Click on the footnote number and you will jump down to that note. Once there and enlightened, then click on that number and you will return to where you were in the text
ONE day about the end of the thirteenth century or the beginning of the fourteenth, when the Middle Ages still darkly curtained the Renaissance from view, a “man of the Court”, or minstrel, of some Italian lord had one of those inventive flashes which go to the making of literatures. This “man of the Court” who was perhaps a minstrel or giullare In little more than name — for his talent would be especially literary — knew by heart the little archaic tales which make up the slender corpus of the Cento Novelle Antiche, or Novellino. Often he told them or heard them told in baronial halls, and in lordly places, in rough huts after days of hunting, and in the encampment of battlefields. Before audiences of seigneurs and knights, in the company of stately prelates, and in the rollicking gatherings of dashing young donzelli, he had narrated or heard narrated by humbler men of his craft these simple 2 stories, some of them redolent of the wisdom of ages, others piquant with the flavour of his own times. Well he knew their effect, and could choose one to suit his company and occasion. Thus for the entertainment of graver and elderly lords he would select those of monkish or ascetic origin, while when in the company of gay young cavalieri, he would not hesitate to tell over some of the more libertine tales of his oral anthology. And the beginnings of the new Italian tongue, liberating itself from the secular thrall of its parent Latin, and having taken shape in hits Tuscan and Sicilian matrixes, sought an early literary expression and found it in the work of our perhaps slightly pedantic giullare who will in all probability remain for ever unknown to us. That some such person existed is obvious, even if we cannot discover his name, nor his place of birth, nor estate. He may indeed have been a worldly type of monk rather than a “man of the court”, but the choice of the novelle, included in the collection, would certainly seem rather to point to the compiler being a man of the world rather than an ascetic. As does the fact that the tales 3 were not written in Latin, for the tenacious Latin clung to the cloisters after it had died on the tongues and pens of the lay world of those times. Our anthologist, who was in fact a great deal more than an anthologist, had coadjutors and rivals, successors and improvers, as the different manuscripts of the Novellino prove, but the original compiler of the Cento Novelle Antiche as the work was previously called, was, one likes to believe, a single individual rather than a group of giullari or ex-giullari at the dependence of some medieval Medici. So the idea came to him of grouping together in one manuscript, which maybe he gave for copying to some Florentine monk, a selection of the knightly, moral, Biblical, classical, and popular tales which were most in vogue in his epoch. They were stories which had stood the test of time — some of them the test of successive civilizations — and had met the full-throated approval of numerous courts from Provence to Sicily, from Parma to Rome. Hitherto they had lived only on the lips of the Court story-tellers and wandering minstrels who narrated them. The tales which make up the Novellino 4 were, for the most part, “taught”, as we learn from our text by one giullare or story-teller to another. And each man added or altered them according to his wit and company. That the professions story-tellers played tricks with the tales in vogue and added details and colour of their own on occasion, we may well presume from Novella LXXXIX, where a “man of the Court” is reminded that he is spinning out his story at too great a length by one of the yawning company. The collection here printed under the title of Il Novellino, most of which tales appear in the original edition of the Cento Novelle Antiche, by Gualteruzzi, formed part of a vast repertory of similar stories, legends and anecdotes which were bandied about from province to province, from country even to country, and closed full lived medieval days of hunting and of battle.
Perhaps it was after some especially successful night when our unknown compiler had won the approval of a generous signore for his tales, and carried off a purse filled with a few gold coins to his lonely room, that the idea came to him of 5 framing the oral stories in a literary form. He had probably no notion that he was making literature, or founding one of the purest early classics of the young Italian tongue which the wit of he people had shaped out of the mother Latin. For him it was a matter of convenience and utility, though the urge to give a literary shape to the spreading idiom was in the air, deriving as an impellent necessity from the propagation of the spoken word which was widespread in Tuscany and vigorous elsewhere though in dialect forms. The first literary stirrings of the Italian conscience were in the air, and writers brought up on Latin chronicles and used to the mixed French and Italian of works like the Entré en Espagne of Nicola da Padua were anxious to try their hands on the wonderful virgin material within their reach. We may reflect in passing what a marvellous opportunity it was for poets and story-tellers, although they did not recognize it as such — to find themselves in the privileged position of having a virgin language at their command, not debased by the ready-made phrase, the trite mechanical expressions. With a new language coming into 6 being, nothing or almost nothing is conventionalized. The idea runs straight from the dynamic thought to the natural phrase. There are no ready-made channels to absorb the spontaneity, convenient and inevitable as such moulds afterwards become.
