master Virgil’s magic mirror saved husband from murderous wife

Just before he left to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a married knight was walking through the streets of Rome. Master Virgil looked at him closely and told him that he needed help immediately. The knight begged for an explanation. Virgil responded:

Your wife is a whore and this very day has planned and arranged such that you will die.

{ Uxor tua meretrix est et isto die providit et ordinavit ut moriaris. }[1]

What would a husband say to such an outrageous claim?

wife and husband warily eyeing each other

Virgil was a highly respected poet-magician in medieval Europe. According to legend, he had built in Rome a magnificent set of statues that signaled whenever a Roman province was rebelling.[2] Such power of discernment had obvious relevance to the center’s rebellion in the knight’s situation. The knight in fact validated Virgil’s claim and prudently asked for help:

O kind lord, I know very well that my wife has been a whore for a long time, but about my death I am completely ignorant. I ask you, however, if there is some remedy to prevent my death, tell me. If you are able to save my life, all my goods will be at your wish.

{ O bone domine, scio peroptime quod uxor mea meretrix est a multo tempore, sed de morte mea penitus ignoro. Sed rogo te, ut si sit aliquodam remedium contra mortem meam, michi dicas, et, si vitam meam poteris salvare, omnia bona mea erunt ad voluntatem vestram. }

Virgil explained that the knight’s wife loved another man. To get rid of her husband, she asked a necromancer to kill him. The necromancer created an wax image of the knight, fixed it to a wall, and prepared to shoot arrows at it. By piercing the wax image, the necromancer with his magic art would kill the knight.

Virgil instructed the knight to take off his clothes and get into a bathtub. When the knight had done so, Virgil handed him a mirror. Virgil reportedly created for Rome a mirror that would show any imminent danger to the city.[3] The mirror that Virgil gave the knight showed the necromancer preparing to shoot an arrow at the wax image. Virgil instructed the knight to submerge his head under the water when he saw the necromancer draw the bow.[4] After doing so, the knight looked into the mirror. He saw that the necromancer was angry because his arrow-shot had missed the image.

The necromancer again drew his bow. Again the knight put his head under the water, and the necromancer’s arrow-shot again missed. On the necromancer’s third attempt, the arrow bounced back and killed the necromancer. Grief-stricken, the knight’s wife buried the necromancer’s body under her bed.

After rewarding Virgil lavishly for saving his life, the knight returned home. His wife deceitfully welcomed her husband home with joy. After a few days, he summoned his wife’s parents and declared to them:

Friends, this is the reason why I have sought you: this is your daughter, my wife. She has committed adultery against me, and what is worse, she has contrived to kill me.

{ Carissimi, hec est causa, quare misi pro vobis: hec est filia vestra, uxor mea, que adulterium sub me commisit et, quod pejus est, in mortem meam machinata est. }[5]

Many medieval men endured their wives’ adulterous affairs. But no husband can endure being killed. Attempting to murder one’s spouse should be regarded as a very serious crime, even if the target is a husband. In fact, the wife incurred the death penalty for her crimes. The husband then remarried, had children, and lived the rest of his life in peace.

Men today cannot count on the master Virgil to ensure their safety. After all, most men today have never even heard of Virgil, nor read Virgil’s masterpiece the Aeneid. If a man dares to marry, he must be certain that he’s marrying a good woman. Rather than cuckolding him and attempting to have him killed, a good woman will be faithful to her man and strive to save him from castration culture.

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[1] Anglo-Latin (Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310) Deeds of the Romans {Gesta Romanorum} 7 (“Wax Image”), Latin text (modified to distinguish u and v) and English translation (adapted slightly) from Bright (2019). The subsequent quote is similarly sourced.

The earliest surviving manuscript of the Gesta Romanorum, MS. Innsbruck, Universitatsbibiliothek, Codex Latin 310 (dated 1342), identifies the man helping the knight as “master Virgil {magister Virgilius}.” MS. Innsbruck 310, chapter 157, cited in Bright (2019) p. 37, n. 47. The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum refers to him as a “clerk {clericus},” while Oesterley’s edition of the continental Gesta Romanorum refers to him as a “skilled master {magister quidam peritus}.” Id. Above I conflate various versions, which differ little, to make what seems to me the best story.

[2] This structure, built upon the Capitolium, was called the “salvation of Rome {Salvatio Roma}.” On that structure, Wright (1851) v. 1, p. 108; Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) pp. 855-7, documenting Alexander Neckam, On the natures of things {De naturis rerum} ch. 174, written c. 1190-1200; id. pp. 867-9, documenting a story in Oesterley’s augmented Gesta Romanorum, 186 germ. 18, Oesterley (1872) pp. 590-1.

[3] On Virgil constructing a magic mirror to warn the city of danger, Johannes Gobi, The Ladder of Heaven {La Scala Coeli}, relevant Latin text and English translation in Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) p. 859. Gobi apparently wrote La Scala Coeli in the 1330s, about the time that the Gesta Romanorum probably was written.

[4] According to William of Malmesbury, Deeds of the Kings of the English {Gesta Regum Anglorum}:

Nothing effected by necromancy can, when put into water, deceive the sight of the beholders.

{ nihil enim quod per nigromantiam fit potest in aqua aspectum intuentium fallere }

Gesta Regum Anglorum, Book 2, Ch. 10, Latin text from Patrologiae Latina, Vol. 179, Vol. 1, col. 1144, English translation from Giles (1847) p. 180, cited in Bright (2019) p. 39, n. 50.

[5] Continental Gesta Romanorum 102 (“About the transgression of the soul and its wounds {De transgressionibus anime et vulneribus ejus}”), Latin text from Oesterley (1872), English translation (modified slightly) from Stace (2018).

[image] Roman Emperor Pompeius meeting his wife. Illumination from Ancient Roman History {Les anciennes hystoires rommaines}. Made in the last quarter of the 14th century. Source illumination from folio 343 of MS. British Library Royal 16 G VII.


Bright, Philippa, ed. and trans. 2019. The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum: from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Giles, J.A., trans. 1847. William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England: From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, with Notes and Illustrations. London: Henry G. Bohn. Alternate presentation.

Oesterley, Hermann, edOesterley, Hermann, ed. 1872. Gesta Romanorum. Berlin: Weidmann. Alternate presentation of chapters 1-181.

Stace, Christopher, trans. 2018. Gesta Romanorum: A New Translation. Manchester University Press.

Wright, Thomas. 1851. Narratives of Sorcery and Magic, from the most authentic sources. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street. Vol. 1, Vol. 2.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., and Michael C. J. Putnam. 2008. The Virgilian Tradition: the first fifteen hundred years. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

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