dignity.'
He cleped a barber him before,
That, as a fool, he should be shore,
All around like a frere,
An hande-brede[4] above the ear;

And on his crown maken a cross[5].
He gan cry and make noise;
And said they should all abye,
That did him swich villainy, &c.

"Thus was Robert reduced to the lowest state of human degradation; an object of contempt and derision to those whom he had been accustomed to despise; often suffering from hunger and thirst; and seeing his sufferings inspire no more compassion than those of the animals, with whom he shared his precarious and disgusting repast. Yet his pride and petulance were not subdued. To the frequent inquiries of the angel, whether he still thought himself a king, he continued to answer by haughty denunciations of vengeance, and was incensed almost to madness, when this reply excited, as it constantly did, a general burst of laughter.

"In the mean time, Robert's dominions were admirably governed by his angelic substitute. The country, always fruitful, became a paragon of fertility; abuses were checked by a severe administration of equal justice; and, for a time, all evil propensities seemed to be eradicated from the hearts of the happy Sicilians—

"Every man loved well other;
Better love was never with brother.
In his time was never no strife
Between man and his wife:
Then was this a joyful thing
In land to have swich a king.

"At the end of about three years arrived a solemn embassy from Sir Valemond the emperor, requesting that Robert would join him on holy Thursday, at Rome, whither he proposed to go on a visit to his brother Urban. The angel welcomed the ambassadors: bestowed on them garments lined with ermine and embroidered with jewels, so exquisitely wrought as to excite universal astonishment; and departed in their company to Rome.

"The fool Robert also went,
Clothed in loathly garnement,
With fox-tails riven all about:
Men might him knowen in the rout,
An ape rode of[6] his clothing;
So foul rode never king.

"These strange figures, contrasted with the unparalleled magnificence of the angel and his attendants, produced infinite merriment among the spectators, whose shouts of admiration were enlivened by frequent peals of laughter.

"Robert witnessed, in sullen silence, the demonstrations of affectionate regard with which the pope and the emperor welcomed their supposed brother; but, at length, rushing forward, bitterly reproached them for thus joining in an unnatural conspiracy with the usurper of his throne. This violent sally, however, was received by his brothers, and by the whole papal court, as an undoubted proof of his madness; and he now learnt for the first time the real extent of his misfortune. His stubbornness and pride gave way, and were succeeded by sentiments of remorse and penitence.

"We have already seen, that he was not very profoundly versed in scripture history, but he now fortunately recollected two examples which he considered as nearly similar to his own; those of Nebuchadnessar and Holofernes. Recalling to his mind their greatness and degradation, he observed that God alone had bestowed on them that power which he afterwards annihilated.—

'So hath he mine, for my gult;
'Now am I full lowe pult;

'And that is right that I so be:
'Lord, on thy fool have thou pitè!

'That error hath made me to smart
'That I had in my heart;
'Lord, I 'leved not on thee:
'Lord, on thy fool have thou pitè.

'Holy writ I had in despite;
'Therefore 'reaved is my right;
'Thefore is right a fool that I be:
'Lord, on thy fool have thou pitè, &c.

"The sincerity of his contrition is evinced, in the original, by a long series of such stanzas, with little variation of thought or expression; but the foregoing specimen will, perhaps, suffice for the satisfaction of the reader.

"After five weeks spent in Rome, the emperor, and the supposed king of Sicily, returned to their respective dominions, Robert being still accoutred in his fox-tails, and accompanied by his ape, whom he now ceased to consider as his inferior. When returned to the palace, the angel, before the whole court, repeated his usual question; but the penitent, far from persevering in his former insolence, humbly replied, 'that he was indeed a fool; or worse than a fool; but that he had at least acquired a perfect indifference for all worldly dignities.' The attendants were now ordered to retire: and the angel, being left alone with Robert, informed him that his sins were forgiven; gave him a few salutary admonitions and added,

'I am an angel of renown
'Sent to keep thy regioun.
'More joy me shall fall
'In heaven, among mine feren all,
'In an hour of a day,
'Than here I thee say,
'In an hundred thousand year;
'Though all the world, far and near,
'Were mine at my liking:
'I am an angel; thou art king!'

"With these words he disappeared; and Robert, returning to the hall, received, not without some surprise and confusion, the usual salutations of the courtiers.

"From this period he continued, during three years, to reign with so much justice and wisdom that his subjects had no cause to regret the change of their sovereign; after which, being warned by the angel of his approaching dissolution, he dictated to his secretaries a full account of his former perverseness, and of its strange punishment; and, having sealed it with the royal signet, ordered it to be sent, for the edification of his brothers, to Rome and Vienna. Both received, with due respect, the important lesson: the emperor often recollected with tenderness and compassion the degraded situation of the valiant Robert; and the pope, besides availing himself of the story in a number of sermons addressed to the faithful, caused it to be carefully preserved in the archives of the Vatican, as a constant warning against pride, and an incitement to the performance of our religious duties."

The story of "The King of Thibet and the Princess of the Naimans," in the Persian and Turkish Tales, presents an incident somewhat similar. But the assumption of another's likeness, is a common eastern figment.


  1. Inaccurate notation.
  2. see also this discussion of the legend which traces the story from Indian tales. (Wikisource contributor note)
  3. One; i.e. in one.
  4. A hand's breadth.
  5. "The custom of shaving fools, so as to give them in some measure the appearance of friars, is frequently noticed in our oldest romances."
  6. Tu.