So our “man of the Court” dreamed upon his great idea, developed it, thought it over, took counsel maybe of some tale-loving signore and set to work. We may, I think, fairly argue that it was some professional teller of tales, some giullare of more than average education rather than any monk or ascetic who wrote the first manuscript of the Hundred Old Tales, and this for the extremely free, not to say bawdy character of three or four of them. (These latter have not been translated.) Moreover, the curious and often ridiculous errors in geography, history, chronology and physics which we find in the Novellino is surely proof that the person who compiled it was no great scholar or man of learning. The mistakes which appear in it could hardly have been perpetrated by a learned monk well read in history and the classics. Again, Latin was still 7 the language of science and such scholarship as existed then. The times were rude in a certain sense, though perhaps less rude than is generally imagined, but some of the errors to be found in the tales are so gross and absurd that they could not have been committed to a manuscript by anyone of real learning. Which gives us ground for believing that the original anthologist was of the minstrel class, a giullare of degree and some education, with literary yearnings, stimulated perhaps by the exercises of his French and Provençal colleagues in the arts of story-telling and song.
Italian critics and writers generally on the subject of early Italian literature are by no means agreed as to the origins of the tales which make up the Cento Novelle. It was during the latter half of the thirteenth century, however, that the new tongue began to make headway against the obstinacy of the Latin, but it is only towards the end of the thirteenth century that original works in Italian prose appeared. Before the thirteenth century practically no Italian literature existed. Italian writers had written in Latin, 8 in French, and in a kind of mixed French and Italian. We have the Latin chronicles of the IXth, Xth, XIth, and XIIth centuries which contain classical and mythological allusions. Guido delle Colonne wrote his Trojan poem in Latin. In the Bovo d’Antona, the Venetian dialect makes itself clearly felt. It was from about the year 1250 that the national literature developed. In the North of Italy, the poems of Giacomino da Verona and Bonvecino da Riva, which were religious in character, showed traces of the movement which prepared the way for the instrument that was to serve Dante and Boccaccio. In the South of Italy, and in Sicily especially, at the Sicilian court, there arose a school of poets who specialised in love songs which were largely imitations of Provençal rhymers. To this Siculo-Provençal school belonged Pier delle Vigne, Inghilfredi, Jacopo d’Aquino and Rugieri Pugliese. The south of the Italian continent with the exception of Naples and some monasteries like Salerno, was steeped in ignorance, and rough dialects grew out of the Greco-Latin soil with nothing literary about them. Frederick II 9 himself, who ruled his Sicilian court, was a poet of sorts himself, though his productions were imitative and unoriginal like most of the members of the Sicilian school. As to what is exactly the oldest prose writing in the Italian language opinions differ, but certainly the Composizione del Mondo by Ristoro d’Arezzo (a Tuscan) who lived about the middle of the thirteenth century, is one of the oldest, if not the oldest. Matteo Spinelli da Giovenazzo, too, may lay claim to be one of the very earliest writers in the Tuscan dialect, which afterwards, and with great rapidity, developed into the Italian language. Another name that may be mentioned is that of Ricordano Malespina.
The French fabliaux, and the works of the French and Provençal singers and makers of contes certainly inspired writings like the Novellino and the few other contemporary works of a similar character. The former reached a far higher degree of art than they ever attained to in Italy. To the extensive works in thousands of lines which the other romance languages can show, Italy can only put forward the bare skeleton tales of the Novellino, the Conti dei Antichi Cavalieri, 10 the Conti Morali del Anonimo Senese. Earlier works there were in Latin, such as the famous Gesta Romanorum and the Disciplina Clericalis. Several of the tales which appear in the Novellino also figure in Disciplina Clericalis and in the Gesta, as we shall see.
