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16.11.17, Stace, trans., intro by Harris, Gesta Romanorum

16.11.17, Stace, trans., intro by Harris, Gesta Romanorum

Christopher Stace's translation of the Latin version of the Gesta Romanorum, an important and widely circulating collection of late medieval narratives with accompanying spiritual moralizations, is the first modern English rendering since the Reverend Charles Swan published his version in 1824. Stace's elegant and accurate edition will be warmly received by readers looking for a reliable translation of this popular and influential work.

It is no exaggeration to say we have needed a new translation of the Latin Gesta for nearly two hundred years. Swan's early nineteenth-century translation, as readers have frequently noted, includes numerous linguistic errors. In addition to mistakes in translation, Swan deviated from the Latin versions of the Gesta by augmenting certain details in the narratives, suppressing others, and severely cutting the original versions' allegorical moralizations. In 1877, Wynnard Hooper published a "reprint" of Swan's "entertaining moral stories invented by the monks" in which he corrected many of Swan's errors but allowed Swan's emendations to the original Latin (when they "express[ed] what was really implied in the original") to remain, left most of Swan's notes (even though Hooper frequently found them "erroneous and occasionally pointless"), and retained Swan's abbreviated moralizations. [1] Stace, in contrast, provides careful, literal English renditions of both the narratives and allegorizations from the Latin manuscript tradition, as it is represented in Herman Oesterley's important edition (with notes in German) of the story collection. Stace's Gesta Romanorum: A New Translation, therefore, is an important contribution to the field because for the first time it allows students unable to read Latin and German access to this very influential work as a whole.

Stace's aim is to convey the tone and content of the original Latin version published by Oesterley. For example, in presenting tale number twenty-eight (the numbers are consistent with Oesterley's numbering), Stace sticks very close to the Latin as he relates the story about an old woman who cons a younger woman into having sex with a young man: "The old woman told her: 'This little dog was my daughter, a most chaste and lovely girl. A young man fell madly in love with her, but she was so chaste that she utterly rejected his love, and he was so grief stricken that he died, and to punish her for this God changed her into the little dog you see here.' So, saying, the old woman began to weep" (85). Oesterley's edition reads, "Cui vetula: Hec canicula erat filia mea casta nimis et decora, quam juvenis quidam vehementer adamavit, sed adeo casta erat, ut omnino sperneret ejus amorem, unde juvenis tantum dolens pre dolore mortuus est, pro qua culpa deus convertit filiam meam in caniculam, sicut tu vides. His dictis incepit vetula flere dicens." [2]

Comparison with Swan's rendition of the same passage makes it clear why Stace's edition is so vitally important for students. Swan/Hooper's version reads: "This was what the old hag wanted; 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." [3] Swan, it is clear, adds his own slant to the story, making the old woman a "hag"; defining the daughter's virtue in terms of general goodness and deflecting attention away from sexuality; glossing over sexual rejection as "cruelty"; stripping God of his role as punisher; and introducing a more extreme version of deception by describing the old woman's "crocodile tears."

Stace, on the other hand, remains as faithful as possible to the original Latin. He leaves the reader to interpret the passage (is God really responsible for her "punishment"? why does the old woman weep?). This attentive care is typical of the new translation. So, for example, when Stace comes upon an issue such as the Latin text's common habit of switching between second- and third-person pronouns in the moralization, he makes a note of his decision to regularize the passage. Similarly, he offers a table of variant readings from the Latin tradition in which he notes differences between Oesterley's edition, Adelbert Keller's 1842 edition, and an anonymous 1555 edition published in Lyon. Like his translation, Stace's notes are designed to make the Latin text, not his own reinterpretation of it, accessible to modern readers. The notes helpfully contextualize his translation in three ways. They identify historical figures and literary references; they provide accurate biblical references; and they explain translation decisions. In addition, he corrects faulty biblical references and refers to Middle English, German, and French versions of the Gesta. Stace appends a short scholarly bibliography and an index of literary and historical figures found in the Gesta to the edition. He includes a list of important, vernacular editions of the work as well. Nigel Harris's introduction offers a brief but thorough overview of the work's origins (originator unknown; probably English or German; possibly a Franciscan).

Stace's efforts to provide an accurate rendition of the Latin text are most obvious in his inclusion of the allegorical interpretations as they are found in Oesterley's Latin version of the Gesta. This decision is important because it allows readers to consider the relationship between story and moralization, an issue on which critics frequently disagree. In literary scholarship the debates go back to differentiation between a "Robertsonian" approach that privileges the spiritual interpretations over the stories and a "New Critical" one in which the narratives are of primary interest. Although this critical division is tired and outdated, the distinction is, nonetheless, useful in considering the relationship between narrative and moralization that structures the Gesta. Harris's introduction to the translation offers a helpful discussion of the importance of the moralizations. In a nuanced account that, given the variability in the extant manuscripts (more than three hundred remain), recognizes the impossibility of a definitive edition of the Gesta, Harris draws attention to both the narratives and spiritual meanings that structure the story collection. He places the "extreme variability" and "openness" of the manuscript traditions in relation to the active process of textual reception that is perhaps the most important aspect of thinking about the Gesta as a story collection that was used by preachers, read by individuals, and influenced subsequent literary writers.

Stace's Gesta Romanorum: A New Translation with useful its useful introduction by Harris is a welcome and much needed edition of this very significant work.



1. Charles Swan (ed. and trans.), Gesta Romanorum or Entertaining Moral Stories, rev. Wynnard Hooper (London: G. Bell, 1877; 1891), v-vi.

2. Hermann Oesterley (ed. and trans.), Gesta Romanorum (Berlin: Weidmann, 1872), 326.

3. Swan/Hooper, 61.