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

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in October 2018 with all known ATU Classifications.

S. Giovanni Bocca D’oro (Three Tales)



ST. JOHN of the Golden Mouth was another famous penitent we had here in Rome. He had treated a number of young girls shamefully, and then killed them.

               But one day the grace of God touched him, and he went out into the Campagna, to a solitary place, and there, with a wattle of rushes, he made himself a hut, and lived there doing penance far, far away from any human habitation.

               One day a king, and his wife, and his sons, and his daughter all went out to hunt. They got overtaken by a storm, and separated; some hasted home in one direction, and some in another, but the daughter they could not find anywhere, and when they had searched everywhere for many days and could not find her, they gave her up for lost.

               But she, as she was running, had seen the hut of St. John of the Golden Mouth, and knocked at the door.

               'Begone!' shouted the penitent, thinking it was the Devil come to tempt him.

               But she continued knocking.

               'Begone! Out into the wild! nor disturb my peace, Evil One!' shouted he again.

               'I am not the Evil One,' answered the princess; 'I am only a woman; I have lost my way, and crave shelter from the storm.'

               When he heard that, he got up and let her in; but when he saw her, he could not resist treating her as he had treated the other maidens. Then he killed her, and threw her body into a well.

               But the next day, when he came to think of what he had done, he said to himself,

               'How is it possible that I, who have come here to do penance for my crimes, should out here, even in my penitential hut, commit the same crime again? I must go further from temptation, and do deeper penance yet.'

               So he left the shelter of his hut, and all his clothes, and went into the wild country and lived with the wild beasts, and became like one of them. After many years he grew quite accustomed to go on all fours, and his body was all covered with hair like a lion's, and he lost the use of speech.

               Then, one day the same king went out hunting. Suddenly there was a great cry of the dogs. They had found an animal of which the huntsmen had never seen the like before. So strange was it, that they said, we must not kill it, but must bring it to the king. With much difficulty they whipped the dogs off, and they brought it to the king, so like a four-footed creature had San Giovanni Bocca d'oro grown.

               Neither could the king make out what kind of creature it was; so he told the huntsmen to put a chain on it, and bring it to the palace.

               When they got home to the palace, everyone was astonished at the appearance of the creature the huntsmen had with them, and they called out with such loud exclamations that the queen, who was ill in bed, heard them, and she asked what it was about. When they told her, she was seized with a violent desire to see the creature. But they said she must by no means see it, being ill; but the more they opposed her wish, the more vehement she was to see it, till, at last, the nurses said it would do more harm to continue refusing her than to let her see it.

               So they led the creature by the chain into her room, and placed him by her bedside.

               When the queen saw him, she said, 'This is no four-footed beast, but a man, like one of you.' And she spoke to him, and asked him to say who he was; but he had lost the use of speech, and could not answer her.

               Then the baby that was lying on the pillow by her side, just born, raised its head, and said out loud, so that all could hear, in a voice plain and clear--

               'Giovanni Bocca d'oro, God hath forgiven thee thy sins and iniquities.'

               The queen was yet more astonished when she heard her new-born babe speak thus, and she asked St. John what it could mean. When she saw he could not answer her, she ordered that they should give him pen and paper.

               Then, though they gave him a common pen, all he wrote appeared in letters of shining gold, and he wrote down all that I have told you. Moreover, he bid them send to the well where he had thrown the body of the princess, and fetch her back.

               When they had done so, they found her whole and sound, and only a little cicatriced wound in her throat. Then they asked her in astonishment how she had lived in that dark, damp well all these years.

               But she answered, 'Every day there came to me a beautiful Roman matron in shining apparel, and she brought me food and consoled me, and after she had been there the well was bright, and sweet, and perfumed.' And they knew that it must have been the Madonna.

               As soon as she was thus restored to her parents, and had declared these things, San Giovanni Bocca d'oro died in peace, for God had forgiven him.


'AH! I knew so many of those things once, but now they are all gone, all gone.' This was said by a fine old man, who boasted of having the same number of years and the same name as the Pope.

               'I dare say you can tell me something about San Giovanni Bocca d'oro, however,' I said.

