Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome | Annotated Tale

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When Jesus Christ Wandered on Earth (Eight Tales)



ONE day the Madonna was carrying the Bambino through a lupin-field, and the stalks of the lupins rustled so, that she thought it was a robber coming to kill the Santo Bambino. [1] She turned, and sent a malediction over the lupin-field, and immediately the lupins all withered away and fell flat and dry on the ground, so that she could see there was no one hidden there. When she saw there was no one hidden there, she sent a benediction over the lupin-field, and the lupins all stood up straight again, fair and flourishing, and with tenfold greater produce than they had at the first.


ONE day when Jesus Christ was grown up, and went about preaching, He came to a certain village and knocked at the first door, and said, 'Give me a lodging.' [2] But the master of the house shut the door in his face, saying, 'Here is nothing for you.' He came to the next house, and received the same answer; and the next, and the next, no one in all the village would take Him in. Weary and footsore, He came to the cottage of a poor little old woman, who lived all alone on the outskirts, and knocked there. 'Who is there?' [3] asked the old woman. 'The Master with the Apostles,' answered Jesus Christ. The old woman opened the door, and let them all in. 'Have you no fire?' asked Jesus Christ. 'No fire have I,' answered the old woman. Then Jesus Christ blessed the hearth, and there came a pile of wood on it, and a fire was soon made. 'Have you nothing to give us to eat?' asked Jesus Christ. 'Nothing worth offering you,' answered the old woman; 'here is a little fish' (it was a little fish, that, not so long as my hand) 'and some crusts of bread, which they gave me at the eating-shop in charity just now, and that's all I have;' and she set both on the table. 'Have you no wine?' again asked Jesus Christ. 'Only this flask of wine and water they gave me there, too;' and she set it before Him.

               Then Jesus Christ blessed all the things, and handed them round the table, and they all dined off them, and at the end there remained just the same as at the beginning. When they had finished, He said to the old woman, 'This fire, with the bread, and the fish, and the wine, will always remain to you, and never diminish as long as you live. And now follow Me a little way.'

               The Master went on before with His Apostles, and the old woman followed after, a little way behind. And behold, as they walked along, all the houses of that inhospitable village fell down one after the other, and all the inhabitants were buried under them. Only the cottage of the old woman was left standing. When the judgment was complete, Jesus Christ said to her, 'Now, return home.' [4]

               As she turned to go, St. Peter said to her, 'Ask for the salvation of your soul.' And she went and asked it of Jesus Christ, and He replied, 'Let it be granted you!'


ONE day as He was going into the Temple, He saw two men quarrelling before the door: a young man and an old man. The young man wanted to go in first, and the old man was vindicating the honour of his grey hairs.

               'What is the matter?' asked Jesus Christ; and they showed Him wherefore they strove.

               Jesus Christ said to the young man, 'If you are desirous to go in first, you must accept the state to which honour belongs,' and He touched him, and he became an old man, bowed in gait, feeble, and grey-haired, while to the old man He gave the compensation for the insult he had received, by investing him with the youth of the other.


IN THE days when Jesus Christ roamed the earth, He found Himself one day with His disciples in the Campagna, far from anything like home. The only shelter in sight was a cottage of wretched aspect. Jesus Christ knocked at the door.

               'Who is there?' said a tremulous voice from within.

               'The Master with the disciples,' answered Jesus Christ. The man didn't know what He meant; nevertheless, the tone was too gentle to inspire fear, so he opened, and let them all in.

               'Have you no fire to give us?' asked Jesus Christ.

               'I'm only a poor beggar. I never have any fire,' said the man.

               'But these poor things,' said Jesus Christ, 'are stiff with cold and weariness; they must have a fire.'

               Then Jesus Christ stood on the hearth, and blessed it, and there came a great blazing fire of heaped-up wood. When the beggar saw it, he fell on his knees in astonishment.

               'Have you no food to set before us?' asked Jesus Christ.

               'I have one loaf of Indian corn, [5] which is at your service,' answered the beggar.

               'One loaf is not enough,' answered Jesus Christ; 'have you nothing else at all?'

               'Nothing at all about the place that can be eaten,' answered the beggar. 'Leastwise, I have one ewe, which is at your service.'

