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The Seven Sages of Rome... a medieval collection of stories about wise counselors and wicked women. It was, throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, an extremely popular work which spread into virtually all European languages. This success may be said to have been founded on a number of features distinguishing The Seven Sages of Rome from other compilations of exempla.

Most importantly, the stories of The Seven Sages of Rome have been organically integrated or embedded in an all-embracing frame structure which, while allowing for great diversity of subject matter, nevertheless aligns them according to a global narrative order. Killis Campbell summarizes the frame story as follows: "A young prince is tempted by his stepmother, the queen. She, being rebuffed by him, accuses him of attempting to violate her, and he is condemned to death. His life is saved by seven wise men, who secure a stay of execution of the royal decree by entertaining the king through seven days with tales showing the wickedness of woman, the queen meantime recounting stories to offset those of the sages. On the eighth day the prince, who has remained silent up to that time, speaks in his own defense, and the queen is put to death." It is in the resulting tension between static frame and dynamic context, between a frame story narrating its own existence and embedded narratives deriving meaning from the frame, that the interest of The Seven Sages of Rome resides.

The Seven Sages of Rome is a rich and varied font of popular story-telling material. Over one hundred folktales are included in one or several of the many versions, antecedents and parallels of the cycle. The Seven Sages of Rome normally contains, in slightly varying arrangements, the following stories (given with their customary Latin titles):

  1. Stepmother: arbor
  2. 1st Sage: canis
  3. Stepmother: aper
  4. 2nd Sage: medicus
  5. Stepmother: gaza
  6. 3rd Sage: puteus
  7. Stepmother: senescalcus
  8. 4th Sage: tentamina
  9. Stepmother: Virgilius
  10. 5th Sage: avis
  11. Stepmother: sapientes
  12. 6th Sage: vidua
  13. Stepmother: Roma
  14. 7th Sage: inclusa
  15. Prince: vaticinium

For theories, both old and new, of transmission or polygenesis, of dissemination and origin, of oral tradition and literary intent, these stories are extremely valuable. They show as well that The Seven Sages of Rome is more than an exercise in traditional medieval antifeminism: the prince of the frame story has been accused of plotting to overthrow his father, and his stepmother's stories invite comparisons with many a medieval Fürstenspiegel.

As an undeniably didactic work, The Seven Sages of Rome belongs in the total cultural mosaic of uncounted Narrationes, Sermones, Exempla and Summae and has no small contribution to make to a fuller understanding of the European Middle Ages.

The Seven Sages of Rome has its ultimate roots in the East where it is usually known as The Book of Sindbad [the Philosopher]. The Eastern parent version may go back as far as the fifth century B.C., but the earliest extant mention of The Book of Sindbad and its probably oldest extant version, the Syriac Sindban, date from the tenth century A.D. The Book of Sindbad originated most likely in India, although Persia and the Jewish Near East have also been advanced as possible birthplaces.

From The Book of Sindbad are derived two distinct, though not unrelated, Western narrative traditions: the Dolopathos and The Seven Sages of Rome. The Dolopathos has replaced all but one story from The Book of Sindbad (canis) by other material; and, like The Book of Sindbad, it assigns only one teacher to the prince. The Seven Sages of Rome shares four stories (canis, aper, senescalcus, avis) with The Book of Sindbad, but the sages tell only one story each instead of the two or more in the Eastern tradition; The Seven Sages of Rome also has four stories (canis, gaza, puteus, inclusa) in common with the Dolopathos.

Such complex textual evidence has made it extremely difficult to establish conclusively how The Book of Sindbad reached the West, especially in view of the fact that the parent version of The Seven Sages of Rome has been lost. The transmission theories of the last hundred years fall, in a summary way, into two groups: the proponents of a written transmission posit Byzantino-Roman (G. Paris), Hebrew-Latin (Hilka) or Arabic-Spanish (Libro de los engaños, G. Paris, Aiache, Epstein) intermediaries between the Greek Syntipas and the Western parent version, while the defenders of an oral transmission propose the crusaders as story-carriers (Le Roux de Lincy, Ebeling, Campbell, Misrahi) and Byzantium-North Africa-Spain or Syria-Jerusalem as transmission routes (Campbell). The precise sources of the Dolopathos are not known. It may derive from The Book of Sindbad, or The Seven Sages of Rome, or other folktale traditions, including oral ones, or indeed from a combination of these (Gilleland). Its only material link to the East is the story canis.

The oldest extant Western text, French Version K, was written in the twelfth century. Campbell proposed for the lost Western parent version a terminus ad quem of 1150, while the tenth century as terminus a quo may be deduced from Epstein's research. The original Latin Dolopathos was composed by Johannes de Alta Silva at the end of the twelfth century (G. Paris, Campbell, Gilleland).

The textual tradition of The Seven Sages of Rome grew into two branches: one represented by Version S as transmitted in the Scala celi, the other, much richer one, represented by Versions K (French), D (French), and A (French, English, Italian, Swedish, Welsh). Version A gave rise to the widely disseminated Latin Version H and its variants (with translations into most European languages), to Version I (Italian) and its variants and translations, to Version L and M (both French), and to the French Continuations of the cycle. Alta Silva's Dolopathos was translated into French by a certain Herbert in the first quarter of the thirteenth century; there is also a late German translation.

