A collection of exempla, or anecdotes, arranged for the use of preachers in the late 13th century. The title, which suggests historical material and Roman origin, is misleading, for the narratives are of many kinds including Oriental tales, classical fables, and Christian saints' legends, all supplied with moral application for sermon use. According to scholarly opinion, the collection was originally gathered in England, but was soon imitated on the Continent in sets of stories considerably different from the contents of the English manuscripts. The Anglo-Latin version is one of the finest of all the European exemplum books and well deserved the copying and imitation that it received. It has sometimes been attributed to John of bromyard, the known author of another such collection called the Summa predicantium, but he flourished too late for authorship of the Gesta. The Continental version has also been uncertainly associated, usually with the names of Hélinand or of Berchorius, a French Benedictine. The Latin narratives were subjected to translation in the late Middle Ages into various vernacular languages, the earliest English versions being made in the reign of Henry VI, c. 1430.
With the invention of movable type, the tales of the Gesta spread rapidly. The collection was first printed at Utrecht in 1472 in its Latin form and soon elsewhere in various translations. One of the most precious of such editions survives in a unique copy bearing the imprint of Wynkyn de Worde, dating from c. 1510. Containing 43 of the stories in English, it became the basis of Richard Robinson's version printed in Elizabeth's reign and possibly was known to Shakespeare, who immortalized three of the tales in King Lear, Pericles, and The Merchant of Venice.
Bibliography: Gesta Romanorum, ed. h. oesterley (Berlin 1872) Lat. text; Eng. tr. c. swann, ed. w. hooper (London 1877). The Early English Versions of the G. R., ed. s. j. h. herrtage (EEngTSoc 33; 1879; repr. 1962). j. t. welter, L'Exemplum dans la littérature religieuse et didactique du moyen âge (Paris 1927). g. r. owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (2d ed. New York 1961).
[e. c. dunn]