               'That will do,' answered Jesus Christ; and he sent St. Peter to help the man to prepare it for dressing.

               'Here is the mutton,' said the beggar; 'but I cannot cook it, because I have no lard.' [6]

               'Look!' said Jesus Christ.

               The beggar looked on the hearth, and saw everything that was necessary ready for use.

               'Now, then, bring the wine and the bread,' said Jesus Christ, when the meat was nearly ready.

               'There is the only loaf I have,' said the beggar, setting the polenta loaf on the table; 'but, as for wine, I never see such a thing.'

               'Is there none in the cellar?' asked Jesus Christ.

               'In the cellar are only a dozen empty old broken wine-jars that have been there these hundred years; they are well covered with mould.' Jesus Christ told St. Peter to go down and see, and when he went down with the beggar, there was a whole ovenful of fresh-baked bread boiling hot, [7] and beyond, in the cellar, the jars, instead of being broken and musty, were all standing whole and upright, and filled with excellent wine.

               'See how you told us falsely,' said St. Peter, to tease him.

               'Upon my word, it was even as I said, before you came.'

               'Then it is the Master who has done these wonderful things,' answered St. Peter. 'Praise Him!'

               Now the meat was cooked and ready, and they all sat down to table; but Jesus Christ took a bowl and placed it in the midst of the table and said, 'Let all the bones be put into this bowl;' and when they had finished he took the bones and threw them out of the window, and said, 'Behold, I give you an hundred for one.' After that they all laid them down and slept.

               In the morning when they opened the door to go, behold there were an hundred sheep grazing before the door.

               'These sheep are yours,' said Jesus Christ; 'moreover, as long as you live, neither the bread in the oven nor the wine in the cellar shall fail;' and He passed out and the disciples after Him.

               But St. Peter remained behind, and said to the man who had entertained them, 'The Master has rewarded you generously, but He has one greater gift yet which He will give you if you ask Him.'

               'What is it? tell me what is it?' said the beggar.

               'The salvation of your soul,' answered St. Peter.

               'Signore! Signore! add to all Thou hast given this further, the salvation of my soul,' cried the man.

               'Let it be granted thee,' [8] answered the Lord, and passed on His way.


ANOTHER day Jesus Christ and His disciples dined at a tavern. [9]

               'What's to pay?' said Jesus Christ, when they had finished their meal.

               'Nothing at all,' answered the host.

               But the host had a little hunchback son, who said to him, 'I know some have found it answer to give these people food instead of making them pay for it; but suppose they forget to give us anything, we shall be worse off than if we had been paid in the regular way. I will tell you what I'll do now, so as to have a hold over them. I'll take one of our silver spoons and put it in the bag that one of them carries, and accuse them of stealing it.'

               Now St. Peter was a great eater, and when anything was left over from a good meal he was wont to put it by in a bag against a day when they had nothing. Into this bag therefore the hunchback put the silver spoon.

               When they had gone on a little way the young hunchback ran after them and said to Jesus Christ,--

               'Signore! one of these with you has stolen a spoon from us.'

               'You are mistaken, friend; there is not one of them who would do such a thing.'

               'Yes,' persevered the hunchback; 'it is that one who took it,' and he pointed to St. Peter.

               'I!!' said St. Peter, getting very angry. 'How dare you to say such a thing of me!'

               But Jesus Christ made him a sign that he should keep silence.

               'We will go back to your house and help you to look for what you have lost, for that none of us have taken the spoon is most certain,' He said; and He went back with the hunchback.

               'There is nowhere to search,' answered the hunchback, 'but in that man's bag; I know it is there, because I saw him take it.'

               'Then there's my bag inside out,' said St. Peter, as he cast the contents upon the floor. Of course the silver spoon fell clattering upon the bricks.

               'There!' said the hunchback, insolently. 'Didn't I tell you it was there? You said it wasn't!'

               St. Peter was so angry he could not trust himself to speak; but Jesus Christ answered for him:

               'Nay, I said not it was not there, but that none of these had taken it. And now we will see who it was put it there.' With that He motioned to them all to stand back, while He, standing in the midst and raising his eyes to Heaven, said solemnly,

               'Let whoso put it in the bag be turned to stone!'

