monk, naval chaplain & financial journalist review Gesta Romanorum

monk caricature

Like benighted elites today, leading nineteenth-century English public figures lacked appropriate respect for medieval Latin literature. Gesta Romanorum, a Latin story-collection probably compiled in England late in the thirteenth century, was one of the most popular texts in the Middle Ages. Yet modern scholars have largely ignored it. Charles Swan, who served as chaplain on a British naval warship, translated nearly fully Gesta Romanorum for the first time from Latin into English in 1824.[1] Wynnard Hooper, who went on to a career as an eminent financial journalist, revised and corrected Swan’s translation in 1877. Both Swan and Hooper treated Gesta Romanorum with comical bias.

Swan’s alternate title for Gesta Romanorum suggests the interest of a naval chaplain in entertaining sailors on a long voyage. Swan was no crude boathand. He received an elite education at Catharine Hall, Cambridge, and acquired the title of Reverend. In 1823, nine of his sermons accompanied with learned references and notes were published with a flowery prefatory dedication to  “George, Lord Bishop of Lincoln.”[2] Swan’s sermons emphasized “moral preaching.” Swan’s alternate title for Gesta Romanorum likewise indicated moral instruction, along with literary learning and an imagined casual setting:

Entertaining Moral Stories; invented by the Monks as a fire-side Recreation; and commonly applied in their discourses from the Pulpit: whence the most celebrated of our own Poets and others, from the earliest times, have extracted their plots.

Swan dedicated his book to the Right Honorable Lord Viscount Palmerston (Henry John Temple), Secretary at War and Member of Parliament. Swan’s dedication, written in London, is dated June 9, 1824. On October 12, 1824, Swan departed on a long voyage on the HMS Cambrian, a Royal Navy 40-gun frigate.[3] The ship spent nearly a year battling pirates in the eastern Mediterranean. Swan may have preached stories from Gesta Romanorum to sailors on the HMS Cambrian.

Swan, however, had contempt for medieval clerics and Catholics in general. He described Gesta Romanorum as stories “invented by the Monks”; its writer or writers were in Swan’s words “the Monk,” “the monks,” and “an ascetic.” To Swan, the stories of the Gesta Romanorum were “monastic romances.” What that meant to him can be inferred in part from his characterizing one passage as being “far beyond the common strain of monkish imagination.”[4] Swan’s monks were insular:

Ignorance is always credulous …. Comparatively secluded as the monks at all times were, their views of life must necessarily have been confined also: and their simplicity would easily be duped by those who were interested in deceiving them. [5]

To a reference to Gervase, Swan added the footnote:

Gervase of Tilbury, (county of Essex,) a monkish historian. He flourished about the year 1200. [6]

Gervase of Tilbury was a canon lawyer who taught at law at the University of Bologna, advised princes and kings, and served as a judge and in other eminent positions of authority. Gervase traveled widely and wrote learned works. The medieval men that Swan called monks were highly educated religious men of broad learning and much worldly experience. They had a more liberal and tolerant approach to describing sex, violence, immorality, and defecation than Swan did.[7]

Swan was strongly anti-Catholic. To a reference to the sacrament of confession in Gesta Romanorum, Swan added the footnote:

Here we trace the Roman Catholic; and here the fountain of gross licentiousness and unrepented iniquity may be fixed. [8]

To his abridgement of the application (moralization) of a tale, Swan added the footnote:

The latter part of this moralization recommends “fideliter viris ecclesiasticis decimas dare. Si haec feceritis nos viri religiosi tenemur vobis viam salutis ostendere quomodo poteritis ad vitam eternam pervenire.” {Faithful men of the church pay tithes. If you have done this for our religious men, we are obligated to show you the way of salvation so that you will be able to come to eternal life.} The monks never forgot this — “If you pay us, we will show you the way; else, find it out yourself.” Such was the burden {repeated theme} of their song.

