Back to top

Emperator Felicianus (How a Wife Employed a Necromancer to Cause the Death of Her Husband, and How He Was Saved by a Clerk)


1 regnyd, reigned.

4 ordeyned, planned; Happyng, It just so happened.

5 see, sea.

8 y-do, done.

9 yede, went.

10 cowde, could; nigromauncer, magician.

11 biyende, across; wite, [like to] know.

12 crafte, magic.

15 travayle, work.

17 afore, before.

19 hielie, familiarly.

20 what skile, for what reason.

22 holpyn, helped.

24 merveile, amazement.

25 hore, whore; y-be, been.

27 mowe, might.

29 Yis, Yes.

31 can, knows.

32 sotilté, subtlety; nigromancien, magician.

33 anoon, soon; arowis, arrows; shete, shoot.

34 brest, burst; wordle, world.

35 do aftir, follow.

36 Do of, Take off.

37 bad, commanded.

38 myrour, mirror.

40 myster-man, sorcerer.

42 bowe2, duck.

43 smytene, shot.

46 strook, stroke.

48 i-be, been.

53 trowe, attest to.

59 scheter, shooter; swapte, ducked.

65 mede, reward.

67 fond, found; yede, went; meyre, mayor.

68 howe, what.

69 statys, nobles.

70 emsampill, example; veniaunce, sin.

71 faire endid his liffe, lived out his life well.

74 wordle, world.

75 yen, eyes; prowde, pride.

77 gostely, spiritually.

79 scil. (scilicet), that is to say; grucchith, complains.

84 which, who.

85 dartys, arrows.

91 prelatis, prelates.

94 enjoyned, bound.

98 encresing, increasing; peyne, pain.

99 bymenyth, means.

100 discrecion, discretion; jebet, gibbet.

103 devidid, divided.

105 per, through.

106 Ad quam nos et vos perducat, &c., To which He leads us and you, etc.


The manuscripts used for the Gesta Romanorum excerpts in this edition are Harley 7333 and BL Additional 9066. The first of the narratives - Emperor Felicianus - appears in Harley 7333; Godfridus appears in both Harley 7333 and BL Additional 9066, and The Punished of Adulterers appears only in BL Additional 9066. The number order here is consistent with Sydney Herrtage's EETS edition (see Select Bibliography) which contains the contents of both manuscripts which are highly abbreviated. Unless indicated otherwise, I have followed earlier editions in their interpolations of missing dipthongs, syllables, or individual letters. Abbreviations: Har: Harley 7333; Add: BL Additional 9066; Herr: Sydney Herrtage.

1 Felician. Though the Gesta Romanorum was understood by its medieval audience as "history," the Emperor's name is not historical. Etymologically related to the Latin felicitatis meaning "beatification, or capable of beatification," in English it more generally means "felicity" or "happiness." In the Latin text Titus reigns.

4 that she ordeyned for hire husbonde to be ded. This phrase echoes in lines 9-10: "ordeyned for his deathe." Herr cites the Latin text which implies that the husband, knowing of his wife's propensity for infidelity decides to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land: Nec de adulterio desistere volebat. Miles vero cum hoc vidisset, contristatus est valde in animo suo et cogitabat terram sanctam visitare. ("Nor did she wish to put an end to the adultery. The knight saw this, sorrowed greatly in spirit, and decided to visit the Holy Land"). An amusing parallel of such male defensive practice may be found in Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Prologue, where her fourth husband goes on pilgrimage, then dies (some say mysteriously) on his return.

Happyng. The meaning of this suggests that the pilgrimage is not coincidental. The Latin text says Accidit (It happened).

