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One of the most popular texts of the Middle Ages was the Gesta Romanorum – Deeds of the Romans – a collection of stories dating from the 14th century. Originally written for clergy as a resource of moralistic tales, it quickly found larger audiences. Among the dozens of stories found in this collection is the Pirate’s Daughter.
The tale begins with a pirates having seized a man and throwing him into the emperor’s prison. The man wrote to his father asking for help to ransom him for his release, but the father refused. Meanwhile, the emperor’s beautiful daughter had come to see the imprisoned man every day, and looked for ways to help him.
One day she told the prisoner:
“Dear friend, I am sorry for you. Yet, if you will grant me one thing, I will free you from this anguish. I seek nothing in return for your freedom except that you take me as your wife.”
The man agreed, and the lady freed him. They soon finished their escape and traveled to the land where the man’s father lived. The son told his father what had happened, but the latter was upset and refused to accept her as his new daughter-in-law. The father said:
“On no account am I willing to agree to this, namely that she should be your wife, and I will put this to the test by two strong arguments. The first argument is this. It is well-known to you that her father could have received a large reward for your release. Therefore, because she fled, she was ungrateful to her own father and clung to you. It appears that you will not be able to marry her because she deceived her father and caused him to lose a great deal.
“Also another reason is this. When she freed you, it was because of sexual desire and not out of compassion because she made an agreement over your freedom and received an assurance from you that she would be your wife. Therefore it seems that, as she did this because of her sexual desire, you will not have her as your wife.”
The lady heard this and made her reply:
“To the first argument, I reply: when you say that I was ungrateful to my father, that is not true. My father abounds in riches and your son is a poor man. For that reason, I offered help to your son out of compassion because he was a poor man and you, who were his father, did not want to rescue him from prison. I freed him, however. Therefore, I was dearer to him than you. Consequently, he is bound more to me than to you.
“As to the other argument you stated, namely that I did this because of sexual desire, that is not true because all sexual desire is either on account of strength or beauty. But your son was not strong because the suffering of prison destroyed his strength, nor was he handsome because he was totally wasted away by being in prison. Therefore, compassion alone moved me, and not sexual desire.”
The son added that he agreed with the lady, and rebuked his father. The couple immediately got married, and lived happily ever after.
You can read this story and many others in The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum from Oxford, Bodleian Library Douce MS 310, edited and translated by Philippa Bright. It was just published by Clarendon Press – or buy this book on Amazon.com