When the HMS Cambrian stopped at Cadiz, Spain, on the way to the Aegean Sea, Swan went ashore. There he entered a Catholic church. He recorded in his published journal:

Like all the buildings of Roman Catholic worship, the one in question (which is the chapel of the Augustine monastery) is adorned with a bewildering profusion of gold and silver — “wax, stone, wood,” &c.: and unquestionably is “wondrous fine.” But the impression left upon my mind was, that their devotion had converted the temple of the Deity into a toyshop — the women into arrant coquettes, not to say worse; and the men into bigots. The mummery, so universally practised here, was disgusting enough; and seems to me the very last stage of a confirmed idiotcy. [9]

For Swan, the Middle Ages was a time when the “tenants of Popery” prevailed.[10] The absurdities Swan perceived in Gesta Romanorum were just what he expected. Swan was an intellectual willing to serve as chaplain among sailors on a Royal Navy warship. His interest in Gesta Romanorum is best understood in the context of his anticipating such service in the Mediterranean in the area of Greece and Rome.

Wynnard Hooper revised and corrected Swan’s translation of Gesta Romanorum for a new edition published in 1877. Hooper read the Classical Tripos and Moral Science Tripos at Clare College, Cambridge. He was graduated from Cambridge in 1875 at age 22. His work on Swan’s translation probably was done in conjunction with his studies at Cambridge.[11] Although a young man, Hooper showed self-confidence in dealing with Swan’s book. Hooper in his preface declared:

Mr. Swan’s notes are sometimes erroneous and occasionally pointless. With regard to the former class, I have generally allowed them to stand, and added a correction of the mistakes. Notes of the latter class I have sometimes omitted, and those so treated will not, I think, be missed by the reader. [12]

No other extensive English translation of Gesta Romanorum was published until January, 2016. What Hooper said about the footnotes he omitted sadly applies in general to Gesta Romanorum among modern scholars and the public.

Hooper shared Swan’s biases but pursued a much different professional career. In Gesta Romanorum’s tale “Of Riches,” a king admonished rich persons for their greed. The king said to them:

I will give you counsel. Whosoever of you has enough to support life, let him bestow his superfluity upon these poor people.

Hooper added to that tale this footnote:

It may be doubted whether the author of this remarkable fable had any intention of putting forward a political theory by means of it. Nevertheless a communistic ideal was by no means contrary to the spirit of the Church in the Middle Ages. The Church of Rome being, so to speak, a theocratized Caesarism, has always had considerable sympathy with the mass of the people. It was until the Reformation a despotism with democratic leanings and republican institutions; for any priest, however poor, might become pope, if an able man. But it certainly sounds strange to find a 14th century monk at one with Dr. Karl Marx. [13]

The above footnote shows Hooper’s interest in Moral Science (political economy). Hooper began his professional career writing for The Statist (“a weekly journal for economics and men of business”) from its beginning in London in 1878. In 1882, he joined the Financial and City Department of The Times of London. He became that newspaper’s Financial Editor.[14] As a financial journalist in London, Hooper surely wasn’t serving an audience that wanted to hear “give to the poor whatever you have above subsistence needs.” He seems to have omitted from his professional direction his study of medieval Latin literature.

Medieval Latin literature has been widely misrepresented for centuries. The situation is no longer comical. The way to enlightenment today is through medieval Latin literature.

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[1] In 1473, Ulrich Zell at Cologne printed an edition of Gesta Romanorum with 181 chapters (tales). That became known as the Vulgate. Swan translated the edition that Henry Gran printed at Hagenau in 1508. The difference between Gran’s edition and the Vulgate is very small. Swan & Hooper (1877) p. xiv. After Tale 11, Swan (1824) abbreviated the applications (applicatio / moralizacio) that generally accompany each tale. Ziolkowski (2012) reviews translations from medieval Latin to modern English from the nineteenth century, but doesn’t mention Swan and Hooper.

Manuscripts of Gesta Romanorum vary considerably. Analysis of the manuscript corpus suggests that no root, “original” work ever existed. In England, a smaller set of stories (about 50) appeared in manuscripts identified as Gesta Romanorum. Wynkyn de Worde printed an English translation of Gesta Romanorum of 43 chapters about 1510. English translations of the shorter “English” Gesta Romanorum were subsequently reprinted many times before 1824.

The ordering of tales in Swan (1824) and Swan & Hooper (1877) differs significantly. Swan & Hooper (1877), which is widely available, provides the usual tale number references. To avoid confusion, I cite by book and page number.

Oesterley (1872) provides the best available printed Latin text for the Vulgate Gesta Romanorum.

[2] Swan (1823). Swan earlier had published a book of poems (Swan (1819)) and a book containing a two-act drama and additional poems (Swan (1822)). An 1823 instance of Swan (1819) at the University of California Los Angeles includes a handwritten dedication: “For Uifs {?} Wright with the Author’s affectionate regards. March 1819.”