10 nigromauncer. Necromancer, a term that came to be associated with sorcery and witchcraft, originally referred to someone who prognosticated events by means of communication with the dead. A medieval tradition of necromancers includes not only Merlin, King Arthur's wizard, and Nectanabus, a magician to Alexander the Great, but also the much revered Roman poet Virgil. Virgil's prophecies, like those of Merlin and Nectanabus, were looked upon with suspicion by some medieval writers in part because of the poet's association with the pre-Christian Sibyl. Other medieval poets, like Dante for instance, extol Virgil's virtues, hence Virgil's association with the realm of the dead, makes him an appropriate candidate for guiding Dante the Pilgrim through the Inferno. Interestingly enough, though Virgil is not named in this particular Gesta narrative in others included in the Anglo-Latin collection he is explicitly identified. For a comprehensive discussion of the poet's reputation in the Middle Ages, see Domenico Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages, trans. E. F. M. Benecke (Hamdon, Conn.: Archer Books, 1966). For a recent general discussion of necromancy see Richard Kieckheffer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).

16 dyd make an ymage of erthe. The Anglo-Latin text says that clerks make images de cera (of wax). Image making by any unauthorized person was considered sacrilege by the church, yet the boundary between devotional "magic" - liturgical prayer and eucharistic practices - and the magic of wizards and necromancers is blurred. According to Richard Kieckheffer, a "'clerical underworld' capable of various forms of mischief, including necromancy . . . seems to have been the primary locus for this explicitly demonic magic" (p. 12). Chaucer's House of Fame provides an example of the natural magic or "science" of creating images:
And clerkes eke, which konne wel
Al this magik naturel,
That craftely doon her ententes
To make, in certeyn ascendentes,
Ymages, lo, thrugh which magik,
(Lines 1265-70)
Natural magic and necromancy also figure prominently in The Franklin's Tale when the lovesick and desperate Aurelius, in order to win Dorigen's love, employs a magician to make Brittany's ominous coastal rocks disappear.

19 hielie. Herr points out the Latin word, intime (familiarly), which suggests that the necromancer knows his client's innermost thoughts.

21 be. Har: by. The expression be ded, according to Herr, is of Eastern origin and occurs repeatedly in this narrative as well in other narratives belonging to the Anglo-Latin group.

23 purveith. Herr suggests a verb in the past tense - purveide - since the Latin text reads providit.

24 he had grete merveile. The knight's surprise at learning about his wife's plot against him is consistent with culturally determined attitudes toward wives as being incapable of carrying out criminal acts against their husbands. When women were found guilty of spousal homicide in late medieval England, their punishment went beyond the usual for ordinary homicide; they were not only charged with murder, but with petty treason, making the murder of a husband a crime against the crown.

38 myrour. The mirror or speculum is a multi-dimensional symbol in the Middle Ages. Most often it referred to the reflection of divine order in the world, or the distortion of it by immoral human action; it also served as an emblem of the Virgin Mary. In necromancy any reflective object - bowls, polished fingernails, crystals - could be useful to conjure up demons. This category of divination was condemned periodically. "In 1311 the bishop of Lincoln instructed one of his officials to investigate conjuring spirits in their fingernails and in mirrors, as well as in stones and rings" (Richard Kieckheffer, p. 97). In the Latin text the speculum politum is described as sacram scripturam.

54 cryed. Herr notes that the Latin text reads clamat which has a wider range of meaning including "lamented," "worried," "complained."

66 the knyght went hom. The Latin text complicates the action: domi venisset, uxor eius obviam ei venit, et cum gaudio eum recepit. Miles vero per plures dies dissimilabat; tandem . . . ("the knight went home; his wife went to meet him and received him with joy. The knight was not himself for days until finally. . .") [the quote is continued in line 67 following.] 