To all the poetry of the French and Provençal bards of the Middle Ages Italy has nothing to oppose. Cantastorie or minstrels there were, but the Italian giullare was considerably lower in the hierarchy of song than his French or Provençal brothers. In Italy such poems or songs lacked the profound impress of the people’s spirit. No memory of these Italian songs has remained, though they must have existed, and perhaps in plenty, but the versifiers of the period were plebian and lowly. They lacked the protection of important courts. While France, Spain and Germany can show a rich epic popular poetry, Italy can only boast a few hundred novelle in prose.
The tale or novella was a literary product especially pleasing to the Middle Ages, which was, in the matter of culture, an infantile age. The period seems to have almost a childish 11 affection for the marvellous tale. Learning and intellectual sophistication of ay kind was in the hands of a few, was almost a kind of vested interest in which not only the common people, but even the lords and knights themselves had no interest or claim. This was especially the case in Italy, where no vehicle existed for its propagation until the end of the thirteenth century. Therefore to simple minds, unused to the mysteries of literature, save those written in a hermetic and pompous tongue fast disappearing from common use, the tale was a spiritual refreshment aptly suited to the time. In England, too, we see examples of Latin tales as in the De Naturis Rerum of Neckham.
But if Italian culture was backward at this time, or non-existent save in Latin forms, it grew very quickly, and from its plebian sources there came into being the new art of Boccaccio. For though the language was new, the Italians were by no means a new people. They had behind them a long uninterrupted literary tradition from which they could with difficulty withdraw themselves. There was even a similarity of 12 spirit between those who clung to the old traditions and wrote in Latin, and the people seeking to express themselves in their young language. The two literatures had a great deal of the same spirit and character. The early Italian prose developed to a great extent along the lines of the earlier chroniclers who wrote in medieval Latin. Nor could it very well be otherwise, for even a new literature of a new tongue requires models, and where should the new nationalist scribes turn for models save to the Latin writing of their own countrymen? It is not too much to say that Italian grew quickly because of its Latin traditions. It is astonishing to think how quickly it did grow, from the simple beginnings of the Cento Novelle to Boccaccio. In less than one hundred years Dante is reached. This rapid growth evidently depended on the fact that Italian was a continuation of Middle-Age Latin. In its spoken form, it had been in use for some time, and it merely required a certain amount of independence and belief in the popular idiom to turn it to literary uses.
In the tales which make up the Novellino, 13 we can see how near the form is to the spoken language, especially in those tales which are of contemporary and local origin. The compiler did little more than put into simple Tuscan prose tales that for the most part were well known in oral tradition. When I come to examine the tales individually, we shall see which came from the classics, which from Oriental sources, which from Provence and which were the product of local wit.
It is alleged in some quarters that the Novellino or the Cento Novelle Antiche was not the work of a single compiler. This thesis is supported by arguments which point out the diversity of style and colour in the tales. It seems to me that it may also be argued from this that, as indisputably the stories derive from many stories, such as Provence, the Bible, the Greek and Latin classics, and the tales of the moral and ascetic writers, such a variety of style and colour is only to be expected. If one prefers the theory of single authorship — an authorship of course which is limited as the subject matter of the tales was common property — one can find just as many arguments for it as the 14 upholders of the plural authorship theory can lay against it. There are those who deny the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey to one poet. One cannot pretend to settle a question which still perplexes Italian critics of their own early literature. One may, however, refer briefly to some of the best accredited opinion on the subject.
Franceso Costerò, who believes the tales to be written by several hands, writes in his preface to a popular edition of the Novellino; “Nobody has yet, in spite of all the efforts of the learned, arrived at determining for certain the time or authorship of the Novellino. This is very natural, in the case of a work which was obviously written by several people, and gathered in volume with time. In the Novellino, Saladin is spoken of, and we know that he died in 1193, during a war with the Christians of the Third Crusade. The book also makes reference to the Cavaliere Alardo di Valleri, who contributed to the victory of Charles d’Anjou at the battle of Taliacozzo in 1268. From one date to the other there pass some seventy-five years, whence we should have to admit that the author was more than a hundred 15 years old if he were one and the same person. Further, we must take account of the style of the book”. This argument of Costerò does not seem difficult to answer.
