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

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Simple Wife, The (La Sposa Cece) (Two Versions)


THERE was a man and his wife who had a young daughter to marry; and there was a man who was seeking a wife. So the man who was seeking a wife came to the man who had a daughter to marry, and said, 'Give me your daughter for a wife.'

               'Yes,' said the man who had a daughter to marry; [2] 'you'll do very well; you're just about the sort of son-in-law I want.' And then he added: 'If our daughter is to be betrothed to-day, it is the occasion for a feast.' So to the wife he said, 'Prepare the table;' and to the daughter he said, 'Draw the wine.'

               The daughter went down into the cellar to draw the wine. But as she drew the wine she began to cry, saying: 'If I am to be married I shall have a child, and the child will be a son, and the son will be a priest, and the priest will be a bishop, and the bishop will be a cardinal, and the cardinal will be a pope.' And she cried and cried, and the wine was running all the time, so that the bottle [3] she was filling ran over, and went on running over.

               Then said the father and mother: 'What can the girl be doing down in the cellar so long?' But the mother said: 'I must go and see.'

               So the mother went down to see why she was so long, but the moment she came into the cellar she, too, began to cry; so that the wine still went on running over.

               Then the father said: 'What can the girl and her mother both be doing so long down in the cellar? I must go and see.'

               So the father went down into the cellar; but the moment he got into the cellar he, too, began to cry, and could do nothing for crying; so the wine still went on running over.

               Then he who had come to seek a wife said: 'What can these people all be doing so long down in the cellar?' So he, too, went down to see, and found them all crying in the cellar and the wine running over. Only when the wine was all run out they left off crying and came upstairs again.

               Then the betrothal and the marriage were happily celebrated.

               One day after they were married the husband went into the market to buy meat, and he bought a large provision because he had invited a friend to dinner. When the wife saw him buy such a quantity of meat she began to cry, saying: 'What can we do with such a lot of meat?'

               'Oh, never mind, don't make a misery of it,' said the husband; 'put it behind you.' [4]

               The simple wife took the meat and went home, saying to her parents, [5] and crying the while: 'My husband says I am to put all this meat behind me! Do tell me what can I do?'

               'You can't put the whole lot of it behind you, that's certain,' replied the equally simple mother; 'but we can manage it between us.'

               Then she took the meat and put all the hard, bony part on one chair, where she made the father sit down on it; all the fat, skinny part she put on another chair, and made the wife sit down on it; and the fleshy, meaty part she put on another chair, and sat down on that herself.

               Presently the husband came with his friend, ready for dinner, knocking at the door. None of the three dared to move, however, that they might not cease to be fulfilling his injunctions. Then he looked through the keyhole, and, seeing them all sitting down without moving when he knocked, he thought they must all be dead; so he ran and fetched a locksmith, who opened the door for him.

               'What on earth are you all doing there,' exclaimed the hungry husband, 'instead of getting dinner ready?'

               'You told me to put the meat behind me, and I have done so,' answered the simple wife.

               Then he saw they were sitting on the meat. Out of all patience with such idiocy, he exclaimed: 'This is the last you'll ever see of me. At least I promise you not to come back till I have met three other people as idiotic as you, and that's hardly likely to occur.'

               With that he took his friend to a tavern to dine, and then put on a pilgrim's dress and went wandering over the country.

               In the first city he came to there was great public rejoicing going on. The princess had just been married, and the court was keeping high festival. As he came up to the palace the bride and bridegroom were just come back from church. The bride wore one of those very high round headdresses that they used to wear in olden time, with a long veil hanging from it. It was so very high that she could not by any means get in at the door, and there she stuck, not knowing what to do. Then she began to cry, saying: 'What shall I do? what shall I do?'

               'Shall I tell you what to do?' said the pilgrim-husband, drawing near.

               'Oh, pray do, if you can; I will give you a hundred scudi if you will only show me how to get in.'

               So he went and made her go a few steps backward, and then bow her head very low, and so she could pass under the door.

               'Really, I have found one woman as simple as my people at home,' said the pilgrim-husband, as he sat down to the banquet at the special invitation of the princess, in reward for his services. Afterwards she counted out a hundred scudi to him, and he went further.

               Further along the road he came to a farm, with barns and cattle and plenty of stock about, and a large well at which a woman was drawing water. Instead of dipping in the pail, she had got the well-rope knotted into a huge knot, which she kept dipping into the water and squeezing out into the pail, and she kept crying as she did so: 'Oh, how long shall I be filling the pail! The pail will never be full!'

               'Shall I show you how to fill it?' asked the pilgrim-husband, drawing near.