[3] Swan (1826) p. 1.

[4] For use of monk, “the Monk,” or monks as a description of the author or authors of Gesta Romanorum, Swan (1824) vol. 1, pp. xxxiii, xlii, xlvi, xci, 76, 250, 351; vol. 2, pp. 159, 168, 169, 183. For “monastic romances,” vol. 2, p. 250. For “ascetic,” vol. 1, p. 64. The reference to “monkish imagination” concerns Gesta Romanorum’s description of the beautiful Princess Lucina in its version of Apollonius of Tyre. See vol. 2, p. 263. Swan used the the adjective “monkish” in additional ways: “monkish Latin verses” (vol. 1, p. 268) and “monkish holydays” (vol. 2, p. 10). Swan’s references to monks were carried over into Swan & Hooper (1877).

Clerics probably didn’t invented many of the stories in Gesta Romanorum. Twelve of the stories come from surviving work of the ancient Roman writer Seneca the Elder. Swan himself recognized other stories with ancient Roman sources. See, e.g. Swan (1824) vol. 2, p. 404, citing Warton on Pliny, Natural History 10.84, 20.13, as a source. Wright’s introduction to the 1871 edition of Swan’s translation emphasized the tales’ ancient origins.

[5] Swan (1824) vol. 1, p. cxxxvi, Swan & Hooper (1877) p. lxi.

[6] Swan (1824) vol. 2, p. 303.

[7] In abbreviating the moralization of the tale “Of Reconciliation through Christ,” Swan stopped after Mary was carrying a sword. He declared:

The reader is desired to frame the rest of the moralization himself, the original being too delicate to handle.

Id. vol. 2, p. 130. He declined to translate literally the man claiming to have crapped a crow. Id. vol. 2, p. 169. He similarly abstracted from the bodily shock of commota sunt omnia viscera ejus (“was agitated through all his bowels”) with the translation “grieved him.” Id. vol. 2, p. 158. He increased the frequency that the emperor had his feet washed. Swan & Hooper (1877) p. 42. Swan refused to translate aphorisms of men’s sex protest included in the application of tale “Of the Game of Schaci {Chess}”:

Among many other matters in dispraise of the fair sex, which are found in this application (and which I blush to translate!), the writer observes after Seneca, “Quod mulieres quae malam faciem habent, leves et impudicae sunt.” {Those women that have an ugly appearance are shallow and lewd.} But this is a Platonic tenet. Again, “Quidius” (or Ovidius) very learnedly remarks, “Casta est quam nemo rogavit.” {The only chaste woman is one who hasn’t been propositioned.}

Swan (1824) vol. 2, p. 506, my English translations. Cf. Seneca the Elder, Controversiae 2.24; Ovid, Amores 1.8.43. He suggested that such protest indicates “impotence of mind”:

Whether the fact of the monks leveling so much of their satire against the fair sex is also corroborative {of a bad moral state of society}; or whether it proceeds from that impotence of mind, which being itself fretted by circumstance, would gladly efface or deteriorate whatever is the object of its unavailing wishes, I do not take upon me to decide.

Id. vol. 1, p. cxl. Questioning men’s sexual behavior remains a common form of ad hominem attack on men. In Gesta Romanorum’s version of the ancient weeping dog adultery tale (“Of the execrable devices of old women”), Swan changed the ending so that the husband came home and killed his adulterous wife and the old go-between. Id. vol. 1, pp. 120-4. Swan explained, “The catastrophe in the text I have added, as affording a better moral.” Id. vol. 1, p. 347. Cf. Swan & Hooper (1877) p. 62. The Amazon blurb for Stace (2016) declares:

The first full English translation was produced by the Revd Charles Swan in 1824, but it amounted to little more than a bowdlerization, and the moralizations were treated in cavalier fashion.

In contrast to bowdlerization, Swan wasn’t seeking to make Gesta Romanorum suitable for women and children. Swan was making it suitable for early nineteenth-century sermons to English men.

[8] Swan (1824) vol. 2, p. 128. The subsequent quote is from id. vol. 1, p. 250 (my translation from the Latin).

