Pedigree: Also known (in somewhat altered form) as “The Seven Sages of Rome”, this cycle of tales originated in Asia, and found its way to a number of versions in a number of countries. The earliest known version in English is a fourteenth century manuscript, and the Stationers Registers list multiple sixteenth century printings, both in verse and prose. The most perfect surviving printing (in prose) was by Wynken de Worde, dated by Furnivall’s transcript of the Register as “circa 1505”, but listed in the 19th century reprint linked below as 1520.
Synopsis: This is a story cycle set within a framework, similar to the arrangement of the Canterbury Tales, One Thousand Nights and a Night, or Boccaccio’s Decameron. The Emperor Poncianus sends his motherless son (Dyoclesian) to be tutored by seven sages (Pantyllas, Lentulus, Craton, Malquydrac, Joseph, Cleophas, and “the seventh master” (aka “The Other One”?). After sixteen years, the remarried king summons the son at his (childless) stepmother’s behest, but the Sages and the son foresee in the stars that they are all in danger, and that the son must remain silent for seven days after they arrive at the court.
The stepmother attempts without success to seduce Dyoclesian, and then accuses him of trying to ravish her. Poncianus imprisons his son but does not immediately execute him. That night, the Empress tells Poncianus a tale meant to ensure that the Emperor will kill his son. The next morning, Pantyllas tells the Emperor a tale which persuades him to spare Dyoclesian that day. So it goes, with tales alternating in which “wise masters” lead kings to death and disaster by their counsels and deceits, and women / wives urge men / husbands to irreversible acts under false or mistaken pretext, with tragic consequences, until the dawning of the eighth day, when Dyoclesian may speak, and clears himself.
Availability: Google Books has a 19th-century reprint of Wynken de Worde’s 1520 printing here, apparently complete with woodcuts:
I draw your attention particularly to the woodcut of the “seduction” scene on page 16; I found the expression on the prince’s face priceless, whether the artist intended it or not.