               'Oh, yes, do show me if you can. I will give you a hundred scudi if you will only show me.'

               Then he took all the knots out of the rope and let down the pail by it, and filled it in a minute.

               'Here's a second woman as stupid as my people at home,' said the pilgrim-husband, as the farmer's wife asked him in to dinner in reward for his great services; 'if I go on at this rate I shall have to return to her at last, in spite of my protestations.'

               After that the farmer's wife counted out the hundred scudi of the promised reward, and he went on further, having first packed six eggs into his hollow staff as provision for the journey.

               Towards nightfall he arrived at a lone cottage. Here he knocked and asked a bed for his night's lodging.

               'I can't give you that,' said a voice from the inside; 'for I am a lone widow. I can't take a man in to sleep here.'

               'But I am a pilgrim,' replied he; 'let me in at least to cook a bit of supper.'

               'That I don't mind doing,' said the good wife, and she opened the door.

               'Thanks, good friend!' said the pilgrim-husband as he sat down by the stove; 'now add to your charity a couple of eggs in a pan.' [6]

               So she gave him a pan and two eggs, and a bit of butter to cook them in; but he took the six eggs out of his staff and broke them into the pan, too.

               Presently, when the good wife turned her head his way again, and saw eight eggs swimming in the pan instead of two, she said: 'Lack-a-day! you must surely be some strange being from the other world. Do you know so-and-so there' (naming her dead husband)?

               'Oh, yes,' said the pilgrim-husband, enjoying the joke; 'I know him very well; he lives just next to me.'

               'Only to think of that!' replied the poor woman. 'And do tell me, how do you get on in the other world? What sort of a life is it?'

               'Oh, not so very bad; it depends what sort of a place you get. The part where we are is not very bad, except that we get very little to eat. Your husband, for instance, is nearly starved.'

               'No, really!' cried the good wife, clasping her hands; 'only fancy! my good husband starving out there; so fond as he was of a good dinner, too!' Then she added, coaxingly: 'As you know him so well, perhaps you wouldn't mind doing him the charity of taking him a little somewhat to give him a treat. There are such lots of things I could easily send him.'

               'O, dear no, not at all; I'll do it with great pleasure,' answered he; 'but I'm not going back till to-morrow; and if I don't sleep here I must go on further, and then I shan't come by this way.'

               'That's true,' replied the widow. 'Ah, well, I mustn't mind what the folks say, for such an opportunity as this may never occur again. You must sleep in my bed, and I must sleep on the hearth; and in the morning I'll load a donkey with provisions for my poor dear husband.'

               'Oh, no,' replied the pilgrim; 'you shan't be disturbed in your bed; only let me sleep on the hearth, that will do for me; and as I'm an early riser I can be gone before anyone's astir, so folks won't have anything to say.'

               So it was done, and an hour before sunrise the woman was up loading the donkey with the best of her stores. There were ham, and maccaroni, and flour, and cheese, and wine. All this she committed to the pilgrim, saying: 'You'll send the donkey back, won't you?'

               'Of course I would send him back; he'd be no use to us out there: but I shan't get out again myself for another hundred years or so, and I fear he won't find his way back alone, for it's no easy way to find.'

               'To be sure not; I ought to have thought of that,' replied the widow. 'Ah, well, so as my poor husband gets a good meal never mind the donkey.'

               So the pretended pilgrim from the other world went his way. He hadn't gone a hundred yards before the widow called him back.

               'Ah, she's beginning to think better of it!' said he to himself; and he continued his way, pretending not to hear.

               'Good pilgrim!' shouted the widow; 'I forgot one thing. Would any money be of use to my poor dear husband?'

               'Oh dear yes, all the use in the world,' replied the pilgrim; 'you can always get anything for money everywhere.'

               'Oh, do come back then, and I'll trouble you with a hundred scudi for him.'

               The pretended pilgrim came back willingly for the hundred scudi, and the widow counted them out to him.

               'There is no help for it,' soliloquised he as he went his way; 'I must go back to those at home. I have actually found three women each more stupid than they.'

               So he went home to live, and complained no more of the simplicity of his wife.