               Even as He spoke the hunchback was turned into stone.


THERE was another tavern, however, where the host was a different sort of man, and not only said he would take nothing when Jesus Christ and His disciples dined there, but really would never take anything; nor was it that by any miracle he had received advantages of another sort, but out of the respect and affection he bore the Master he deemed himself sufficiently paid by the honour of being allowed to minister to Him.

               One day when Jesus Christ and His disciples were going away on a journey, St. Peter went to this host and said, 'You have been very liberal to us all this time: if you were to ask for some gift, now, you would be sure to get it.'

               'I don't know that there is anything that I want,' said the host. 'I have a thriving trade, which you see not only supplies all my wants, but leaves me the means of being liberal also; I have no wife to provide for, and no children to leave an inheritance to: so what should I ask for? There is one thing, to be sure, I should like. My only amusement is playing at cards: if He would give me the faculty of always winning, I should like that; it isn't that I care for what one wins, it is that it is nice to win. Do you think I might ask that?'

               'I don't know,' said St. Peter, gravely. 'Still you might ask; He is very kind.'

               The host did ask, and Jesus Christ granted his desire. When St. Peter saw how easily He granted it, he said, 'If I were you, I should ask something more.'

               'I really don't know what else I have to ask,' replied the host, 'unless it be that I have a fig-tree which bears excellent figs, but I never can get one of them for myself; they are always stolen before I get them. I wish He would order that whoever goes up to steal them might get stuck to the tree till I tell him he may come down.'

               'Well,' said St. Peter, 'it is an odd sort of thing to ask, but you might try; He is very kind.'

               The host did ask, and Jesus Christ granted his request. When St. Peter saw that He granted it so easily, he said, 'If I were you I should ask something more.'

               'Do you really think I might?' answered the host. 'There is one thing I have wanted to ask all along, only I didn't dare. But you encourage me, and He seems to take a pleasure in giving. I have always had a great wish to live four hundred years.'

               'That is certainly a great deal to ask,' said St. Peter, 'but you might try; He is very kind.'

               The host did ask, and Jesus Christ granted his petition, and then went His way with His disciples. St. Peter remained last, and said to the host, 'Now run after him, and ask for the salvation of your soul.' ('St. Peter always told them all to ask that,' added the narrator in a confidential tone.)

               'Oh, I can't ask anything more, I have asked so much,' said the host.

               'But that is just the best thing of all, and what He grants the most willingly,' insisted St. Peter. 'Really?' said the host; and he ran after Jesus Christ, and said, 'Lord! who hast so largely shown me Thy bounty, grant me further the salvation of my soul.'

               'Let it be granted!' said Jesus Christ; and continued His journey.

               All the things the host had asked he received, and life passed away very pleasantly, but still even four hundred years come to an end at last, and with the end of it came Death.

               'What! is that you, Mrs. Death, [10] come already?' said the host.

               'Why, it's time I should come, I think; it's not often I leave people in peace for four hundred years.'

               'All right, but don't be in a hurry. I have such a fancy for the figs of that fig-tree of mine there. I wish you would just have the kindness to go up and pluck a good provision of them to take with me, and by that time I'll be ready to go with you.'

               'I've no objection to oblige you so far,' said Mrs. Death; 'only you must mind and be quite ready by the time I do come back.'

               'Never fear,' said the host; and Mrs. Death climbed up the fig-tree.

               'Now stick there!' said the host, and for all her struggling Mrs. Death could by no means extricate herself any more.

               'I can't stay here, so take off your spell; I have my business to attend to,' said she.

               'So have I,' answered the host; 'and if you want to go about your business, you must promise me, on your honour, you will leave me to attend to mine.'

               'I can't do it, my man! What are you asking? It's more than my place is worth. Every man alive has to pass through my hands. I can't let any of them off.'

               'Well, at all events, leave me alone another four hundred years, and then I'll come with you. If you'll promise that, I'll let you out of the fig-tree.'

               'I don't mind another four hundred years, if you so particularly wish for them; but mind you give me your word of honour you come then, without giving me all this trouble again.'

               'Yes! and here's my hand upon it,' said the host, as he handed Mrs. Death down from the fig-tree.

