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The first printed edition of the ' Gesta Romanorum' is a folio volume without date, but it is supposed to have been executed before or about the year 1473. An English translation of the work was one of the earliest productions of the press of this country, having been printed by Wynkyn de Worde, the immediate successor of Caxton. Afterwards, of this translation, Warton states, no fewer than seven impressions appeared between the years 1576 and the close of the sixteenth century. The book also continued to be reprinted long after this, and he mentions an edition in black-letter so late as the year 1689.
In one passage of his history, Warton says of this work, "It appears to me to have been formed on the model of Valerius Maximus, the favourite classic of the monks. It is quoted and commended as a true history among many historians of credit, such as Josephus, Orosius, Bede, and Eusebius, by Herman Korner, a Dominican friar of Lubeck, who wrote a Chronica Novella, or History of the World, in the year 1435."
When this was written, however, the author appears not to have completely examined the subject of the Gesta. In the dissertation expressly devoted to the work, he gives it as his opinion that, by the ' Gesta Romanorum,' Korner most probably means only the Roman history in general; and he adds, "Neither is it possible that this work could have been brought as a proof or authority, by any serious annalist, for the Roman story; for though it bears the title of ' Gesta Romanorum,' yet this title by no means properly corresponds with the contents of the collection, which, as has been already hinted, comprehends a multitude of narratives, either not historical, or, in another respect, such as are either totally unconnected with the Roman people or perhaps the most preposterous misrepresentations of their history. To cover this deviation from the promised plan, which, by introducing a more ample variety of matter, has contributed to increase the reader's entertainment, our collector has taken care to preface almost every story with the name or reign of a Roman emperor, who, at the same time, is often a monarch that never existed, and who seldom, whether real or supposititious, has any concern with the circumstances of the narrative."
The edition of the Gesta (that of 1488) which Warton reviews, and which is more comprehensive and complete than some published subsequently, contains a hundred and eighty-one chapters or stories. Others of the printed editions and manuscripts, however, though containing in the whole fewer stories than this edition, have several which it omits. The narratives in the ' Gesta Romanorum ' have furnished subjects to many of our poets from Chaucer down to Shakspere. The incident of the caskets in the Merchant of Venice, though not in the Latin edition which Warton has analysed, makes one of the chapters of the old English translation first printed by Wynkyn de Worde. ft also occurs in a manuscript of the Latin Gesta preserved in the Harleian collection in the British Museum. Another of the stories is the original of Parnell's ' Hermit.'
Warton conceives that he has discovered the author of the 'Gesta Romanorum' to be Petrus Berchorius, or Pierre Bercheur, a native of Poitou, who died prior of the Benedictine convent of St. Eloi, at Paris, in the year 1362; but this conclusion has since been controverted by Mr. Douce in his ' Illustrations of Shakspere,' where it is contended that the author must have been a German. Berchorius is the author of three other works, all of which bear a strong resemblance in character to the ' Gesta Romanorum.' They are thus described by Warton: "The 'Reductorium super Bibliam,' in twenty-four books, contains all the stories and incidents in the Bible reduced into allegories. The 'Repertorium Morale,' in fourteen books, is a dictionary of things, persons, and places; all which are supposed to be mystical, and which are therefore explained in their moral or practical sense. The ' Dictionarium Morale' is in two parts, and seems principally designed to be a .moral repertory for students in theology." In the' Repertorium Morale ' are related several of the same stories which occur in the Gesta.
Warton thinks it probable that Berchorius, who was at one time grammatical preceptor to the novices of the Benedictine congregation, or monastery, at Cluni, for whose use he drew up a little tract on Latin prosody, compiled the ' Gesta Romanorum' also for the use of his grammatical pupils. He adds, "Were there not many good reasons for that supposition, I should be induced to think that it might have been intended as a book
of stories for the use of preachers Soon
after the age of Berchorius, a similar collection of stories, of the same cast, was compiled, though not exactly in the same form, professedly designed for sermon-writers, and by one who was himself an eminent preacher; for, rather before the year 1480, a Latin volume was printed in Germany, written by John Herolt, a Dominican friar of Basil, better known by the adopted and humble appellation of Discipums, and who flourished about tne year 1418. It consists of three parts: the first is entitled, 'Incipiunt Sermones pernotabiles Discipuw de Sanctis per Anni circulum ;' that is, A Set of Sermons on the Saints of the whole Year. The second part, and with which I am now wholly concerned, is a Pbomptdabt, or ample repository of examples for composing sermons; and in the prologue to this part the author says that Saint Dominic always abundabat exemplis (abounded in examples) in his discourses, and that he constantly practised this popular mode of edification." The ' Promptuary of the Disciple,' therefore, is another old miscellany, essentially of the same description with our modern books of anecdote or table-talk. And many more might easily be mentioned.