ANOTHER version of this story was told me, or rather an entirely different story embodying the same purport, which, though full of fun, turned on the double meanings of common words of household use too homely for the most part, and some too coarse to please the English reader. The husband, among other things, tells his wife to prepare dinner for a friend and to mind she has 'brocoli strascinati' and 'uovi spersi,' [8] as they are his favourite dishes. 'Strascinare' is to drag anything along, but is technically used to express brocoli chopped up and fried, the commonest Roman dish. 'Spergere' is to scatter, but the word is used among common people to express eggs poached in broth, a favourite delicacy; (eggs poached as in England are called 'uova in bianco'). The wife, taking the words literally, drags the brocoli all over the house and all over the yard, till it is so nasty it cannot be eaten, instead of frying it, and scatters the eggs all about the place instead of poaching them, and so on through a number of other absurdities difficult to explain in detail. In the end the husband falls ill, partly from her bad cooking and partly from annoyance; a doctor is called in, who tells her (among other directions which she similarly misunderstands), that he must have nothing but 'brodo,' [9] but she is to make it 'alto, alto.' 'Alto' is literally 'high,' but he uses it for 'good,' 'strong;' she, however, understands him to mean her to make it in a high place, and goes up on the roof to make it. When the husband asks for it she says she cannot get it for him then as it is up on the roof.

               Ultimately the husband dies of vexation.

               There is a very familiar German story which everyone who has any acquaintance with the people must have met, of a lady who complains to her servant that the tea has not 'drawn,' and the simple girl answers, 'It is not my fault, I have drawn it all about the place enough I'm sure' (Ich hab' es genug umhergezogen).


We have the German of this story in 'Die Klugen Leute,' Grimm, p. 407, and again the beginning of it in 'Die Kluge Else' (Clever Lizzie), Grimm, p. 137 (which ends with the desperation of the wife as the second Roman version ends with the death of the husband); in some variants given in the 'Russian Folk Tales,' pp. 53-4; in an Italian-Tirolese tale, 'Le donne matte' (the title resembling that of the next Roman version); and the ending, in the Norse 'Not a pin to choose between them.' Senhor de Saraiva told me the following Portuguese story entitled 'Pedro da Malas Artes' (Tricky Peter), which embodies these incidents, but opens with a different purport.

               Tricky Peter was a knowing blade; so he went out on his travels to set all the world straight; and he found plenty to do.

               In the very first town he came to there was a great commotion. A bride had come to church to be married, and there she stuck at the church door, mounted on her mule, while the people deliberated whether they should facilitate her ingress by cutting off some of her head or some of the mule's legs.

               'Let her alight and walk in,' said Tricky Peter; 'and the door will be high enough.' And all the people applauded his wisdom.

               At the next town he found the people all full of discontent, because one of them had to sit up by turns to tell the others when the sun rose.

               'I'll give you a bird to perform that office,' said Tricky Peter; and he went home and fetched a cock, and then they could all rest comfortably.

               After this the story has no more silly people to deal with; but Peter fools a giant, and overcomes his strength with craft. He does not seem, either, to get paid for his services, as do the heroes of 'La Sposa Cese,' and all the others.

               I have also another Roman story (too long to print here) of a man who sets out with a different purpose again, who meets with three sets of people afflicted with similar follies, and who also makes a good deal of money by his counsel; together with various stories in which men go to fetch their wives back from the devil's kingdom, get three commissions of a similar nature by the way, for executing which they get richly paid on their return.

               There is a story in the 5th Tantra given as 'Le Brahme aux vains projets' in Abbé Dubois' translation of the 'Pantcha-Tantra,' which has an analogous opening to that of 'La Sposa Cece.' There is another among the 'Contes Indiens' published at the end of it, in which four Brahmans have a great dispute as to which of them can claim to be the greatest idiot--a strife only second in folly to that of the 'Three Indolent Boys' in Grimm, p. 551--and they each narrate such proof of having acted with consummate folly that the decision given is that there is not a pin to choose between them.

               In a somewhat analogous story, which he calls 'Aventures du Gourou Paramarta,' one of the disciples commits the counting mistake 'of the well-known Irishman,' in omitting to reckon himself in his computation, also found in the Russian 'Folk Tales,' p. 54, and they go to buy a foal's egg, just as do certain peasants of the Trentino in an Italian-Tirolese 'storiella da rider' [7] (laughable story).]


[1] 'La Sposa Cece,' the simple wife. 'Cece' among the common people seems to mean pretty nearly the same as 'tonto,' 'silly,' 'idiotic;' in this place more exactly 'simple' or 'half-witted.'

[2] It is a characteristic of the Roman people that as a rule they never call people by their names; the 'casato' or married name, and the 'cognome' or family name, are used indifferently when such a name is called in request at all, by married people. If they must give a name to a stranger it is always the Christian name that comes first to their lips; among themselves, however, it is seldom the genuine name that is used. They have some 'sopranome' or nick-name for everybody, or at least a shortening of the Christian name, as 'Checca' and 'Checco' for Francesca and Francesco; 'Pippo' for Filippo; 'Pepe' for Giuseppe; 'Cola' for Niccola; 'Maso' for Tomaso; 'Teta' for Teresa; 'Lalla' for Adelaide; 'Lina' for Carolina; 'Tuta' for Geltrude; the abbreviations for Giovanni are innumerable.

