Medieval Tales and Stories: 108 Prose Narratives of the Middle Ages

Medieval Tales and Stories: 108 Prose Narratives of the Middle Ages

by Stanley Appelbaum

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Ranging from half-page morality tales to hilarious bawdy stories several pages long, these centuries-old narratives offer revealing glimpses into many elements of medieval culture. Witchcraft, magic, Crusaders, astrology, alchemy, pacts with the Devil, chivalry, and trial by torture are here, along with church councils, mercantile life, such famous figures as Abelard, Dante, and Giotto, and much more.
Chosen from ten well-known medieval collections (Disciplina clericalis, Dolopathos, Il Novellino, Gesta Romanorum, Il Pecorone, Les cent nouvelles nouvelles, etc.), almost all the pieces included here are hard to find in any language, and only a handful have been translated into English previously. These are stories that influenced many later writers, including Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Flaubert, among others. Newly translated from Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, and German originals, they are sure to delight today’s readers, and to provide fascinating insights for the scholar, student, or historian.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486143132
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 07/05/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,094,580
File size: 959 KB

About the Author

Stanley Appelbaum served for decades as Dover's Editor in Chief until his retirement in 1996. He continues to work as a selector, compiler, editor, and translator of literature in a remarkable range of languages that includes Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Russian.

Read an Excerpt

Medieval Tales and Stories

108 Prose Narratives of the Middle Ages


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14313-2



From Disciplina clericalis

by Pedro Alfonso

First place in this anthology naturally goes to the oldest collection of Oriental tales translated into a European language, which is at the same time the oldest European short-story collection of the Middle Ages (and just possibly: in all of history).

Painfully brief as the biographical references to its author are, they are nonetheless often contradictory, speculative, and suspect. The following brief sketch appears to be safe: He was born in 1062 in Huesca, Aragon, and was a Jew named Moshe. He was probably an intellectual (a physician? an astronomer?) at the court of Alfonso VI, king of León and Castile (1030-1109), who is most famous for having exiled the Cid and for having conquered Toledo from the Moors in 1085. That city became a center of the celebrated Spanish convivencia (cooperation between Moors, Jews, and Christians), a leading element of which was the translation, and transmittal to Europe, of much ancient and medieval thought previously accessible only to readers of Arabic.

On Peter and Paul's Day, June 29, of 1106, Moshe became a Christian and was thereafter called Petrus Alfonsi ("Peter of Alphonse"; the Latin version occurs in a wide variety of forms) in honor of St. Peter and of his godfather: the king himself. Some time afterward he wrote two works in Latin; one was a refutation of Judaism (almost an obligatory task for such a conspicuous convert), the other was Disciplina clericalis (Ethical Instruction for the Clergy).

In his preface to the Disciplina, the author claims to have both compiled the work and translated it from Arabic. Part of the vast tradition of "wisdom literature" going back to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India, it consists of ethical instruction, imparted in the form of philosophical disquisitions, maxims, and illustrative stories (exempla). The (very loose) framework is that of an old man (father, teacher, sage) proffering wisdom to a young man (his son, pupil, disciple). Many Eastern sources have been recognized by scholars, but intrinsically European narrative material may also have been included.

Prominent among the Eastern sages mentioned specifically by Pedro/Petrus/ Peter is Lukman (in the first sentence of the first selection). Lukman (Luqmn al-Hakim) is a legendary sage referred to in the Koran; he is sometimes, as here, equated with the Old Testament prophet Balaam, whose utterances were looked on as oracles (it has been suggested that "Lukman" is actually an Arabic translation of the Hebrew "Balaam"; both names may possibly be connected with verbs meaning "to swallow up").

Because the Disciplina is so early and so fundamental, and because it visibly influenced so many other works in various languages for so many centuries, a generous selection of its stories has been made here: 18 out of the original 34 (our No. 1 corresponds to the first two original stories, including the prefatory and transitional text). The author's style is plain and unadorned, but not awkward; scholars have professed to find this Latin very peculiar and unidiomatic, but that aspect is much too readily exaggerated.

No. 1, as just stated, provides the reader with an opportunity to sample the sort of "gangue" in which the narrative "ore" is embedded. It seemed unwise to break up the first two exempla of the Disciplina artificially; and to strip them of the prefatory and transitional text seemed like an unwarranted falsification of the author's intentions. The story of the "half-friend," like Nos. 2, 9, 10, 12, and 14, was very widely imitated in medieval literature (the plots of Nos. 2, 9, and 12 reappear in the Gesta Romanorum).

Nos. 4, 5, 6, and 8 comprise a mini-cycle devoted to women's wiles, a major theme in both East and West. No. 8 is particularly important as the direct inspiration for the fourth story of the Seventh Day in Boccaccio's Decameron (ca. 1350), which hardly differs, apart from the Italian writer's infinitely greater verve.