Some people are of the opinion that Brunetto Latini was the author of some of the tales and Professor Carbone writes that: “Latini added some of the finest flowers of the collection and the two narratives of Papirius and the Emperor Trajan are to be found with slight differences in the Cento Novelle and in Fiore di Filosofi e di molti Savi”.
To give an idea of the close similarity that exists between the two versions of the Trajan tale, I give a translation of both versions and place them side by side. The Trajan story is LXIX of the present collection. The version to be found in the Fiore di Filosofi runs:
Trajan was a very just emperor. Having one day mounted his horse to enter into battle with his cavalry, a widow woman came before him, and taking hold of his foot, begged him very earnestly and asked him that he should do justice on those who had wrongfully killed her son, a most upright 16 lad. The Emperor spoke to her and said: I will give you satisfaction on my return. . . .
The version in the Novellino runs:
The Emperor Trajan was a most just lord. Going one day with his host of cavalry against his enemies, a widow woman came before him, and taking hold of his stirrup said: Sire, render me justice against those who have wrongfully killed my son. And the Emperor answered: I will give you satisfaction when I return.
As we see, the versions are almost identical, and the similarity continues in about the same degree throughout the two versions of the same tale.
The opinion has been put forward that Francesco da Barberino had a hand in the shaping of the final collection of tales. This theory was advanced by Federigo Ubaldini in 1640. Adolfo Ancona, certainly one of the weightiest authorities on early Italian literature, is of the opinion that the Novellino was the work of one man. The matter is complicated by the existence of more than one manuscript.17
The first edition of the tales was printed in Bologna in 1525 by Carlo Gualteruzzi of Fano under the title of Le Ciento Novelle antike. In 1572, there appeared in Florence the Libro di Novelle et di bel Parlar Gentile, under the editorship of Monsignor Vicenzo Borghini. This latter edition differs considerably from the Gualteruzzian version, contain tale which do not appear in the earlier version and omits others contained therein. The discussions concerning the two versions soon began. But the authenticity of the Gualteruzzian version is now generally accepted, though the matter can by no means be considered as finally settled. Borghini in his edition seems to have sought to remove from the text all the moral and ascetic tales or those deriving from monkish or ecclesiastical sources. According to D’Ancona, the version of Borghini is an altered and much edited one, while the original edition of Gualteruzzi corresponds with the different codexes of the work, except in the case of the Codex Panciatichianus Palatinus, which has recently come in for accurate examination at the hands of Professor Sicardi, who has written 18 a long essay prefacing his edition of the Novellino. Sicardi, it may be mentioned, holds by the theory of the plural authorship of the tales. A curious fact in connection with the early editions of the Hundred Old Tales is that it has been alleged that an earlier edition than that of Gualteruzzi published in Bologna in 1525 exists in England. It is supposed to have been offered for sale by a London dealer in first editions, and to have passed into private hands. I have not been able to verify the truth of the existence or not of this alleged early edition.
The manuscripts of the Cento Novelle Antiche are eight in number, and seven of them correspond with the editio princeps of Gualteruzzi. Only one, the Codex Panciatichianus, discovered by Wesselofsky, and published by Biagi, in 1880, differs materially, and contains some thirty tales and proverbs which do not appear in either of the two principal editions of Gualteruzzi or Borghini.
The eight codexes are: the Codex Marciana, which is in Venice; the Vatican manuscript; while the other six are in Florence. Of these, 19 one is in the Laurentian library, three are in the Palatine section of the National Library, while the remaining manuscripts are to be found in the Magliabechiana section of the same institute.
The tales contained in the Novellino divide themselves into sections. We have the Biblical stories founded on occurrences related in the Old Testament, and generally containing inaccuracies and alterations in the names and places of the characters referred to. This in itself, as may also be argued in the case of some of the tales deriving from the Greco-Roman sources, would seem to prove the popular origin of the collection. The unknown compiler took the oral story as he found it, even if it contained facts chronologically or historically at variance with the Biblical narrative. We have an instance of this in story number IV of the present collection, where, instead of punishments, an angel is made to appear and tell David that he has sinned. Again, in Novella XII, the compiler has mixed up the names of Joab and Aminadab, while in Novella XXXVI, 20 the account of the second half of the tale is not according to the Biblical narration.