               But what they most love to designate people by is a description of their persons. When you come home from your walk, your servant does not tell you Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so have called, but it will be 'Quel signore vecchio ingobbato' (that old hump-backed kind of gentleman), if he be the least grey and high-shouldered, however young he may be; or 'Quel bel giovane alto' (that tall, handsome, young gentleman), whatever his age, if he be only bien conservé. Then 'Quella signora alta, secca, che veste di lutto' (that tall thin lady dressed in mourning). 'Quella signora bella bionda, giovane' (that lady, pretty, fair, young). Or 'Quello che porta il brillante' (he who wears a brilliant), because the same friend happened to have a diamond stud in his cravat one day; or 'Quella contessa che veste di cilestro,' because the lady happened once to wear a blue dress, and so on, with all manner of signs and tokens which it may take you half-an-hour to recognise a person by, if you ever make it out at all. Or, if there is no distinctive mark of the kind to seize upon, it will be 'Quel signore,' or 'quella signora di Palazzo,' or 'Via,' or 'Piazza' So-and-so. And this not from the difficulty of catching a foreign name, because it is still more in vogue when designating their own people; if you are asking for the address of a servant, a tailor, a dressmaker, &c., it is in vain you try to make them out by the name, you must do your best to describe them, and then they will break out with an exclamation hitting it off for themselves: 'Ah! si, quel scimunito' (that silly-looking fellow); 'quel gobbo' (that high-shouldered fellow--lit. 'hunchbacked'); 'quella strega' (that ugly old woman, cunning woman--lit. 'witch'); 'quella bella giovane alta' (that tall handsome girl); 'quella donna bassetta' (that short little woman), for with their descriptions as with their names they must super-add a diminutive or a qualification, and 'basso' (short) is pretty sure to be rendered by 'bassetto,' 'piccola' (little) by 'piccinina,' 'vecchio' (old) by 'vecchietto.' 'Quella scimia' or 'scimietta' (that old woman, or that little old woman who looks like a monkey). 'Quella donna anziana' (that respectable old woman). 'Quella donniciuola' (that nasty little old woman, contemptible old woman). 'Quel ragazzino, tanto carino, tanto caruccio' (that nice boy, that very nice boy). 'Quel vecchietto' (that nice old man); and in this way the hero of this story is designated as 'The man who has a daughter to marry.'

[3] 'Boccione,' a large coarse glass bottle commonly used in Rome for carrying wine. When it is covered with twisted rushes--like the oil-flasks that come to England--it is called a 'damigiana,' a young lady, a little lady.

[4] 'Mettetevelo addietro.' Lit. 'Put it behind you,' a way of saying 'Never mind it,' 'don't care about it.' But the woman is supposed to be so foolish that she understands it literally.

[5] The Italian custom of the newly married couples continuing to live with the parents of one or other of them is here brought in.

[6] 'Tegame,' a flat earthen pan much in vogue in Roman kitchens; 'ova in tegame' is a favourite and not a bad dish. A little fresh butter is oiled, and the eggs are dropped into it as for poaching, and very slowly cooked in it; when scarcely set they are reckoned done.

[7] Such notions are not altogether so impossible as they seem. I myself heard a very intelligent little boy one day say to his mother, 'Mama, I should so like to see a horse's egg.' 'A horse's egg, my dear--there are no such things,' was the reply of course. 'Oh yes, there must be,' rejoined the child, 'because I've heard Pa several times talk about finding a mare's nest.'

[8] 'Uovo,' by the way, is a word with which great liberties are taken. The correct singular is 'uovo' and the plural 'uova,' but it is very common to make the plural in 'i' and also to say 'uova' for the singular, and 'uove' for plural, while the initial 'u' is most usually dropped out.

[9] 'Brodo' is beef-tea or clear broth with nothing in it; broth with vermicelli or anything else in it is 'minestra;' 'zuppa,' which sounds most like 'soup,' is rather 'sop,' and when applied to broth, means strictly only broth with bread in it, from 'inzuppare,' to steep, soak, or sop; but it is also used for broth with anything else in it besides bread, but never without anything in it.

SurLaLune Note

This tale has multiple ATU classifications:

ATU 1384: The Husband Hunts Three Persons as Stupid as His Wife

ATU 1540: The Student from Paradise (Paris)

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Simple Wife, The (La Sposa Cece) (Two Versions)
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: ATU 1384: The Husband Hunts Three Persons as Stupid as His Wife

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