Otia Imperialia ("Recreation for an Emperor") is an early 13th-century encyclopedic work, the best known work of Gervase of Tilbury. It is an example of Speculum literature. Also known as the "Book of Marvels", it primarily concerns the three fields of history, geography, and physics, but its credibility has been questioned by numerous scholars including philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who was alerted to the fact that it contains many mythological stories. Its manner of writing is perhaps because the work was written to provide entertainment to Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV. However, many scholars consider it a very important work in that it "recognizes the correctness of the papal claims in the conflict between Church and Empire." It was written between 1210 and 1214, although some give the dates as between 1209 and 1214 and numerous authors state it was published c.1211.
Though of English origin, Gervase was brought up in Rome. He travelled widely, took religious orders, studied and taught canon law at Bologna, was in Venice in 1177, and at the reconciliation of Pope Alexander III and Frederick Barbarossa.
He spent some time in the service of Henry II of England, and of his son, Henry the Young King. For the latter, he composed a Liber facetiarum (‘Book of entertainment’), now lost, as well as the basis for what would become the Otia Imperialia. After 1189, Gervase moved to the court of the Otto of Brunswick, a grandson of Henry II and after 1198 one of the two rival kings of the Holy Roman Empire. Gervase accompanied Otto to Rome in 1209 for his imperial coronation and was enmeshed in the papacy's struggle with his patron Otto, who was excommunicated by Pope Innocent III.
Gervase employed the next years, from 1210 to 1214, writing the Otia Imperialia for his patron. The Otia was written at a time when other encyclopedic descriptions of the world were being produced and translated, such as the Summarium Heinrici, the Hortus deliciarum (Herrad of Landsberg), the Liber exceptionum (Richard de Saint-Victor, Jean Châtillon), the De proprietatibus rerum (Bartholomeus Anglicus), and the Speculum naturale (Vincent of Beauvais).
Gervase's Otia imperialia is an encyclopedic work concerning history, geography, physics, and folklore, in the manner of speculum literature. It is sometimes associated with the Ebstorf Map, to the extent that some claim the map was meant to accompany the text, but this is a subject of continued debate.
The text is divided into three parts (decisiones). The first is a history of the world from the Creation to the Flood. The second is a geographic treatise on the regions of the known world, as divided between Noah’s three sons. The third section, parts of which have been reprinted separately from the rest of the book, is a compendium of marvels.
Like Honorius of Autun’s Imago mundi and Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum naturale, the Otia imperialia contains fables attributed to Pliny the Elder and Solinus, as well as other tales and folk beliefs, including the Fairy Horn, a Gloucester variety of the widespread fairy cup legend; the supernatural powers of Virgil; the folk belief that a priest's cloak could be viewed as an element pitting good Christians against the Devil; and the first recorded instance of the Wandlebury Legend, which Gervase summarizes as follows:
In England, on the borders of the diocese of Ely, there is a town called Cantabrica, just outside which is a place known as Wandlebria, from the fact that the Wandeli, when ravaging Britain and savagely putting to death the Christians, placed their camp there. Now, on the hill-top where they pitched their tents, is a level space ringed with entrenchments with a single point of entry, like a gate. A very ancient legend exists, preserved in popular tradition, that if a warrior enters this level space at dead of night by moonlight and calls out 'Knight to knight, come forth', he will at once be faced by a warrior armed for fight, who charging horse against horse, will either dismount his adversary or himself be dismounted.
Gervase recounts that a knight named Osbert Fitz Hugh once tested the story, and legend has it that he defeated the phantom knight, even stealing his horse as a prize, but was wounded in the thigh by his opponent’s javelin on departing.
Some legends are found only in the Otia imperialia, including two later included in Thomas Keightley’s influential The Fairy Mythology. One describes the “neptunes” or “portunes,” diminutive humanoids found in France and England, which help peasants finish their domestic chores, but also delight in leading English travellers’ horses into mud. Another is the Grant, a creature of English legend which resembles “a yearling colt, prancing on its hind-legs” and which runs through towns to warn of impending fire. This belief persisted well into the 20th century around Cambridgeshire, albeit applied to hares.
During the following three centuries, it was much read, and it was twice translated into French: by Jean d'Antioche in the 13th and Jean de Vignay in the 14th century. Gottfried Leibniz, who edited parts of it, called it a "bagful of foolish old woman's tales", while its modern Oxford University Press editors less dismissively report "a wealth of accounts of folklore and popular belief". Catholic apologists respect it most of all for the support it offers of Innocent's papal claims in his conflicts between Church and Empire. Portions of it were printed in Historiie Francorum Scriptores (André Duchesne, 1641), and by Joachim Johann Mader (1673). Large portions were published in Scriptores Rerum Brunsvicensium (G. G. Leibnitz, 1707–10). The third part of Otia was edited by Felix Liebrecht and published by Carl Rümpler (1856).
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