               'San Giovanni Bocca d'oro! Of course. Everybody in Rome knows about San Giovanni Bocca d'oro. Do you want to know about him? That's not a story; that's a fact.'

               'Yes, all you know about him I want to hear.'

               'It's a long story--too long to remember.'

               'Never mind, tell me all you can recall.'

               'San Giovanni Bocca d'oro lived in a village--'

               'Not in Rome, then!' interposed I.

               'Yes, yes, one of the villages about Rome; I don't remember now which, if I ever knew, but about Rome of course. One day he saw a beautiful peasant girl, and fell in love with her. But he behaved very ill to her and never married her, and afterwards killed her and threw her body into a well.

               'Afterwards a great sorrow came upon him for what he had done, and he was so ashamed of his sin that he said he would remain no more to pollute other Christians with his presence, but went out into the Campagna and lived like a four-footed beast; and made a vow that he would remain with his face towards the earth [1] until such time as God should be pleased to let him know, by the mouth of a little child, that His wrath was appeased.

               'Many years passed, and San Giovanni continued his penance without wearying, always on all fours.

               'One day, the nurse of some emperor or king was out with the little child she had charge of when a storm came on, and they ran and lost their way. Thus running, they came upon San Giovanni in his penance. He looked so wild and strange the nurse would have run away from him, but the child held out its arms towards him without being at all frightened, and, although so young that it had never spoken, cried aloud, "Giovanni, get up, God hath forgiven thee!"

               'At this voice all the people gathered round, and they took him back to the village; and he went straight to the well and blessed it, and there rose out of it, all whole and fresh, the maiden whom he had killed.

               'Then he sent for pen and tablet, for he had lost the use of speech, and wrote down all that had befallen him; and as he wrote all the letters became gold. That is why he is called San Giovanni Bocca d'oro.

               'And when he had written all these things he died in peace.'


IN ANOTHER version he was living an ordinary life in his 'villa,' not in a penitential cell, when the king's daughter lost her way at the hunt. After the crime he was seized with compunction, and went out into the Campagna, living only on the herbs he could gather with his mouth, like an animal, and vowing that he would never again raise his head to Heaven till God gave him some token that He had forgiven him.

               After eight years the king found him when out hunting, and, taking him for some kind of beast, put him in the stables. The little prince who was just born was taken by to the church to be baptised about this time; and, as they carried him back past the stables, he said aloud, 'Rise, Giovanni, for God hath forgiven thy sins.' Every one was very much astonished to hear him speak, and they sent for Giovanni and asked him to explain what it meant.

               The rest as in the other versions.


I have repeatedly come across this story, but without any material variation from one or other of the versions already given. It would be curious to trace how St. John Chrysostom's name ever became connected with it. Though famous for his penitential life as much as for his eloquence, and though the four years he passed in the cells of the Antiochian cenobites were austere enough, yet his memory is stained by no sort of crime. So far from it, he was most carefully brought up by a widowed mother, whose exemplary virtues are said to have occasioned the exclamation from the Saint's master, 'What wonderful women have these Christians!'--Butler's 'Lives.' There is something like its termination in that of 'The Fiddler in Hell.'--Ralston's 'Russian Folk Tales,' pp. 299, 300. The years of voluntary silence, and the finding of the silent person by a king out hunting, enter into many tales otherwise of another class, as in 'Die Zwölf Brüder' (the Twelve Brothers), Grimm, p. 37, and 'Die Sechs Schwäne' (the Six Swans), p. 191.


[1] 'Bocca a terra.'

APPENDIX D. p. 196.

               Cardinal Valerio, Bishop of Verona (in his 'De Rhetorica Christiana' cited in Ludovic Lalanne's 'Curiosités des Traditions,' iv. 403-4), has a very ingenious mode, among others, of accounting for the amplification of Legends; he says it was the custom in many monasteries to give the young monks liberty as a sort of exercise and pastime to write variations of the acts of the saints and martyrs, and they exerted their fancy in producing imaginary conversations and incidents of a nature consonant with the original story; that the most ingenious and well-written of these would sometimes be placed among other MSS. in the Library, and would mislead readers in later times.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: S. Giovanni Bocca D’oro (Three 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

Back to Top