67 the meyre of the towne. The Latin text - a continuation of the quote above - complicates this scene by substituting the knight's in-laws, other clerics, and a judge for the mayor of the town: pro parentibus uxoris misit et ait eis: Carissimi, hec est cause, quare misi pro vobis: hec est filia vestra, uxor mea, que adulterium sub me commisit et, quod peius est, in mortem meam machinata est. Illa vero cum iuramento negavit. Miles incepit et totum processum clerici recitavit. Quod si non creditis, venite et videte locum, ubi clericus sepultus est. Eos ad cameram suam duxit et corpus clerici sub lecto eius invenerunt. Iudix est vocatus et sententiam dedit, ut ipsa igni combureretur; et sic factum est, et pulvis post per aerem dispergitur. ("he called the parents of his wife and said to them: My friends, here is the reason I have sent for you: here is your daughter, my wife, who has committed adultery under me and what is worse has orchestrated my death. She denied this under oath. The knight then began to relate all the actions of the clerk. Should you not believe this, come and see the place where the clerk is buried. He led them to the chamber and dragged the body of the clerk from under his bed. A judge was called and sentenced her to be burned and when done her ashes dispersed into the air.")

69 herte. Herr notes that the Latin corpus which more generally means "body," "substance," and "physical matter" is limited to a single body part here.

72 Moralitee. The moral differs in the Latin text. The emperor is Jesus Christ, the knight is man, the wife, flesh, the wise man, the clerk, the necromancer, the devil (though he is more often referred to as clericus, e.g., Clericus est diabolus). The bow is avarice, the arrow, pride. Just as Lucifer has tempted Adam, so too has he tempted the knight; without the help of the wise man his soul would have been doomed.

79 The equation of the necromancer with the devil derives, Herr thinks, from the Latin diabolus.

81-82 Caro concupiscit . . . . Galatians 5:17.

85 who. An interpolation defining the relative clause. Herr has that.

85-86 the devill, beginnith to schete an arowe att the ymage. According to George Ferguson's Signs & Symbols in Christian Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), arrows, though generally used "to suggest a spiritual weapon dedicated to the service of God," also serve as "an instrument of war and death figures in the portrayals of many saints" (p. 304. Sts. Sebastian and Ursula are examples). Here the necromancer equates with both death and fiend. The arrow can also serve as a symbol of the plague. An interesting use of the image of archer, bow and arrows occurs in John Gower's Vox Clamantis where the poet takes the position of archer shooting his arrows into the world. Presenting himself as social critic, poet, preacher, and prophet, Gower points out the corruption in late medieval England by shooting his barbs into an image of a world turned upside down. The image of the archer with his bow and arrow also signified the preacher whose responsibility it was to point out his parishioners' sins.

89 putte downe thyn hed. Herr notes that this is "a mistake of the translator, or more probably of the transcriber"(p. 445). In the Latin text it reads: oportet te deponere vestimenta tua (it behoves you to lay down your clothes).

101 Apostill. The line spoken here, i.e., Suspendium elegit anima mea ("My soul hangs suspended"), is not found in the New Testament, according to Herr, but rather the Book of Job. The quotation is found in 7:15 in the form of a question: Qua mobrem elegit suspendium anima mea, et mortem ossa nea. (For what reason is my soul suspended and my bones dead?)

105 spirit. Har: sprit.

106 Ad quam nos et vos perducat, &c. "To which He leads us and you (and so forth)," or, as translated in a later text: "To the whiche He us brynge, that is kynge everlastinge" (p. 164). Perhaps this alludes to Tobias 10:11, Angelus Domini sanctus sit in itinere vestro, per ducatque vos incolumes . . . . (And the blessed angel of God shall lead you unharmed in your journey.)