No. 7 is the apparent inspiration for the "endless" story that Sancho Panza tells Don Quixote as they impatiently await daylight during their fulling-mill adventure (Part One, Chapter 20).

No. 15 is in the Aesopic tradition or mode.

No. 16 is closely connected to the versions of the subject in Kalilah and Dimnah (an 8th-century Arabic adaptation, via Persian, of the Sanskrit Panchatantra [ca. 300 A.D.]) and the Hebrew Mishle Sendebar (Tales of Sendebar; the earliest references to this work date from around 1300, but the material may well be much older).

No. 17, which, like No. 1, includes some bits of the "frame story," contains material (the slave's slowly unfolding, reluctantly disclosed, catalog of calamities) that had a long future ahead of it. In adapted forms, it became a routine in 19th-century American minstrel shows, and made an appearance in Broadway musical comedy early in the 20th century, when it was recorded by the comedian who delivered it.

1. Half-Friends and Whole Friends

Balaam, who is called Lukman in Arabic, said to his son: "My son, don't be inferior in wisdom to the ant, who gathers in summer what she will live on in winter. My son, don't be inferior in alertness to the rooster, who is wakeful in the morning while you sleep. My son, don't be inferior in spirit to the rooster, who governs ten wives while you are unable to discipline only one. My son, don't be inferior in nobility of heart to the dog, who never forgets his benefactors while you forget yours. My son, don't think that having a single enemy is a small thing or that a thousand friends are too many. I say to you:

"An Arab, feeling death drawing near, summoned his son and said to him: 'Son, tell me how many friends you've acquired during your lifetime.'

"The son said in reply: 'I've acquired a hundred friends, as it seems to me.'

"His father said: 'A philosopher has stated that a friend is not to be praised until he's been tested. I, for example, am older than you, and I have barely won half a friend. So how have you won a hundred? Therefore, go and test all of them in order to learn if any of them will be a perfect friend to you.'

"The son said: 'How do you advise me to test them?'

"The father said: 'Kill a calf, cut it into small pieces, and put it in a sack, so that the outside of the sack is stained with blood. Then, when you visit your friend, say to him: "Comrade, I've accidentally killed a man; I beg you to bury him secretly. No one will suspect you, and in that way you'll be saving me."'

"The son carried out his father's instructions. But the first friend he visited said to him: 'Carry the dead man away on your back! Undergo the penalty that fits your crime! You're not setting foot in my house!'

"And when he made the same request of each one, they all gave him the same answer. So he returned to his father and reported what he had done. His father said: 'What happened to you is what the philosopher stated: "You can count up many friends, but you can count on very few in times of need." Now go to that half-friend of mine and see what he tells you.'

"He went and told this man what he had told the others. This man said: 'Come inside. This is a secret that's not to be divulged to the neighbors.' He sent out his wife and all his servants, and dug a grave. When the young man saw everything in readiness, he revealed the true facts of the case and thanked him. Then he reported his doings to his father.

"His father said: 'The philosopher speaks about such a friend when he says: "That man is truly a friend who aids you when the world fails you."'

"The son said to his father: 'Have you ever seen anyone who had acquired a whole friend?'

"Then his father replied: 'No, I've never seen anyone, but I've heard of someone.'

"Then the son said: 'Tell me about him, in case I ever win such a friend.'

"And the father said: 'I have been told about two merchants, one of whom lived in Egypt and the other in Baghdad. They had never met in person, but would send messengers to transact their business. Now, it once came about that the resident of Baghdad was going to Egypt on business. When the Egyptian heard he had arrived, he went out to meet him, welcomed him heartily to his home, and served him in every way, as friends do, for a week, showing him all that he had in his home, in every nook and cranny. At the end of the week the guest became ill. His host, very worried about his friend, called in all the Egyptian doctors to examine his friend and guest. The doctors took his pulse and repeatedly looked at his urine, but failed to diagnose any disease. Since they thus ascertained that he had no physical ailment, they knew he must be lovesick.

"'Learning this, his host came to him and asked him whether there was any woman in the house that he loved. The sick man replied: "Show me all the women here, and if I happen to see her among them, I'll point her out to you."

"'Hearing this, he showed him his singing girls and his maids, but none of them was the woman he loved. Next he showed him all his daughters, but them, like the earlier women, he totally refused and ignored. Now, his host had a certain highborn maiden in his home whom he had long raised in hopes of making her his wife, and he showed her to his guest as well. When the sick man saw her, he said: "From her my death comes, and in her my life lies!"

"'Hearing this, his host gave him the highborn maiden as a bride, along with all the property he would have gained when marrying her. In addition he gave him the property he had intended to make over to the maiden upon their marriage. When all this was done, the guest took his bride and all that he had acquired along with his bride, transacted his local business, and returned home.