Campbell counted at least forty different versions, upwards of two hundred manuscripts and nearly two hundred and fifty editions of The Seven Sages of Rome. That was almost ninety years ago....

(Adapted from The Seven Sages of Rome and The Book of Sindbad: An Analytical Bibliography, eds. Hans R. Runte, J. Keith Wikeley and Anthony J. Farrell [New York: Garland, 1984], pp. xi-xvi)

ordered bibliographically





Some Seven Sages Stories

amatores, amici, aper, arbor, assassinus, avis, canicula, canis, capilli, Cligès, creditor, cygni, filius, gaza, inclusa, leo, nomina, nutrix, Polyphemus, puteus, Roma, sapientes, senescalcus, senex, senex caecus, tentamina, vaticinium, vidua, Virgilius, etc.


Aper (The Boar): A boar is lured into submission and killed.
Arbor (The Tree): In the shadow of one of its offshoots an old pine tree dries up and is cut down.
Avis (The Bird): A speaking magpie is deceived in order to protect her unfaithful mistress from its denunciations. The jealous husband kills the bird.
Canis (The Dog): A faithful greyhound, having saved an infant by killing a serpent, is falsely accused of having killed the child and is beheaded.
Gaza (The Treasure): A Roman sage is risking discovery while breaking into the imperial treasury and orders his son to decapitate him. The body is dragged through the streets, but the thief's family pretends not to recognize him.
Inclusa (The Immured Lady): An overprotective husband marries his disguised wife to her friend who has been seeing her by means of a secret passageway.
Medicus (The Physician): Hippocrates, being surpassed in knowledge by his pupil, his nephew, kills him and later dies himself despite his great medical skills.
Puteus (The Well): An unfaithful wife, having been shut out of the house by her husband, lures him into the market square by pretending to drown herself in the village well, then locks him out in turn and has him arrested for curfew violation.
Roma (Rome): Rome under siege relies on one of the sages' histrionic powers to disperse, pursue, and kill the enemy.
Sapientes (The Sages): Emperor Herod is cured of blindness by Merlin who rids Rome of seven corrupt sages and the curse they had put on the city.
Senescalcus (The Seneschal): Out of greed a seneschal offers his wife to the king and is expelled from the realm.
Tentamina (The Trials): Before seeking satisfaction elsewhere, a wife tests her husband's patience and affection three times, then is cured of her passion by a generous bloodletting.
Vaticinium (The Prophecy): A boy's prediction that one day his parents will be like servants to him, causes his father to abandon him. The boy grows up to become a king's trusted counselor and his son-in-law whom his visiting parents would be honored to serve.
Vidua (The Widow, "The Matron of Ephesus"): An easily consoled widow remarries quickly and against all earlier promises desecrates her husband's memory.
Virgilius (Virgil): In order to warn Rome of approaching enemies, Virgil has erected a giant mirror which is destroyed in the course of a treasure hunt authorized by the greedy emperor. The defenseless city executes the emperor.

(From Hans R. Runte, "From the Vernacular to Latin and Back: The Case of The Seven Sages of Rome," Medieval Translators and Their Craft, ed. Jeanette Beer [Studies in Medieval Culture, 15] [Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, Medieval Institute Publications, 1989]: 131-32.)

All Eastern and Western Stories
from Masami Nishimura
1994-2000, 2001 (1) and 2001 (2)

abbas + Absalom mortuus + Absalom rebellus + adulterium + Ahmed + amantes + amatores + amazona + amici + annuli + annulus I + annulus II + Anthenor + aper + arbor + arca + Aristoteles + armiger + assassinus + avis + balneator + caepulla + camelus + canicula I + canicula II + canicula III + canis + capilli + capsa + Cardamum + catula + caupona + Cligîs + corbicula + corpus delicti + creditor + curiositas + cygni + dimidius amicus + disputatio gestu + elephantinus + elephantus + eremita + fatum + filia + filius + filius ingratus + filius profusus + fons + fur et luna + gaza + gener + gibbosi + gladius + heres regni + Herodes + Holofernes + imago + inclusa + ingenia Ia + ingenia Ib + ingenia II + ingenia III + ingenia IV + innocua + ius iurandum + iuvenis femina + lac venenatum + latronis filii + lavator + leo + lepus + linteum + lupus + mater negligens + matrastra + medicus I + medicus II + mel + mercator + Metellus et Caesar + monachus + monasterium + Mucius Scaevola + nasus praemorsus + nepos + nomina + noverca + nutrix + pallium + panes + Papirius + parricida + pira + pirus incantata + piscis + Polyphemus + praeceptum galli + puer adoptatus + puer 5 annorum + puer 3 annorum + puteus + 4 amatores + 4 liberatores + ramus + regina + rex simiarum + Roma + Samson + sapientes + 7 sapientes + secretum + seductor + senescalcus I + senescalcus II + senex + senex caecus + simia + simia et testudo + socer + spurius + striga + striges + Sylwius + tentamina + tergi + thesaurus in puteo + tonstrix + turdi + turtures I + turtures II + upupa + uxores expulsae + vadium + vaticinium I + vaticinium II + vespa et formica + vidua + viduae filius + Virgilius + voluptaria + voluptariae + vulpes + vulpes et simia + zelus + zuchara