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

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Doctor Grillo


DOCTOR Grillo was a physician who had made himself a great name throughout his whole country, so that he was sent for and consulted from far and wide, and everybody looked up to him as a very wise man, whose word was final on any question of medicine. The discovery that 'no man is a hero to his valet' was made long before the idea so found expression in the seventeenth century; Doctor Grillo had a man-servant who chose to entertain a very different notion of his merits and powers from that of the rest of the world; and in time, from undervaluing his attainments, he came to conceive the belief that he could himself do just as well as his master.

               One day, when the Doctor was out, this serving-man took into his head to roll up into a great bundle his doctor's gown and cap, [1] a number of prescriptions, and a quantity of bottles, and with these he stole away and betook himself to a far country, where he gave himself out for the famed Doctor Grillo.

               Just at the time he arrived, the queen of the country was in great suffering, nor could any native professor of medicine succeed in benefiting her. Naturally the services of the great Doctor Grillo were put in request in her behalf, as soon as his cunning servant had given himself out as the owner of his world-wide reputation, and fortune favoured him in his two earliest attempts. Suffice it to say, he succeeded in satisfying her requirements by a kind of luck and from that day forward his fortune was made, justifying the Italian saying, 'An ounce of good fortune furthers one more than a pound of knowledge.' [2] Everywhere he was now called in, and though he prescribed his remedies all higgledypiggledy, without science or experience, not more of his patients died than those of other mediciners. The people were, therefore, quite satisfied that when Doctor Grillo had prescribed the best had been done that human skill could afford.

               By-and-by it came to the ears of the real Doctor Grillo that a quack and impostor was wearing his laurels; nor did he sooner hear the news than he set out to confront him.

               'Beware good people! What are you doing?' was his say. 'This man knows no more of medicine than one of yourselves; you will all die if you trust to him. He is no Doctor Grillo. I am Doctor Grillo.'

               But all the people laughed in his face, filled as they were with the prepossession of their first impressions, and they began to drive him out of their midst; but he protested so loudly, 'I am Doctor Grillo,' that a wiseacre [3] in the crowd thought to win for himself a reputation for discernment by insisting that he should have a trial.

               It happened that the daughter of the Chief Judge was at that time stricken with fever, and as he had observed in the language and manners of the new Doctor Grillo more traces of learning and refinement [4] than in the first arrived of the name, he willingly agreed that the case should be submitted to him for treatment. His wife had, however, just before sent for the false Doctor Grillo, so that both arrived in the sick-room at the same moment; and loud and long was the dispute between husband wife, master and servant, as to which doctor should approach the patient. By the time the husband had carried his point, and the real physician entered upon his functions, the fever had got such hold of the sufferer that no medicine more availed, and the girl succumbed to the consequences of the delay in administering the most ordinary remedies.

               Nevertheless, it was in the hands of the real Doctor Grillo that she had died. The one proof of his identity which had been granted had gone against him, and the popular mind was quite satisfied that it was he was the impostor. As the pompous funeral of the Judge's daughter brought all the circumstances to the minds of the people, the feeling against him gathered and grew; and when at last one more mischievous and malicious than the rest proposed that he should be driven out of the community, the idea met with such a ready response that he would certainly not have escaped with his life from the yells and stone-throwing [5] of the infuriated populace, had not his retreat been protected by the more peaceably disposed citizens.

               But the false Doctor Grillo remained thenceforward in undisturbed possession of the fame and fortune attaching to the name he had filched.


This is probably a filtering of one of the many stories about Theophrastus Paracelsus. I think there was something very like it in a little book of popular legends about him given me at Salzburg, but I have not got it at hand to refer to. Zingerle, 'Sagen aus Tirol,' p. 417, tells a story of his servant prying into the wise man's penetralia, and getting a worse punishment for his pains than Gehazi.