[9] Swan (1826) pp. 6-7. Swan quotes “The Pilgrim and the Peas” by Peter Pindar (John Wolcot). See, e.g. Elegant Extracts (1805) p. 876. Some lines from that poem:

The priest had order’d peas into their shoes:
A nostrum famous in old Popish times
For purifying souls that stunk with crimes;
A sort of apostolic salt,
That Popish parsons for its pow’rs exalt.


[10] Swan (1824) vol. 1, p. 313.

[11] Information on Wynnard Hooper is from the entry for him in Who’s Who, Men and Women of the Time, 1926. Hooper was born on 14 March 1853 and attended St. Paul’s School before Cambridge. He earned a M.A. degree, probably as a result of his work correcting and revising Swan’s translation.

[12] Swan & Hooper (1877) p. vi.

[13] Id. pp. 235-6 (including previous quote). Hooper apparently shared Swan’s contempt for medieval learning. He preserved Swan’s disparaging references to monks. To Tale 19, Hooper added the footnote:

The mixture of romance and history throughout this tale is wonderful, not to say ludicrous. The belief that “Pompey the Great” was a sovereign Prince of Rome is only one of the strange delusions which existed during the period somewhat loosely known as “the Middle Ages.”

Id. pp. 48-9.

[14] Apparently recognized as a financial authority, Hooper wrote entries for the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica on “Stock Exchange” and “Statistics.” The contributor information (p. xiv) describes him as “Financial Editor of The Times, London.” Hooper died on August 24, 1935.

[image] Caricature of a monk. From front page of Swan & Wright (1871) (both volumes).


Elegant Extracts. 1805. Elegant extracts, or, Useful and entertaining pieces of poetry: selected for the improvement of young persons ; being similar in design to Elegant extracts in prose. London: J. Johnson and many others.

Oesterley, Hermann, ed. 1872. Gesta Romanorum. Berlin: Weidmann.

Stace, Christopher, trans. 2016. Gesta Romanorum: a new translation. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press.

Swan, Charles. 1819. The counterfeit saints; or, Female fanaticism: in two cantos With other poems. London: Longman.

Swan, Charles. 1822. The heir of Foiz; a dramatic sketch, in two acts. The false one, and other poems. With notes, illustrative and explanatory. London: Chapple.

Swan, Charles. 1823. Sermons on several subjects: with notes, critical historical and explanantory and an appendix. London: C. and I. Rivington.

Swan, Charles, trans. 1824. Gesta Romanorum: or, Entertaining Moral Stories; invented by the Monks as a fire-side Recreation; and commonly applied in their discourses from the Pulpit: whence the most celebrated of our own Poets and others, from the earliest times, have extracted their plots. Translated from the Latin, with preliminary observations and copious notes, by the Rev. Charles Swan, late of Catherine Hall, Cambridge. In Two Volumes. London: Printed for C. and J. Rivington, St. Paul’s Church-Yard, and Waterloo-Place, Pall-Mall. Volume 1. Volume 2.

Swan, Charles. 1826. Journal of a voyage up the Mediterranean: principally among the islands of the Archipelago, and in Asia Minor; including many interesting particulars relative to The Greek Revolution, especially a journey through Maina to the camp of Ibrahim Pacha; together with observations on the antiquities, opinions, and usages of Greece, as they now exist ; to which is added, an essay on the Fanariotes. London: Rivington. Volume 1. Volume 2.

Swan, Charles, trans. and Thomas Wright, intro. 1871. Gesta Romanorum: or, Entertaining Moral Stories; invented by the Monks as a fire-side Recreation; and commonly applied in their discourses from the Pulpit. New edition, with an introduction by Thomas Wright, Esq. M.A. F.S.A. London: John Camden Hotten. Volume 1. Volume 2.

Swan, Charles, trans. and Wynnard Hooper, ed. 1877. Gesta Romanorum; or, Entertaining moral stories; invented by the monks as a fireside recreation, and commonly applied in their discourses from the pulpit: whence the most celebrated of our own poets and others, from the earliest times, have extracted their plots. Bohn’s Antiquarian Library. London: George Bell & Sons. Dover Publications produced a reprint edition of 1969. That edition describes itself as an “unabridged and unaltered republication of the Bohn Library Edition of 1876.” The date apparently should have been 1877.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2012. “Medieval Latin in Modern English: Translations from the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day.” In Hexter, Ralph J., and David Townsend, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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