               And so he went on to live another four hundred years. ('For you know in those times men lived to a very great age,' was the running gloss of the narrator.)

               The end of the second four hundred years came too, and then Mrs. Death appeared again. 'Remember your promise,' she said, 'and don't try any trick on me this time.'

               'Oh, yes! I always keep my word,' said the host, and without more ado he went along with her.

               As she was carrying him up to Paradise, they passed the way which led down to Hell, and at the opening sat the Devil, receiving souls which his ministers brought to him from all parts. He was marshalling them into ranks, and ticketing them ready to send off in batches to the distinct place for each.

               'You seem to have got plenty of souls there, Mr. Devil,' said the host. 'Suppose we sit down and play for them?'

               'I've no objection,' said the Devil. 'Your soul against one of these. If I win, you go with them; if you win, one of them goes with you.'

               'That's it,' said the host, and picking out a nice-looking soul, he set him for the Devil's stake.

               Of course the host won, and the nice-looking soul was passed round to his side of the table.

               'Shall we have another game?' said the host, quite cock-a-hoop.

               The Devil hesitated for a moment, but finally he yielded. The host picked out a soul that took his fancy, for the Devil's stake, and they sat down to play again, with the same result.

               So they went on and on till the host had won fifteen thousand souls of the Devil. 'Come,' said Death when they had got as far as this, 'I really can't wait any longer. I never had to do with anyone who took up so much time as you. Come along!'

               So the host bowed excuses to the Devil for having had all the luck, and went cheerfully the way Mrs. Death led, with all his fifteen thousand souls behind him. Thus they arrived at the gate of Paradise. There wasn't so much business going on there as at the other place, and they had to ring before anyone appeared to open the door.

               'Who's there?' said St. Peter.

               'He of the four hundred years!'

               'And what is all that rabble behind?' asked St. Peter.

               'Souls that I have won of the Devil for Paradise,' answered the host.

               'Oh, that won't do at all, here!' said St. Peter.

               'Be kind enough to carry the message up to your Master,' responded the host.

               St. Peter went up to Jesus Christ. 'Here is he to whom you gave four hundred years of life,' he said; 'and he has brought fifteen thousand other souls, who have no title at all to Paradise, with him.'

               'Tell him he may come in himself,' said Jesus Christ, 'but he has nothing to do to meddle with the others.'

               'Tell Him to be pleased to remember that when He came to my eating-shop I never made any difficulty how many soever He brought with Him, and if He had brought an army I should have said nothing,' answered the host; and St. Peter took up that message too.

               'That is true! that is right!' answered Jesus Christ. 'Let them all in! let them all in!'



WHEN Jesus Christ was on earth, He lodged one night at a priest's house, and when He went away in the morning He offered to give His host, in reward for his hospitality, whatever he asked. What Pret' Olivo (for that was his host's name) asked for was that he should live a hundred years, and that when Death came to fetch him he should be able to give her what orders he pleased, and that she must obey him.

               'Let it be granted!' said Jesus Christ.

               A hundred years passed away, and then, one morning early, Death came.

               'Pret' Olivo! Pret' Olivo!' cried Death, 'are you ready? I'm come for you at last.'

               'Let me say my mass first,' said Pret' Olivo; 'that's all.'

               'Well, I don't mind that,' answered Death; 'only mind it isn't a long one, because I've got so many people to fetch to-day.'

               'A mass is a mass,' answered Pret' Olivo; 'it will be neither longer nor shorter.'

               As he went out, however, he told his servant to heap up a lot of wood on the hearth and set fire to it. Death went to sit down on a bench in the far corner of the chimney, and by-and-by the wood blazed up and she couldn't get away any more. In vain she called to the servant to come and moderate the fire. 'Master told me to heap it up, not to moderate it,' answered the servant; and so there was no help. Death continued calling in desperation, and nobody came. It was impossible with her dry bones to pass the blaze, so there she had to stay.

               'Oh, dear! oh, dear! what can I do?' she kept saying; 'all this time everybody is stopped dying! Pret' Olivo! Pret' Olivo! come here.'

               At last Pret' Olivo came in.

               'What do you mean by keeping me here like this?' said Death; 'I told you I had so much to do.'