Another portion of the stories derive from French and Provençal sources and the Arthurian cycle is drawn on more than once. The story of how “The Lady of Shalot died for love of Lancelot of the Lake”, which is one of the most beautiful of the entire collections, is an instance in point. The Novelle telling of the Lady Iseult and Tristan of Lyonesse, and the short one numbered XLV are also from the Arthurian romance. Of probable Provençal origin are the tales concerning the Young King and William of Borganda, the tale of Messer Imberal del Balzo, and perhaps the two tales regarding Richard Cœur de Lion, as well as the story on the Doctor of Toulouse, that about Charles D’Anjou and “What happened at the Court of Puys in Provence”. Many of the tales are taken from French originals, such as those dealing with the Astrologers of France, with Messer Roberto di Ariminimonte (LXII), while it is possible that the stories dealing with the Young King and Richard Cœur de Lion came from the French and not the 21 Provençal. The novelle deriving from the knightly romances may also very well be of French origin.
Another section of the tales would appear to have their origin in the classics, and among these are the stories dealing with Trajan, Cato, Seneca, Socrates, Hector and Troy, Narcissus, Hercules, Aristotle and others.
A number are of oriental origin. Among these may be mentioned the novella treating of Prester John, of “the Greek kept in prison”, “How a jongleur lamented before Alexander”, “God and the Minstrel” and the last one in the book about the Old Man of the Mountain.
As the reader will see, the stories in this collection , which represent what is the oldest or almost the oldest work in prose in the Italian language, and the first book of stories in that tongue, have a very special and characteristic style of their own. Their language is the language of the beginnings of a culture, simple to the point of bareness, full of action, wisdom and wit. The narratives are the narratives of a man unused to 22 word-spinning and still a mediæval person of action, a trifle afraid of the mystery of the written word, though probably almost a pedant in comparison with the illiterate world of his time. The language of the tales calls to mind very obviously the style of the Bible, or of the early Hellenic poems, though it is ruder than either. The very simplicity which is one of the charms of the narrative has its drawbacks or rather surprises, especially to modern minds accustomed to a more flexible and more elastic syntax. The personal pronouns have a curious ways of getting mixed up in the Novellino. One feels that the story-teller has a perfect, even childish confidence in the reader’s interest, and as a matter of fact, the tales are so short and easily grasped that the doubt as to who is the particular “he” or “she” or “they” referred to is little more than a pedantic one. I have only altered these peculiarities of the prose where it has seemed necessary in order to allow the meaning to come through clearly, for certainly a great deal of the quality and charm of the book likes in its quaint style. To smooth this out overmuch, would certainly destroy the vigour of the 23 original. Many of the tales, as I have said elsewhere, are common to many nations, and it is largely due to the strong if abrupt style of the narratives that they give us such a sharp sense of the period to which they belong.
To read the tales in the present collection provides a remarkable contrast with modern prose, which can never seem to say enough. The compiler or author, if so we may call him, of the , eschews all psychology the meaning of which word he was ignorant of, and abstains form comment unless it be in the nature of moral comment. This latter, of course, comes from the older tradition of Latin tales to which books like the Gesta Romanorum and Disciplina Clericalis belong. But in this case, the moral is pointed out out of respect to the older tradition, form which the author could not quite shake himself free, writing, though he was, in a new idiom. These moralisings which conclude some of the tales, or are allowed to be understood, are more a tribute to the moral than the literary traditions of the times.
The beauty and dramatic effect of some of the 24 tales is extraordinary. The version given of the Lady of Shalot and how she died for love of Lancelot is exquisite in its purity and tenderness. It is quite a little masterpiece of literature.
“The sail-less vessel was put into the sea with the woman, and the sea took it to Camelot, and drifted it to the shore. A cry passed through the court. The knights and barons came down from the palaces, and noble King Arthur came too, and marvelled mightily that the boat was there with no guide. The king stepped on to it and saw the damsel and the furnishings. He had the satchel opened and the letter was found. He ordered that it should be read, and it ran: ‘To all the Knights of the Round Table this lady of Shallott sends greetings as to the gentlest folk in the world. And if you would know why I have come to this end, it is for the finest knight in the world and the most villainous, that is my Lord Sir Lancelot of the Lake, whom I did not know how to beg that he should have pity on me. So I died for loving well as you can see.
