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Legends of Richard the Good, Duke of Normandy

by William John Thoms

Leigh Hunt’s London Journal, vol. 1, issue 4 (1834)

Pages 30-30

A sample page from Legends of Richard the Good, Duke of Normandy by William John Thoms
From "Legends of Richard the Good, Duke of Normandy." Used by permission, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

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Introductory Note: “Legends of Richard the Good, Duke of Normandy” details a few fantastic accounts of Richard II of Normandy, including a confrontation with a devil and his unconventional judgement that appeases a devil while saving the soul of a monk. These legends appeared in several other publications before ending up in Leigh Hunt’s London Journal. Originally taken from Roman de Rou, written by Wace, a 12th century Norman poet, they were translated by a Monsouir Pluquet and published in The Foreign Quarterly Review.1 The Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol. 2, Treuttel and Würtz, Treuttel Jun, and Richter, 1828. 104-109. Google Books. William John Thoms then included Pluquet’s translation in his book of legends from France and Leigh Hunt’s London Journal published it shortly thereafter.

FROM THE “LAYS AND LEGENDS OF VARIOUS NATIONS,” NO. 2, (JUST PUBLISHED) CONTAINING “LAYS AND LEGENDS OF FRANCE.”2A book written by William John Thoms, published in 1834

IT was the custom of Duke Richard of Normandy, called the Good, to ramble about by night as well as by day, and though he met with many phantoms he was never afraid of them.3Richard II lived from 963 to 1067 and is one of the six dukes of Normandy. As he was so much abroad in the former season, it was commonly reported that he could see as well in the dark as other men by daylight. Whenever he came to an abbey or a church, he was sure to stop and pray outside, if he could not gain admission within. One night as he was riding along wrapt in meditation, and far from any attendant, he alighted, according to custom, before a church, fastened his horse at the door, and went in to pray. He passed a coffin which lay on a bier, threw his gloves on a reading-desk in the choir, and knelt before the altar, kissed the earth, and commenced his devotions. He had scarcely done so when he heard a strange noise proceeding from the bier behind him. He turned round, (for he feared nothing in the world;) and looking towards the place, said, “Whether thou art a good or a bad thing, be still and rest in peace!” The Duke then proceeded with his prayer, whether it was long or short I cannot tell, and at the conclusion signed himself with the cross saying

Per hoc signum sanctœ crucis

Libera me de malignis

Domine Deus Salutis.

 

Through this sign of the Holy Cross,

Deliver me from the Evil Ones,

Lord God of my Salvation.

 

He then arose, and said, “Lord into thy hands I commend my spirit.”4 Luke 23:46, an allusion to Jesus Christ’s last words while on the cross. He took his sword, and as he was preparing to leave the church, behold the devil stood bolt upright at the door, extending his long arms, as if to seize Richard, and prevent his departure. The latter drew his sword, cut the figure down the centre, and sent it through the bier. Whether it cried or not I do not know. When Richard came to his horse outside the door, he perceived that he had forgotten his gloves; and as he did not wish to lose them, he returned into the chancel for them. Few men would have done as much. Wherefore he caused it to be proclaimed, both in the churches and in the market places, that in future no corpse should be left alone till it was buried.

Another adventure happened to the Duke, which made people wonder, and which would not so easily have been believed, were it not so well known. I have heard it from many, who had in like manner heard it from their forefathers; but often through carelessness, idleness or ignorance, many a good tale is not committed to writing though it would prove very entertaining. At that time there was a sacristan, who was reckoned a proper monk and one of good report; but the more a man is praised, the more the devil assaults him, and watches the more for an occasion to tempt him.5Authorial footnote for “sacristan”: A keeper of the church moveables and sacred vessels. So it happened to the Sacristan. One day, so the devil would have it, as he was passing by the church about his business, he saw a marvellously fine woman, and fell desperately in love with her. His passion knows no bounds. He must die if he cannot have her; so he will leave nothing undone to come at his end. He talked to her so much, and made her so many promises, that the fair dame at last appointed a meeting in the evening at her own house. She told him that he must pass over a narrow bridge or rotten plank which lay across the river Robec; that there was no other way, and that she could not be spoken with any where else.—When the night came, and the other monks were asleep, the Sacristan grew impatient to be gone. He wanted no companion, so he went alone to the bridge and ventured on it. Whether he stumbled or slipt, or was taken suddenly ill, I cannot tell, but he fell into the water, and was drowned.