    Felician regnyd emperour in the cyté of Rome, in the empeire of whom ther
was a knyght that hadde weddid a yong damesell to wif. And withinne fewe yerys
this woman lovid by wey of synne another knyght, undir hire husbond, and that
so moch, that she ordeyned for hire husbonde to be ded. Happyng that this knyght
wold goo on pilgrimage over the see; and therfore he seide to his wif, "Dame, y
woll goo on pilgrimage, over the see; and therfore governe thee wele the while til
I come home agen." And with that she was glad, and seide, "Sir, with the grace of
God all shall be wele y-do." And shortly for to touche this mater he tooke his leve,
and yede his wey. Nowe this false quene, his wif, ordeyned for his dethe in all
that she cowde, and spake therfore to a nigromauncer in this forme: "Myn
husbond," quod she, "is biyende the see; I woll wite, if thou cowde helpe that he
were ded by ony crafte. Aske of me what thou wolt, and thou shalt have hit."
Then spake he to hyre agen, and saide, "This, forsoth, lady, that I can. That
knyght shall dye by my crafte, yn what cuntré of the wordle soever that he be
ynne. And y woll have nothing of thee for my travayle but the love of thyne hert."
And she it grauntid to him. So this nigromancien dyd make an ymage of erthe,
and fastenyd it in the wall afore him. And the knyght, that was gon on pilgrimage,
walkyd yn the same day in the stretys of Rome. So ther met with him a clerke, the
which hielie beheld him. And when the knyght perceyvid it, he seide to him,
"Goode Sir, tell me why and what skile, that thou so beholdest me?" Thenne seid
the clerke, "Forsoth, Sir, for thy deth; for douteles thou shalt yn this same day be
ded, but if thou be the better holpyn." And he told the knyght how that his wif was
a strompet, and which purveith in that day that hire husbond shud be ded. And
when the knyght hurde theise wordes, he had grete merveile, and saide, "A! Sir, I
knowe well that my wif is an hore, and long tyme hath y-be; but that she ever
pursuyd for my deth, that is unknowe to me, and therfore I pray thee tell me if
ther be ony remedye agenst my deth; and if thou mowe save my lyf; sothly all my
goodys shull be at thyne owne will." "Yys," quoth the clerk, "a remedye ther is, if
thou wolt do aftir my conseil." "Yis, yis," seide the knyght, "I am redy to fulfill all
in dede that thou wolt sey unto me." Thenne seide this clerke, "Thy wif," he
seide, "hath this day spoken with a man that can of nigromancye, to sle thee by
his crafte and sotilté; and so the nigromancien hath y-made an ymage, and sette it
in a wall; and anoon he woll take a bowe and arowis, and shete att it. And if he
wounde this ymage, thyne herte shall brest, wheresoever thou be in the wordle.
And so thou sholdiste dye; nevertheles do aftir my conseil, and sone I shall save
thi life. Do of alle thy clothis, and be nakid, and go into a bath that I shall make
for thee." And the knyght dyd right as he bad him. And when he was in the bath,
the clerk toke him a myrour in his hond, and seide, "Nowe thou shalt see in this
myrour all that I spake of to thee." And thenne seide he, "Ye, sothly I see all opynly
in myne hous, that thou spakist of to me. And now the myster-man takith his
bowe, and woll schete att the ymage." Thenne seide the clerk, "Sir, as thou lovist
this lif, what tyme that he drawith his bowe, bowe thyne hed undir the watir; for
if thou do not certenly thy ymage shall be smytene, and thou both." And when the
knyght sawe him begynne for to drawe his bowe, he dyd as the clerke conseilid
him. And thenne seide the clerk, "What seist thou now?" "Forsoth," quoth he,
"now hath he schote an arowe at the ymage; and for that he failith of his strook,
he makith moch sorowe." Thenne seide the clerke, "Ye, that is goode tydyng for
thee; for if he had smyten the ymage, thou sholdist have i-be ded. But loke nowe
on the myrour, and tell me what thou seist." "Now he takith an other arowe, and
woll shete agen." "Do thenne," quoth the clerke, as thou dyd afore, or ellis thou
shalt be ded." And therfore the knyght putte all his hede undir the water. And
whenne he had so y-done, he raisid hit up agen, and seyde to the clerke, "He
makith sorowe nowe more than ony man woll trowe, for he smot not the ymage;
and he cryed to my wif, seiyng, that if I fayle the third tyme, I am but ded my-
selfe, and thyne husbond shall lyve; and my wif makith therfor moch lamentacion."
"Loke agen," seide the clerke, "and tell me what he doth." "Forsothe," seide he,
"he hath bend his bowe and goith ny to the ymage for to shete; and therfor I drede
now gretly." "Do therfore," seide the clerke, "do as I bade doo afore, and dred thee
nothyng." So the knyght, whenne he sawe the scheter drawe his bowe, he swapte
his hed undir the waitr, as he dyd afore; and thenne he toke it up agen, and lokid
yn the myrour, and he lowgh with a gret myrth. "I sey," quod the clerke, "whi
lawghist thou soo?" "For the archer wold have y-schot at the ymage, and he hath
y-schotte himselfe in the lungen, and lyeth ded; and my wif makith sorowe
withoute ende, and woll hyde his body by hire beddys syde." "Ye, Sir," quod the
clerke, "now thou haste thi lif savid, do yeld to me my mede, and go; farwell."
Thenne the knyght gaf him mede as he woll aske. And the knyght went hom, and
fond the body undir the bedde of his wif; and he yede to the meyre of the towne,
and told him howe his wife hadde don in his absence. Thenne when the meyre and
the statys sawe this doyng, they made this wif to be slayne, and hire herte to be
departid ynto three parteis, in tokne and emsampill of veniaunce. And the goode
man toke another wif, and faire endid his liffe.