               'Oh, you want to go, do you?' said Pret' Olivo, quietly.

               'Of course I do. Tell some one to clear away those burning logs, and let me out.'

               'Will you promise me to leave me alone for another hundred years if I do?'

               'Yes, yes; anything you like. I shall be very glad to keep away from this place for a hundred years.'

               Then he let her go, and she set off running with those long thin legs of hers.

               The second hundred years came to an end.

               'Are you ready, Pret' Olivo?' said Death one morning, putting her head in at the door.

               'Pretty nearly,' answered Pret' Olivo. 'Meantime, just take that basket, and gather me a couple of figs to eat before I go.'

               As she went away he said, 'Stick to the tree' (but not so that she could hear it); for you remember he had power given him to make her do what he liked. She had therefore to stick to the tree.

               'Well, Lady Death, are you never going to bring those figs?' cried Pret' Olivo after a time.

               'How can I bring them, when you know I can't get down from this tree? Instead of making game of me, come and take me down.'

               'Will you leave me alone another hundred years if I do?'

               'Yes, yes; anything you like. Only make haste and let me go.'

               The third hundred years came to an end, and Death appeared again. 'Are you ready this time, Pret' Olivo?' she cried out as she approached.

               'Yes, this time I'll come with you,' answered Pret' Olivo. Then he vested himself in the Church vestments, and put a cope on, and took a pack of cards in his hand, and said to Death, 'Now take me to the gate of Hell, for I want to play a game of cards with the Devil.'

               'Nonsense!' answered Death. 'I'm not going to waste my time like that. I've got orders to take you to Paradise, and to Paradise you must go.'

               'You know you've got orders to obey whatever I tell you,' answered Pret' Olivo; and Death knew that was true, so she lost no more time in disputing, but took him all the way round by the gate of Hell.

               At the gate of Hell they knocked.

               'Who's there?' said the Devil.

               'Pret' Olivo,' replied Death.

               'Out with you, ugly priest!' said the Devil. 'I'm surprised at you, Death, making game of me like that; you know that's not the sort of ware for my market.' [12]

               'Silence, and open the door, ugly Pluto! [13] I'm not come to stay. I only want to have a game of cards with you. Here's my soul for stake on my side, against the last comer on your side,' interposed Pret' Olivo.

               Pret' Olivo won the game, and hung the soul on to his cope.

               'We must have another game,' said the Devil.

               'With all my heart!' replied Pret' Olivo; and he won another soul. Another and another he won, and his cope was covered all over with the souls clinging to it.

               Meantime, Death thought it was going on rather too long, so she looked through the keyhole, and, finding they were just beginning another game, she cried out loudly;

               'It's no use playing any more, for I'm not going to be bothered to carry all those souls all the way up to Heaven--a likely matter, indeed!'

               But Pret' Olivo went on playing without taking any notice of her; and he hung them on to his beretta, till at last you could hardly see him at all for the number of souls he had clinging to him. There was no place for any more, so at last he stopped playing.

               'I'm not going to take all those other souls,' said Death when he came out; 'I've only got orders to take you.'

               'Then take me,' answered Pret' Olivo.

               Death saw that the souls were all hung on so that she could not take him without taking all the rest; so away she went with the lot of them, without disputing any more.

               At last they arrived at the Gate of Paradise. St. Peter opened the door when they knocked; but when he saw who was there he shut the door again.

               'Make haste!' said Death; 'I've no time to waste.'

               'Why did you waste your time in bringing up souls that were not properly consigned to you?' answered St. Peter.

               'It wasn't I brought them, it was Pret' Olivo. And your Master charged me I was to do whatever he told me.'

               'My Master! Oh, then, I'm out of it,' said St. Peter. 'Only wait a minute, while I just go and ask Him whether it is so.' St. Peter ran to ask; and receiving an affirmative answer, came back and opened the gate, and they all got in.



'YOU know, of course, about St. Peter, when they put him in the prisons here; he found a way of escaping through the "catacomboli," and just as he had got out into the open road again he met Jesus Christ coming towards him carrying His cross. And St. Peter asked Him what he was doing going into the "catacomboli." But Jesus Christ answered, "I am not going into the 'catacomboli' to stay; I am going back by the way you came to be crucified over again, since you refuse to die for the flock." Then St. Peter turned and went all the way back, and was crucified with his head downwards, for he said he was not worthy to die in the same way as his Master.'