"'Now, it later came to pass that in a variety of ways the Egyptian lost all his property. Having become a pauper, he determined to visit his friend in Baghdad to ask him for assistance. And so, bare and hungry, he undertook the journey, arriving at Baghdad in the dead of night. Shame kept him from approaching his friend's home, lest they should fail to recognize him at that hour and should throw him out of the house. And so he entered a certain old mosque to spend the night there. But while he lay awake there in great anxiety, two men encountered each other on a street near the mosque. One of them killed the other and ran away secretly. The noise brought many townspeople running. They found the dead man and, wondering who had committed the murder, they entered the mosque in hopes of finding the killer there.

"'They found the Egyptian there, and when they asked him who had killed the man, he told them that he himself had done it, lying because he had such a strong desire to put an end to his poverty by death. And so he was arrested and jailed. In the morning he was brought before the judges, sentenced to death, and led to the cross. As usual, many came to watch, among them the friend he had come to Baghdad to see. When this man took a closer look at him, he realized he was the friend he had left behind in Egypt. Recalling the kindness he had shown him in Egypt, and reflecting that he couldn't return that kindness if his friend died, he decided to suffer death in his place. And so he called out loudly: "Why are you condemning an innocent man, and where are you taking him? He's done nothing to deserve death. I'm the one who killed the man."

"'They laid hands on him, tied him up, dragged him to the cross, and freed the other man from the death penalty. But the real killer, who was walking about in the crowd and watching, said to himself: "I did the killing, and this man is condemned! This man, who is innocent, is being led to execution, while I, the guilty party, enjoy my freedom! What is the cause of this injustice? I don't know, unless it's merely God's long-suffering. But God, the righteous judge, leaves no crime unpunished. And so, lest He take more severe vengeance on me at some later date, let me reveal myself as the perpetrator of this crime! Thus, by saving them from death I shall atone for the sin I committed."

"'And so he exposed himself to danger, saying: "I'm the one who did it! Release this innocent man!" And the judges, in no little amazement, saved the other man from death and bound this one. By now they were unsure about their verdict, and they brought the killer and the men they had released before the king. Telling him everything just as it had happened, they made even the king waver. And so, on everyone's advice, the king told the two friends that they would be absolved of every crime they had charged themselves with, if only they explained why they had done so. And they told him the truth of the matter. By common consent they were set free, and the local man who had decided to die in place of his friend brought him home with him.

"'Honoring him in every customary way, he said: "If you agree to stay here with me, we will share and share alike, as is only right. But if you wish to return home, let's divide all my property into two equal parts." The Egyptian, longing for the pleasures of his native land, accepted the same amount that he had formerly offered to his friend, and returned home.'

"When the father had finished the story, his son said: 'A friend like that can hardly ever be found.'"

2. Paying Duties on Defects

A certain poet made some verses and presented them to the king. The king praised his talent and ordered him to request a gift in exchange. The poet's request was that he be made the keeper of the city gate for a month, receiving a dinar from every hunchback, a dinar from everyone afflicted with scaly skin, a dinar from every one-eyed person, a dinar from everyone with a rash, and a dinar from everyone with a hernia. The king granted this and confirmed it with his seal.

The poet, taking up his post, sat down by the gate to fulfill his duties. One day, a certain hunchback, well wrapped up in a cloak and carrying a staff, came in. The poet came up to him and demanded a dinar. The hunchback refused. The poet, using force, lifted the hood from his head and saw that the hunchback had only one eye. He thus demanded two dinars, whereas he had asked for only one earlier. The hunchback, refusing, was detained. Being defenseless, he tried to run away, but was held back by his hood; his head was thus bared, and he was seen to have scaly skin. The poet immediately asked him for three dinars. The hunchback saw that he couldn't escape and that no one was coming to his aid, so he started to fight back. While doing so, he uncovered his arms and was seen to have a rash on them; and so the poet demanded a fourth dinar. He whipped the cloak off the struggling man, who fell to the ground, revealing that he had a hernia. And so the poet wrung the fifth dinar from him.

Thus it came about that the man, who refused to give one dinar freely, had to give five against his will.

3. Guilt by Association

It has been said that two clerics left town one evening for a stroll. They came to a place where people had gathered together to drink. One said to his comrade: "Let's go off in another direction, because a philosopher has said that one should not visit the haunts of evil people."

His friend replied: "Just passing through won't hurt us if we don't do anything else."

They continued passing through and heard singing in one house. One of the two men was detained there by the sweetness of the song. His friend warned him to leave, but he refused. His friend departed and he was left alone. Lured by the song, he entered the house. He was greeted on all sides, he sat down, and, sitting there, drank with the others. Just then, a constable who had been pursuing a runaway enemy spy, entered the very same tavern. The spy was found there, and everyone, including the cleric, was arrested. "This was the spy's lair," the constable said. "He came out of here and returned here. You were all aware of it and you were his confederates."