[1] 'Berretta,' (also written 'biretta') is used for any kind of cap worn by men or boys. It would appear that no kind of head-covering except a hood to the cloak, enabling the wearer to cover the head, or leave it bare at pleasure, was in common use in Italy before the sixteenth century, though the 'berretta' is mentioned in documents as part of ecclesiastical, particularly of the pontifical, dress, as early as the tenth century. The round 'berretta' coming to be commonly used by the people, their superiors adopted the quadrated form, which, with some modifications, is that still adopted by the Catholic clergy. Graduates and doctors were privileged to wear it, hence its use by Doctor Grillo; and though monks generally are not, some of those engaged in preaching and teaching have a special permission to do so. The Superior of the Theatine Convent of Naples alone, among all superiors of nuns, has the privilege of wearing the 'berretta.' Orsola Benincasa, the founder, was called to Rome that the Pope (Gregory XIII., 1576) might examine whether the reputation she had acquired for learning and piety was well founded. Not only was the Pope well satisfied with her, but St. Philip Neri also gave her many tokens of approval, and, among others, in his playful way, put his 'berretta' on her head. This honour has been commemorated by her successors retaining its use.

[2] 'Vale più un oncia di fortuna che una libbra di sapere.'

[3] 'Un saccentuzze.'

[4] 'Garbatezza.'

[5] 'Sassata,' in Italian, has a more terrible significance than 'stone-throwing,' in English, conveys. The art of throwing and slinging stones with dexterity and accuracy of aim would seem to have been as favourite a pastime among the peasantry in Italy and Spain as archery among our own. For the purposes of the present volume, it needs only to allude to the Roman development of the practice. P. Bresciani, who has taken more pains than any writer of the present age in illustrating the local customs of Rome, tells us the 'sassate' continued a favourite diversion of the youth of Rome almost down to our own day, and it was only by the most strenuous and vigorous measures that Cardinal Consalvi was enabled to put an end to it; being impelled thereto by the barbarous tone of feeling it engendered, and the frequent casualties resulting from it. The most idle and dissolute raggamuffins of the Monti and Trastevere quarters were among the most dexterous of marksmen. Whenever they aimed a throw, 'fosse di fionda o fosse di soprammano' (whether from a sling or from the hand) they were sure to hit the mark; so that any one of them might have written, like the Greek archer on his arrow, 'for the right eye of Philip,' on his 'ciotto.' ('Ciotto' is a stone such as would be used for throwing from a sling, and thus 'ciottolo' means equally a road made with rough stones and a 'sassata.' What is more to our present purpose is, that 'ciotto' means also 'lame,' suggesting how often persons may have been lamed by 'sassate'). It is said that in the Balearic islands, it was the custom for mothers to tie the meals of their children to a branch of a tree, and none got anything to eat till he had hit the string with a stone, and thus they were trained to 'fiondeggiare' (to throw from a sling) perfectly. The Roman raggamuffins, instead of their food, used to have for their mark the features of donna Lucrezia and Marforio, and they 'ciottolavanle' (pelted them) with stones from far and near. At other times their aim would be directed against a tuft of herbage dangling down from the arches of the aqueducts of Nero or Claudius, nor would they rest from their aiming till they had rooted it out with their stones. Their highest ambition was to direct a stone right through one of the small window-openings in the loftiest range at the Coliseum. After such practice, we may well believe the stones fell true when they had a living adversary before them.

               'And as it is the evil custom of the sons of Adam to strive one against the other, and for the excitement of contention every village loves to keep up warfare with its next neighbouring village, so the "Rioni" of Rome delighted in trials of skill one against the other. Thus on every holiday a hundred or two of Montegiani and Trasteverini were to be found arrayed against each other, and all arranged in due order of battle, with its skirmishers and reconnoitring parties, its van-guard and rear-guard. One side would take the Aventine for its base of operations, and another the Palatine....' After describing very graphically the tactics in vogue, our author goes on to say, 'The adults of both factions stood by the while and backed up the boys, and often the strife which had begun as boys' pastime ended in serious maiming of grown up men. Hence, not a holiday passed but some mother had to mourn over a son brought home to her with a broken head or an eye knocked out; or some wife over a husband riddled (sforacchiato) with wounds....' Hence it was that Cardinal Consalvi, as we have seen, put an end to such rough play.

APPENDIX F. p. 392.

               The centenarian Guillaume Boucher (1506-1606) gives in his 'Sérées' a French story (called 'The Fish-bone') of a quack doctor favoured by luck, to whom he gives the name of Messire Grillo. Charles Louandre ('Chefs-d'oeuvre des conteurs Français,' p. 278) points out that doctors hardly ever figure in popular literature before the sixteenth century, though after the Renaissance they became the constant subject of satire; and that thus Molière did little more than collect the jokes at their expense which had been floating during the previous half-century.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Doctor Grillo
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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