    Seith nowe, goode men; this emperour I call owre lord Jhesu Criste; the empire
is this wordle, in which is moch adversité; for all that is in the wordle other it is fals
covetise of flesch, or fals covetise of yen, or prowde of lif. The wif that lovith not
hire husbond is thi flesch, that dispisith all werkis that the spirite lovith. Now in
speking gostely of this mater, while that a man goith in pilgrimage, serys, that is to
sey, in werke of ony goode dede to be fullfilled, thenne the flesh spekith with the
nigromancier, scil. the devill; and that he doth as ofte tyme as he grucchith agenst
the spirit, and sesith fro werkis of penaunce, wherby the spirit may be slayne. For
it is as the Apostill seith, Caro concupiscit adversus spiritum, et spiritus adversus
carnem, this is to undirstonde, the flesch desirith thing that is agenst the spirite,
and the spirit desirith thing agenst the flesch. The clerke that helpith the knyght is
a discrete confessour or a prechour, which techith a man how that he shall defende
him agenst the dartys of the devill. This nigromancer that is the devill, biginnith to
schete an arowe att the ymage, - what is that? The reson within a man. But
beware that he hit not him with his arowe, scil. envy or avarice, for if he do,
withoute doute he shall dye in evermore lastyng deth. And therfore thou most
putte downe thyn hed - what is that? Thyne old lif of synne, and entre ynto the
bath of confession. And thou most hold in thy hond a myrour, scil. holy doctrine,
that prelatis and prestis every day shewith, by the which thou shalt see all perilis
that perteynith to thi soule. And also holdyng downe of the hed in the bath is to be
redy to goo undir the yoke of penaunce and submitte thee to it that shall be
enjoyned to thee; and that is not hard, witnessing the saviour himself, wher he
seith, Iugum meum suave, et onus meum leve, Lo! My yoke, he seith, is swete,
and my charge is light. And if thou do thus, no doute of thou shalt stonde agenst
all the shotis that the devill can shete to thee; and his shotis shall turne to his owne
sorowe, and encresing of his peyne in the bed of hell, wher he shall be buryed.
Now than most a prelate honge the wif - what bymenyth that? Forsoth that
consciens and discrecion late the flesh be hongyd on the jebet of penaunce, of the
which maner of living the Apostill spekith this, Suspendium elegit anima mea, this
is to sey, my soule hath chosen the jebet, scil. doyng of penaunce. And after the
herte is departid unto thre parteys, that is, the flesh is devidid ynto thre, scil.
praying, almysded, and fastyng. And thenne thou shalt take a new wif, scil. a
spirit obediente to a new governaunce; and thenne per consequens thou shalt have
evermore lastyng lif, Ad quam nos et vos perducat, &c.
Excerpts from The Gesta Romanorum, Select Bibliography

Manuscripts in Middle English

Balliol 354, fols. 1a-3a (c. 1450, East Midlands).

