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Of a Godfather and a Godmother of St. John Who Made Love

Bernoni in his Leggende fantastiche gives nine legends, one of which is the story of St. Peter's mother, mentioned above. Of the remaining ones, several may be classed under ghost stories, and two illustrate the great sanctity attached by the Italian to the spiritual relationship contracted by godmothers and godfathers, and by groomsmen and the bride. It is well known that in the Romish Church a godfather or godmother contracts a spiritual relationship with the godson or goddaughter and their parents which would prevent marriage between the parties. This relationship the popular imagination has extended to the godfather and godmother, and any improper intimacy between the two is regarded as the most deadly sin. The first of Bernoni's legends is entitled:


HERE in Venice, heaven knows how many centuries ago, there was a gentleman and a lady, husband and wife, who were rich people. Well, there frequented their house a compare (godfather) of St. John; and it came to pass that he and his comare (godmother, i. e. the one who had been godmother to the same child to which he had been godfather), the lady of the house, made love to each other in secret. This lady had a maid, and this maid knew everything. So one day this lady said to the maid: "Hold your tongue, and you'll see that you will be satisfied with me. When I come to die, you shall have an allowance of a dollar a day." So this maid kept always on good terms with the lady. It happened that the compare fell very ill. The lady was so desperately sorry, that her husband kept saying to her: "Come, will you make yourself ill too? It's no use fretting, for it's what we must all come to." At last the compare died. And she took it so to heart, that she fell ill in earnest. When her husband saw her giving way to such low spirits, he began to suspect that there had been something between her and the compare; but he never said a word about it to annoy her, but bore it like a philosopher. The maid was always by her mistress' bedside, and the mistress said to her: "Remember that, if I die, you must watch by me quite alone, for I won't have any one else." And the maid promised her that she would. Well, that day went by, and the next day, and the next, and the lady got worse and worse, until at last she died. You can fancy how sorry her husband was. And the maid and the other servants were very sorry, too, for she was a very good lady. The other servants offered to sit up and watch with the maid; but she said: "No; I must sit up by myself, for my mistress said she would have no others." And they said: "Very well. If you want anything, ring the bell, and we shall be ready to do anything you want." Then the maid had four tapers lighted, and placed at the foot of the bed, and she took the Office for the Dead in her hand and began to read it.

               Just at midnight the door of the room burst open, and she saw the figure of the compare come in. Directly she saw him she felt her blood turn to water. She tried to cry out, but she was so terrified that she couldn't make a sound. Then she got up from her chair and went to ring the bell; and the dead man, without saying a word (because, of course, dead folks can't talk), gave her a sharp blow on the hand to prevent her from ringing. And he signed her to take a taper in her hand, and come with him to her mistress' bed. She obeyed. When the dead man got to the bedside, he took the lady, and sat her up on the bed, and he began to put her stockings on her feet, and he dressed her from head to foot. When she was dressed, he pulled her out of bed, took her by the arm, and they both went out at the door, with the maid going before them to light the way. In this palace there was an underground passage--there are many like it in Venice--and they went down into it. When they got to a certain part of it, he gave a great knock to the taper that the maid had in her hand, and left her in the dark. The maid was so terrified that she fell down on the ground, all rolled up together like a ball, and there she lay.

               At daybreak the other servants thought they would go and see how the maid was getting on, as she had not called them all night. So they went and opened the door of the room, and saw nobody there at all, either living or dead. They were frightened out of their wits, and ran to their master, and said: "Oh, mercy on us, there's nobody left, neither the dead woman nor the live one! The room's quite empty." Said the master: "You don't say so!" Then he dressed himself as fast as he could, and went and looked, and found nobody. And he saw that the clothes his wife wore to go out in were gone too. Then he called the servants, and said to them: "Here, take these torches, and let us go and look in the underground passage." So all the people went down there with lighted torches; and after searching about a bit, they found the poor maid, who gave no sign of life. The servants took her by one arm; but it was all bent up stiff, and wouldn't move. And they tried the other arm, and that was the same, and all her body was knotted together quite stiff. Then they took up this ball of a woman, and carried her up-stairs, and put her on her bed. The master sent for the doctors, to see if they could bring back life to her. And by degrees she began to open her eyes and move her fingers. But she had had a stroke and couldn't speak. But by the movements of her fingers they could make out nearly everything she wanted to say. Then the master had the torches lighted again, and went down again into the underground passage, to see if he could find any trace of the dead woman. They looked and looked, but they could find nothing but a deep hole. And the master understood directly that that was where his wife and her compare had been swallowed up. And upon that he went up-stairs again; but he wouldn't stay any longer in that palace, nor even in Venice, and he went away to Verona. And in the palace he left the maid, with her dollar a day and people to take care of her and feed her, for to the end of her days she was bedridden and couldn't speak. And the master would have every one free to go and see that sight, that it might be a warning to all people who had the evil intention of not respecting the baptismal relationship. [1]


[1] Bernoni, Legg. fant. p. 3. The translation in text, as well as that of the two following stories, I have taken from The Cornhill Magazine, July, 1875, "Venetian Popular Legends," p. 86.

               Another story illustrating the same point is found in Pitrè, No. 110, Li Cumpari di S. Giuvanni, which is translated as follows by Ralston in Fraser's Magazine, April, 1876, "Sicilian Fairy Tales," p. 424.


ONCE upon a time there lived a husband and wife, and they were both bound in gossipry with a certain man. The husband got arrested, and was taken away to prison. Now the gossip was very fond of his cummer, and used often to go and visit her. One day she said to him: "Gossip, shall we go and see my husband?" "Gnursi, cummari" ("Certainly, cummer"), said her gossip; so off they went. On the way they bought a large melon--for it was the melon season--to take to the poor prisoner. We are but flesh and blood! The gossip and his cummer sinned against St. John. In short, they brought things to a pretty pass. St. John wasn't going to let that pass unpunished. When they had come to the prison and had visited the prisoner, before going away they wanted to make a present to the jailer; so they gave him the melon. He cut it open before their eyes. Horror of horrors! When the melon was cut open, there was found in the middle of it a head! Now this was the head of St. John, which had slipped itself in there for the purpose of bringing home their sin to the minds of the gossips. The matter immediately came to the ears of justice, and they were arrested. They confessed the wrong they had done. The husband was set at liberty, and the gossip and his cummer were sent to the gallows.

*  *  *  *  *

               In regard to Saint John and the relationship of godfather, see Pitrè's note in vol. I. p. 73.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Of a Godfather and a Godmother of St. John Who Made Love
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: unclassified

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