Italian Popular Tales | Annotated Tale

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Just Man, The

The story known to our readers from the Grimm collection, "Godfather Death," is found in Sicily and Venice. The version from the latter place given in Bernoni (Trad. pop. p. 6) is as follows:


ONCE upon a time there was a peasant and his wife who had a child that they would not baptize until they could find a just man for his godfather. The father took the child in his arms and went into the street to look for this just man. After he had walked along a while, he met a man, who was our Lord, and said to him: "I have this child to baptize, but I do not want to give him to any one who is not just; are you just?" The Lord answered: "But--I don't know whether I am just." Then the peasant passed on and met a woman, who was the Madonna, and said to her: "I have this child to baptize and do not wish to give him to any one who is not just; are you just?" "I don't know," said the Madonna; "but go on, for you will find some one who is just." He went his way and met another woman, who was Death, and said to her: "I have been sent to you, for I have been told that you are just, and I have this child to baptize, and do not wish to give it to one who is not just; are you just?" Death said: "Yes, I believe I am just! Let us baptize the child, and then I will show you whether I am just." Then they baptized the child, and afterwards Death led the peasant into a very long room, where there were many lights burning. "Godmother," said the man, astonished at seeing all the lights, "what are all these lights?" Death said: "These are the lights of all the souls in the world. Would you like to see, friend? this is yours and this is your son's." When the peasant saw that his light was about to expire, he said: "And when the oil is all consumed, godmother?" "Then," answered Death, "you must come with me, for I am Death." "Oh! for mercy's sake," cried the peasant, "let me at least take a little oil from my son's lamp and put it in mine!" "No, no, godfather," said Death, "I don't do anything of that sort; you wished to see a just person, and a just person you have found. And now go home and arrange your affairs, for I am waiting for you." [1]

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               We can mention but briefly another Venetian legend which, like several of those already given, reaches back to the Middle Ages. A wealthy knight, who has led a wicked life, repents when he grows old, and his confessor enjoins on him a three years' penance. The knight refuses, for he might die at the end of two years and lose all that amount of penance. He refuses in turn a penance of two years, of one year, and even of a month, but agrees to do penance for one night. He mounts his horse, takes leave of his family, and rides away to the church, which is at some distance. After he has ridden for a time, his daughter comes running after him and calls him back, for robbers have attacked the castle. He will not be diverted from his purpose, and tells her that there are servants and soldiers enough to defend the house. Then a servant cries out that the castle is in flames, and his own wife calls for help against violence. The knight calmly continues his way, leaving his servants to act for him, and simply saying: "I have no time for it now."

               Finally he enters the church and begins his penance. Here he is disturbed by the sexton, who bids him depart, so that he can close the church; a priest orders him to leave, as he is not worthy to hear a mass; at midnight twelve watchmen come and order him to go with them to the judge, but he will not move for any of them; at two o'clock a band of soldiers surround him and order him to depart, and at five o'clock a wild throng of people burst into the church and cry: "Let us drive him out!" then the church begins to burn, and the knight finds himself in the midst of flames, but still he moves not. At last, when the appointed hour comes, he leaves the church and rides home to find that none of his family had left the castle, but the various persons who had tried to divert him from his penance were emissaries of the Devil. Then the knight sees how great a sinner he was and declares that he will do penance all the rest of his life. [2]


[1] Another Venetian version is in Widter-Wolf, No. 3, "Der Gevatter Tod" ("Godfather Death"). There are also two Sicilian versions: Pitrè, No. 109, "La Morti e sò figghiozzu" ("Death and her Godson"); and Gonz., No. 19, "Gevatter Tod," which do not differ materially from the version given in our text. References to European parallels may be found in Köhler's notes to Widter-Wolf, No. 3, Jahrb. VII. p. 19; to Gonz., No. 19, and in Grimm's notes to No. 44.

[2] Widter-Wolf, No. 16, "Der standhafter Büsser" ("The Constant Penitent"), Jahrb. VII. p. 273. For parallels, see Köhler's article, Die Legende von dem Ritter in der Capelle, Jahrb. VI. p. 326.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Just Man, The
Tale Author/Editor: Crane, Thomas
Book Title: Italian Popular Tales
Book Author/Editor: Crane, Thomas Frederick
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin and Company
Publication City: Boston
Year of Publication: 1885
Country of Origin: Italy
Classification: ATU 332: Godfather Death

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