They were all led to the gallows. Among them was the cleric, who preached to everyone in a loud voice: "Whoever consorts with evil people will surely earn the penalty of undeserved death."

4. The Injured Eye

A certain man went out to harvest his grapes. Seeing this, his wife realized he would stay in the vineyard a long time, so she sent a messenger to invite her lover over, and she prepared a feast. But, as things turned out, her husband was hit in the eye by a vine branch and returned home quickly, with no sight in his injured eye. Arriving at his doorway, he knocked on the door.


Excerpted from Medieval Tales and Stories by STANLEY APPELBAUM. Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

CONTENTS Introduction: The Medieval Short Story in Its Context Sources of the Stories
From Disciplina clericalis, by Pedro Alfonso .
1. Half-Friends and Whole Friends
2. Paying Duties on Defects
3. Guilt by Association.
4. The Injured Eye
5. The Sheet Ruse
6. The Sword Ruse 7. The Endless Story
8. The Ruse with the Well
9. The Ten Coffers
10. The Ten Casks of Oil.
11. The Golden Snake
12. The Three Dreams The Royal Tailor's Apprentice
14. The Peasant and the Bird
15. The Plowman, the Wolf, and the Fox
16. The Moonbeam
17. Maimundus the Slave
From Dolopathos, by Jean de Haute-Seille
18. The Faithful Hound
19. The Resourceful Burglars
20. The Heartless Creditor
21. The Widow's Son
22. The Highwayman's Sons
23. The Swan Children
From Sermones feriales et communes, by Jacques de Vitry
24. The Stag among the Oxen
25. The Demon Abbey
26. Celestial Hospitality
27. The King and His Astrologer
28. The Hermit Served by a Devil.
29. The Bishop's Horse
30. Self-Crucifixion 31. Abelard's Unusual Lectures
32. Saint Theobald and the Demon
33. The Pledged Beard 34. Too Much Olive Oil
35. The Daughter of the Count of Toulouse
36. Stinking Money
From Il Novellino37. The Three Gems.
38. The Imprisoned Philosophe
39. The Right Way to Spend Money
40. Meliadus and the Fearless Knight
41. God and the Minstrel.
42. A Bad Rate of Exchange
43. A Romantic Triangle
44. The Emperor's Face
45. The Determined Widow
46. The Blind Men's Dispute
47. The Maligned Youth
48. The Massacre of the Elderly
From Gesta RomanoTum
49. The Pirates' Captive
50. The Story of Saint Alexis
51. The Story of Saint Julian the Hospitaler
52. The Weeping Dog
53. Who Is Free from Cares?
54. The Overbearing Emperor
55. Lady-of-Solace
56. The Memorial Suit of Armor
57. The Rocky Path and the Level Path
58. The Golden Apple
59. God's Mysterious Ways60. Three Valuable Gifts61. The Household Snake
Contents Vll
From El Conde Lucdnor, by Juan Manuel62. Satisfying Public Opinion
63. Partridges for Supper64. An Incident at the Siege of Seville.
65. An Experiment in Alchemy.
66. A Lesson from the Crows 67. Testing Three Princes
68. A Vendor of Good Sense
69. A Spur to Good Deeds
70. The Devil and the Devotee
71. True Spanish Chivalry and Loyalty
72. A Pact with the Devil
From Il Pecorone, by Giovanni Fiorentino.
73. The Pound of Flesh74. A Lay Brother at the Pope's Council
75. The Robe with the Silken Seat. 146
76. A War Fought for Love
77. Hell Hath No FuryFrom II Trecentonovelle, bv Franco Sacchetti
78. Rewarded for Vilification
79. The Vicissitudes of Fortune
80. Giotto's Unwelcome Client
81. Strange Doings of City Councilmen.
82. The I ,iving Crucifix
83. Taming a Shrew
84. Dante, the Good Neighbor
85. ;\ Runaway Horse
86. Adventures of a Florentine Painter
87. A Shower of Ink
88. Dreams of Glory
89. The Demon Cockroaches
90. The Crab's Revenge
From Les cent nouvelles nouvelles
91. Tamping and Fishing
92. Anecdotes about Talbot in France 93. The Virgin Husband
94. An Exasperating Greyhound
95. The Devil from the Latrine.
96. A Daring Rescue
Vlll Contents
97. A New Way to Recover Lost Property
98. The Dog's Legacy
99. A Disastrous Elopement.
From Dil Ulenspiegel.
100. A Violent Easter Play
101. The Miracle Cure
102. Invisible Murals
103. A Village Without Cuckolds
104. A Papal Interview
105. Eulenspiegel's Dying Confession106. The Tailors' Convention.
107. The Old Woman's Subterfuge108. Charity to the Blind

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