It would be hard to surpass the pure simplicity 25 of this even in verse. The language moves directly from fact to the written word. There is no hint of conscious colouring, no attempt to heighten the effect by a single adjective. Adjectives indeed are extremely rare in the Novellino, as in all good simple prose for the matter of that. The writer rarely departs from “very beautiful” or “most gentle” or “very rich”. As a rule, the tales are almost adjectiveless, and never are adjectives used to round out an effect or disguise an impoverished period. The rhythm of the tales, almost monotonous perhaps, yet wonderfully strong, moves surely from subject to predicate with the least possible adornment. Adornment, in fact, is not the word to use in this connection, for as such it does not exist. Such adjectival or adverbial phrases as are used are such as are only strictly demanded by the accompanying nouns or verbs. This, of course, is one of the characteristics of good literature in all ages, and especially is to be found in early classic prose.
A typical story of the Middle Ages is the dramatic, macabre tale of the knight who was charged with the custody of a hanged man, and 26 found a substitute for the body which had been taken away by the dead man’s friends in the corpse of the husband of a woman to whom the knight makes love. The love scene which takes place at night by the grave-side of the woman’s husband whom she is desperately mourning is grim and picturesque indeed. We have to go to our own Border and Scotch Ballads to find anything similar. Though the tale is of ancient origin, and it is to be found in Petronius, it has all the characteristics of awe, swift passion, gloom and mockery which we associate with the so-called dark ages. The little story outlines a drama of great gloom and power in a few rapid touches. The whole thing is told in some three or four hundred words, but the content is packed with action, and not a word is wasted in ornament or comment. If we take two or three of the lines of the tale individually, we see how rich in action and picturesqueness they are, though a chaster and more ascetic prose could hardly be used.
“Do as I say,” says the knight at the grave-side; “Take me to husband, for I have no wife, and save my life, for I am in danger. . . . 27 Show me how I may escape if you can, and I will be your husband and maintain you honourably. Then the woman, hearing this, fell in love with the knight. . . . She ceased her plaint, and helped him to draw her husband from his grave. . . .” We may not how in the next sentence the writer passes quickly over what has happened on the journey to the scaffold, discarding it as undramatic, for the same sentence goes on at once “. . . and assisted him to hang him by the neck, dead as he was.”
A modern story-teller would have filled several pages describing the lugubrious procession in the heart of the night from grave-yard to scaffold, and have described at length the feelings of the knight and the woman, with ample reflection son feminine nature; while the stars, the countryside, black cypresses, notes of melancholy owls, the sentinels at the city gates would all have been usefully dragged in to impress the reader.
The Middle Ages was childish perhaps in its love of the marvellous and marvellous stores, but the audiences of the old giullari and jongleurs certainly did not lack imagination. In this they 28 were like children who are rich in it, and to whom a bare swift tale with sharply outlined facts is dearer than all the considerations and artifices with which a clever tale-teller may embellish it.
It is not correct to state that people to-day have less imagination than folk in the Middle Ages, it is very likely true that as they have so many more calls on it, it easily becomes tired and loses in elasticity. Those with lively imaginations like to add a good deal themselves to a story that is told them, and such was the case with the listeners to the stories given in this collection. They would probably have resented the overloading his narratives with subsidiary facts, descriptions and artificial holding of the interest. They could do that kind of thing very well themselves. In fact, we have internal evidence from the itself that lengthy stories were not to the taste of the listeners of those times. In Novella No. LXXXIX, we read of a giullare “who began a story that never ended”. One of the hearers interrupts the story-teller, and assures him that the person “who taught him the tale did not teach him all of it.” The 29 asks and is answered: “Because he did not teach you the end”.
Some writers have put forward the theory that the stories contained n the were only the synopses of longer stories, the index, so to speak of a much larger book that has been lost. But it seems to me that for the considerations before mentioned this is not the case. The novella in its infancy was always a brief narration, and even when we come to Boccaccio and his wider manipulation of material, the tales even then are not long as we judge the length of stories nowadays.