The term Anecdote, which has recently become so common in the titles of works of this class, was scarcely used by the ancients in the sense in which we now employ it. It is a Greek word, and signifies properly anything not yet given forth. Among other things, the Greeks called an unmarried lady an anecdote. It appears also to have been used, by later writers at least, for a fact or piece of history which had not been published or put into a book. Thus Cicero, in more than one passage of his writings, speaks of a Book of Aneodotes on which he was engaged. In one place, writing to his friend Atticus, he talks of confiding it to him only, as if it was not intended to be ever published. The only ancient work however, we believe, which has come down to us bearing the title of a Book of Anecdotes, is that of the Greek historian Procopius of Ceesarea, which passes under the name of his' Anecdotes,' or ' Anecdotical History.' Suidas, the lexicographer, refers to the work under this title, and some of the manuscripts of it are also said to be so inscribed, though those from which the printed copies have been taken are without any title. The 'Anecdotes of Procopius ' are in fact what we should now call a secret, or rather a scandalous, history of the court of the Emperor Justinian, in whose time the writer flourished, and the public transactions of whose reign he has detailed in eight other books. Whether he meant by the term Anecdotes (if the composition was so entitled by himself) simply to designate this ninth book as containing a miscellany of facts which had not been noticed in the preceding eight, or to announce it as a collection of things not hitherto published or generally known at all, may admit of doubt. The character of many of his details would certainly rather favour the latter supposition. Some passages, indeed, are of so atrocious a description, that successive editors of the original have (with an abstinence of which we suppose there is no other example among editors of the ancient classics) quietly omitted them, even without noticing their existence; and, in fact, they never have appeared in any edition of the work. The original Greek, however, has been published elsewhere, and accompanied too with a Latin translation, by a less scrupulous moralist, and more scrupulous reverer of the integrity of ancient texts. An English translation of the ' Anecdotes of Procopius,' under the title of 'The Secret History of the Court of the Emperor Justinian,' was published at London, in a duodecimo volume, in 1674.
Whatever the title Anecdotes may have been intended to express in this instance, it has repeatedly been used in modern times to designate merely matter of any kind which had not been previously published. Thus, in 1697 and 1698, the learned Italian antiquary and critic Muratori published, in four volumes quarto, a collection of theological pieces from manuscripts in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, to which he gave the title of ' Anecdota.' This collection is often mentioned as his ' Anecdota Latina,' to distinguish it from another of unpublished Greek pieces of a similar character, which he afterwards gave to the world (in four volumes 4to, 1709-13) under the title of 'Anecdota Graeca.' There are also the ' Anecdota Graeca' of John Christopher Wolf, a miscellany of writings both on sacred and profane subjects, extracted from ancient manuscripts, which appeared at Hamburgh, in 1722 and the following years, in four octavo volumes. But perhaps the most formidable masses of letterpress that have ever appeared under this title are the ' Thesaurus Novus Anecdotorum,' or New Treasury of Anecdotes, of the two Benedictine Fathers, Edmund Martene and Ursinus Durand, published at Paris, in five huge volumes folio, in 1717, and the 'Thesaurus Anecdotorum Novissimus,' or Latest Treasury of Anecdotes, of Bernard Pezius, published at Augsburg, in seven similar tomes, in 1721. Let the lover of Anecdotes in the modern sense beware of both the one and the other of these seductively inscribed collections ; they are, we can assure him, anything but light either to lift or to read. The anecdotes piled together in these ample storehouses, in fact, are merely, to use Father Martene's own expression, Vetera rrumumenta nondum edita—ancient documents never before published; and, with the exception of a few in the second collection, they are all ecclesiastical. It may be conceived therefore that they are more edifying than amusing. We may here also warn off in like manner all who are in quest only of the latter quality, from the French critic Villoison's two quarto volumes of' Anecdota Graeca,' published at Venice in 1781. Villoison's Anecdotes are merely fragments of old Greek scholiasts and grammarians, extracted from manuscripts in the Royal Library of Paris, and the Library of St. Mark at Venice.