Cambridge University Ff. 1.6, fols. 216a-245b (late fifteenth century).

British Library Additional 9066, fols. 5a-87b (late fifteenth century). [Base text for The Punished of Adulterers.]

British Library Harley 7333, fols. 150a-203a (1440-96). [Base text for Emperor Felicianus and Godfridus a Wise Emperoure.]

Gloucester Cathedral MS 22, pp. 723-87 (late fifteenth century).

Early Printed Editions

de Worde, Wynkyn (1510-15) [Contains an abbreviated number of tales beginning with the story of Atalanta. See Burke Severs and Albert E. Hartung, A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500 (New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1967-).]

Robinson, Richard, ed. Gesta Romanorum: A Record of Auncient Histories Newly Perused by Richard Robinson (1595). Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1973. [A revision of Wynkyn de Worde's edition.]


Herrtage, Sydney, ed. The Early English Versions of the Gesta Romanorum. EETS e.s. 33. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1879.

Madden, Sir Frederic, ed. The Old English Versions of the Gesta Romanorum. London: Roxburghe Club, 1838.
Oesterley, Hermann J., ed. Gesta Romanorum. Berlin: Weidmannsche Buckhandlung, 1872. [The Latin text.]

Sandred, K. I., ed. A Middle English Version of the Gesta Romanorum, Uppsala: University of Stockholm, 1971.

Siatkowski, J., ed. Gesta Romanorum Linguae Polonicae (1543): cum fontibus latinis et bohemicis. Köln: Böhlau, 1986.

Weiske, Brigitte, ed. Gesta Romanorum: Untersuchungen qu Konzeption und Überlieferung. Tübingen: Max Neimeyer Verlag, 1992.


B. G., ed. Evenings with the Old Story Tellers: Select Tales from the Gesta Romanorum. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845.

Brunet, M. G., ed. LeViulier des Histoires Romaines: Ancienne Traduction François des Gesta Romanorum. Paris: Chez. P. Jannet, 1868.

Dick, Wilhelm, ed. Die Gesta Romanorum. Nach der Innsbrucker Handschrift von Jahre 1342. Amsterdam: Rodopi Editions, 1970.

Komroff, Manuel, ed. Tales of the Monks from the Gesta Romanorum. New York: The Dial Press, 1928. [A translation of some of the tales in the Latin text.]

Swan, Charles, ed. Gesta Romanorum: Entertaining Moral Stories. London: Routledge & Sons, 1905.

---, and Wynnard Hooper, eds. and trans. Gesta Romanorum: Entertaining Moral Stories. New York: Dover, 1959.

Related Studies

Archibald, Elizabeth. Apollonius of Tyre: Medieval and Renaissance Themes and Variations. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991.

Brewer, Derek. "Observations on a Fifteenth-Century Manuscript." Anglia 72 (1954-55), 350 ff.

Loomis, Laura Hibbard. Mediaeval Romance in England: A Study of the Sources and Analogues of the Non-Cyclic Metrial Romances. New York: Burt Franklin, 1960.

Marchalonis, Shirley. "Medieval Symbols in the Gesta Romanorum." Chaucer Review 8 (1974), 311-19.

Metlitzski, Dorothea. The Matter of Araby in Medieval England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Palmer, Nigel F. "Exempla." In Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide. Ed. F. A. C. Mantella and A. G. Rigg. Washington: D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996. Pp. 582-88.

Scanlon, Larry. Narrative, Authority, and Power: The Medieval Exemplum and the Chaucerian Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Speed, Diane. "Middle English Romance and the Gesta Romanorum." In Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance. Ed. Rosalind Field. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999. Pp. 45-56.