Counterparts of these stories abound in the collections of all countries; in the Norse, and Gaelic, and Russian, more of the pagan element seems to stick to them. In Grimm's are some with both much and little of it. From Tirol I have given two, which are literally free from it, in 'Household Stories from the Land of Hofer;' and I have one or two picked up for me by a friend in Brittany, of which the same may be said. On the other hand, we meet them again in another form in that large group of strange compounds, of which 'Il Rè Moro,' p. 97, &c., are the Roman representatives, and 'Marienkind,' pp. 7-12, 'Grimm Kinder und Hausmährchen,' ed. 1870, the link between them. In the minds of the Roman narrators, however, I am quite clear no such connexion exists. See also p. 207 infra.

               One of the quaintest legends of this class is given in Scheible's 'Schaltjahr.' It is meant for a charm to drive away wolves.

'Lord Jesus Christ and St. Peter went in the morning out.     
As our Lady went on before she said (turning about),     
"Ah, dear Lord! whither must we go in and out?     
We must over hill and dale (roundabout).     
May God guard the while my flock (devout).     
Let not St. Peter go his keys without;     
But take them and lock up the wild dogs' [14] snout,     
That they no bone of them all may flout."'


[1] The Holy Babe.

[2] 'Date mi un po' d'allogio;' lit., Give me a small quantity of lodging--a humble mode of expression.

[3] 'Chi è?' ('Who's there'); but the humour of the expression here lies in its being the invariable Roman custom to sing out 'Chi è?' and wait till 'Amici!' is answered, before any door is opened.

[4] Comp. with Legend of the Marmolata in 'Household Stories from the land of Hofer.'

[5] 'Un pagnotto di polenta' was the expression used, meaning a great coarse loaf of Indian corn. The Roman poor have much the same contempt for inferior bread that we meet with in the same class at home, none eat 'seconds' who can possibly avoid it; but the pagnotto di polenta is only eaten by the poorest peasants.

[6] 'Strutto,' lard, enters into the composition of almost every Roman popular dish.

[7] 'Che bolliva,' constantly applied in Roman parlance to solids as well as liquids.

[8] The narrator was an admirable reciter, and as she uttered this 'Vi sia concessa,' in a solemn and majestic manner, she raised her hand and made the sign of the cross with a rapid and facile gesture, just as she might have seen the Pope do as he drove through Rome.

[9] 'Trattoria,' can only be translated by 'tavern,' but unfortunately the English word represents quite a different idea from the Roman. 'Tavern' suggests noise and riot, but a 'trattoria' is a place where a poor Roman will take his family to dine quietly with him on a festa as a treat.

[10] 'Death,' being feminine in Italian, has to be personified as a woman. The same occurs in a Spanish counterpart of this story which I have given under the title of 'Starving John the Doctor' in 'Patrañas.' The Spanish counterpart of the rest of the story will be found in 'Where one can dine two can dine' ('Un Convidado invida a ciento') in the same series.

[11] 'Olive the priest.' 'When we were children,' said the narrator, 'my father used to tell us such a lot of stories of an evening, but of them all the two we used to ask for most, again and again, and the only two I remember, were "Mi butto," and "Pret' Olivo." Do you know "Mi butto"? We used to shudder at it, and yet we used to ask for it.' I incautiously admitted I did know it, instead of acquiring a fresh version. 'Then here is "Pret' Olivo." I don't suppose I was more than seven then, and now I am thirty-five, and I have never heard it since, but I'll make the best I can of it. Of course it is not a true story; we knew that it couldn't be true, as anyone can see; but it used to interest us children.'

[12] 'Vaene brutto prete! Questa non è roba per me.'

[13] 'Brutto Plutone!' The traditional application of the name will not have escaped the reader.

[14] 'Holzhund,' I suppose, is used for wild dog.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: When Jesus Christ Wandered on Earth (Eight Tales)
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Roman Legends: A Collection of the Fables and Folk-lore of Rome
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Estes and Lauriat
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1877
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: unclassified

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