As soon as his soul left the body, the devil seized it, and was posting away with it to hell, when an angel met him, and strove with him which of them should possess it: wherefore a great dispute arose between them, each giving a reason in support of his claim.6“Posting” is here means traveling quickly. Says the devil, “Thou dost me wrong, in seeking to deprive me of the soul I am carrying; dost thou not know that every soul taken in sin is mine? This was in a wicked way, and in a wicked way I have seized it. Now the Scripture itself says, ‘As I find thee, so I will judge thee.’7Not a specific scriptural citation. This monk I found in evil, of which the business he was about is sufficient proof, and there needs no other.”8The original places a single quotation mark at the end of this sentence. Replies the angel, “Hold thy peace; it shall not be so. The monk led a good life in his abbey, he conducted himself well and faithfully, and no one ever saw ill of him. The Scripture saith, that which is reasonable and right, every good work shall be rewarded, and every evil one punished. Then this monk ought to be rewarded for the good we know he has done; but how could that be if he were suffered to be damned? He had not committed any sin when thou didst take and condemn him. Howbeit, he had left the abbey, and did come to the bridge, he might have turned back if he had not fallen into the river; and he ought not to be so much punished for a sin which he never committed. For his foolish intention alone, thou condemnest him, and in that thou art wrong. Let the soul alone, and as for the strife betwixt thee and me, let us go to Duke Richard, and abide by his opinion. Neither side will have any reason to complain; he will decide honestly and wisely, for false judgment is not to be found in him. To what he says we will both submit without any more dispute.” Says the devil, “I consent to it; and let the soul remain between us.”

They immediately went to Richard’s chamber, who was then in bed. He had been asleep, but just then he was awake and reflecting upon divers things. They related to him how the monk had left his monastery on an evil errand, how he had fallen from the bridge, and been drowned without doing evil. They desired him to judge which of them should take possession of the soul. Answers Richard, briefly, “Go immediately, and restore the soul to the body; let him then be placed on the bridge, on the very spot from which he tumbled; and if he advances one foot, nay, ever so little, let Nick go and take him away without further hindrance; but if the monk turns back, let him do so unmolested.”9The closing quotation mark at the end of this sentence was omitted in the original. “Old Nick” is an English term for the Devil. Neither could say nay to this decision, so they did as he had said. The soul was returned to the body, the body restored to life, and the monk placed on the very part of the bridge whence he had fallen. As soon as the poor fellow perceived that he was standing upright on the bridge, he ran back as quickly as though he had trod on a snake; he did not even stay to bid the devil and the angel good bye. On his reaching the abbey, he shook his wet clothes, and crept into a corner. He was still terrified at the thought of death, and he could not well say whether he was dead or alive. The next morning Richard went to the abbey church to pray. The Duke caused him to be brought before the abbot, “Brother,” says Richard, “what think you now? How came you to be taken? Take care another time how you pass the bridge. Tell the abbot what you have seen tonight.” The monk blushed, and was ashamed in the presence of his superior and the duke. He confessed all, how he went, how he perished, how the devil had deceived him, and how the duke had delivered him; he related the whole matter, which was confirmed by the noble Richard. Thus was the thing noised abroad and its certainty established. Long after it took place, this saying became a proverb in Normandy, “Sir monk, go gently, take care of yourself when you pass over the bridge.”

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Michel Morgan
Alayna Een
Isaac Robertson
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23 July 2020

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24 July 2020

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Notes   [ + ]

1. The Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol. 2, Treuttel and Würtz, Treuttel Jun, and Richter, 1828. 104-109. Google Books.
2. A book written by William John Thoms, published in 1834
3. Richard II lived from 963 to 1067 and is one of the six dukes of Normandy.
4. Luke 23:46, an allusion to Jesus Christ’s last words while on the cross.
5. Authorial footnote for “sacristan”: A keeper of the church moveables and sacred vessels.
6. “Posting” is here means traveling quickly.
7. Not a specific scriptural citation.
8. The original places a single quotation mark at the end of this sentence.
9. The closing quotation mark at the end of this sentence was omitted in the original. “Old Nick” is an English term for the Devil.