Certainly the modern man who lives a much less physical existence than his forbears, and has perforce to use his imagination and other intellectual faculties to a far greater extent that did the elder folk, requires his stories completely filled in so that they leave him little work to do. The Tired Business Man who takes the place of the bold baron and the fat bourgeois of the old day exacts from his modern jongleurs that they give him the least possible intellectual fatigue.30
A number of the tales seem to belong especially to the period, and differentiate themselves from the older ones in the collections where the monkish and Latin flavour clings still through the freer prose of the new idiom. Many of them have quite a Boccaccio touch, and already we seem to hear the round jovial laugh, the sensual yet humanistic mockery of the great Florentine. Among these we many mention the story of the Woman and the Pear-tree, which is not to be found in the original Gualteruzzi edition of 1525, but comes from the Panciatichiano MS. The picture of the two lovers up in the branches of the pear-tree, while the blind husband clasps the trunk of the tree below is worthy of the author of the . The ending of the story, however, seems to be more in keeping with the period.
The curious dialogue between God and Saint Peter, blasphemous almost at first sight and yet innocent in its curious naivete and simplicity, is the king of thing we find in our period. It is on par with that other extraordinary story of God and the minstrel who went partners together, which is obviously an old and favourite tale and 31 much in the style of the duecento. Borghini left it out of his edition, perhaps thinking it was offensive to the religious sentiment.
Boccaccian is Novello No. XLIX, the story of the Physician of Toulouse, though the tale would appear to come from the French. So too is the story about the parish priest Porcellino, whose name is certainly chosen to give further point to the tale. In the same category comes Novella LXII, the tale of Messer Robert of Burgundy. The story in fact appears in the Decameron.
Many of the narratives have quite a different character to this rich mirthful mockery. Tales like that relating to Prester John, to the wise Greek whom a king kept in prison, the “Argument and Sentence that were given in Alexandria”, Antigonus and Alexander, the Lord Steward who plucked out his own eye, belong to another epoch altogether and form part of the monkish and ascetic heredity of the Novellino.
A few (four or five) of the stories are frankly indecent, and are always expurgated from popular editions of the work in Italy, a course 32 which I have followed here. Two or three of the present collection are also a trifle free, but I have decided to leave them in their place, with a few unimportant excisions and alterations.
Another outstanding feature of the stories is the number of them which tell of smart sayings, clever retorts and elegant ripostes. Evidently a great deal was thought of such kind of quick-wittedness in the days of the duecento. The compiler in the Proem to the book lists his “fair courtesies and fine replies, valiant actions and noble gifts”, though there are a number of tales dealing with snubbing or sarcastic replies, which do not seem to be included in the category outlined in the Proem.
There is a certain curious childishness in the almost awed admiration which the compiler seems to feel for anyone who makes a witty retort, or snubs an opponent neatly. It is part of the intellectual simplicity of the time. Thus we have the answer of the pilgrim to the Emperor in Tale LXXXVI, the answer of the man who went to confess himself to the priest, the clever trick of the man who lent money to the student in the 33 “Man of the Marches who went to study at Bologna”.
Great importance, too, is laid on the knightly virtues of kindliness, courtesy and generosity; Knights were expected to be brave, but also gentle, in the sense which the word has taken on when allied with the noun and transformed into our modern gentleman. This common vocable of our daily life is a direct inheritance from the times of chivalry, and retains in its best meaning a great deal of the old significance.
In the language of the stories there is a good deal of Latin grace, order and sense of measure due to the old tradition. For the tales in this collection passed in many cases from their original Latin forms to the mouths of the people, taking on in the process a new originality, character and colour before they were written again in the virgin prose of Tuscany.
That these little tales can please modern readers there is good reason to believe, for they have been tested by time and worn smooth by repetition of all useless angles or unnecessary 34 detail. There is in them as their especial merit great humanity, passion, drama, and often a wisdom so old and mysterious that it seems to reach back through half a dozen civilizations to the very heart and mind of early man.
And so I close this note of introduction and open the way for the tales themselves “for the use and delight of such as know them not and fain would know” as the compiler says.