The Story of Gerineldo

Alan D. Corré
Emeritus Professor of Hebrew Studies,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The theme of a person of very high rank, a Queen, or a Princess or a President! who forms an inappropriate relationship with an individual of much lower standing is a constant theme in Folklore. C.G. Campbell tells a story from the Arab tribes which is typical, and I shall relate the gist of it. A poor but handsome teenager was one day walking past the royal palace when he was spotted by the Princess through her window. She was immediately enamoured of him, and sent her old servant to follow him, and arrange a secret meeting with him. The old woman followed the boy to his shack, and told him that a certain beautiful young lady was in love with him, and wished to have a tryst with him. The boy asked her name, but the old woman said that it was better that he should not know. He persisted, and eventually she said: "Give me half a dinar, and give me a kiss, because it is a long time since I have been kissed, and I shall tell you. But you will regret it." When the boy heard who it was, he was shocked and frightened, and told the old woman that it was too risky. The next day the old woman returned and said: "The Princess is desolate. How can you refuse her?" The boy felt ashamed of his cowardice, and agreed to meet her. He went out in the street and saw a funeral. "How did he die?" he asked a passerby. "He was passing the royal palace, and the King noticed that he was looking up at the window of the Princess, and he said: 'Aha, he is trying to catch a glimpse of the Princess! Take him out and execute him!'" The boy was horrified and failed to keep his appointment.

The next day the old woman came and scolded the boy. Again he agreed to meet the Princess. He went out into the street and saw a funeral. He found out that it was of a man who was passing the palace with his eyes fixed on the ground. The King saw him and said: "Aha, he is trying to find a hair that has fallen from the head of the Princess so that he might caress it! Take him out and execute him!" The boy failed to appear for a second time.

Again the old woman came. She said: "This is your last chance. The Princess has vowed that if you do not come tonight, she will tear you out of her heart, and forget about you." Again the boy agreed to go. Of course, he saw a funeral, and said to a passerby: "What did he do? Why was he executed?" The man replied: "What are you talking about? He is a son of Adam, and he caught a fever and died, as all the sons of Adam must die." The boy thought to himself: "One man died because he looked up. And another man died because he looked down. And the last man died for no reason at all, except that he is a son of Adam. If I die after I go to the Princess, at least I shall have something to show for my pains." And when he returned the next day to his little shack he said: "I risked my head, but it was worth it."

The great Spanish scholar Ramón Menendez Pidal collected more than a hundred versions of a folksong entitled "Gerineldo," some from Sephardic Jews in Greece, Turkey and North Africa who had carried it with them when they left Spain in 1492. The most recent example that he found was a fifteen year old Catholic boy in Cuba who knew this song. You can see how far it had spread, and how persistent and far-flung is Spanish tradition. Yes, it has this theme of inappropriate love between a high person and a low person. There are numerous variants of the song, and it has different endings in different places, one sad and one happy. It goes as follows. A King had a young page who had served him faithfully, and of whom he was quite fond. But the Queen, and in other versions the Princess, fell in love with the page. One day she said to him with astounding frankness that she would like to have him "at her service" for three hours after midnight. The page could hardly believe what he had heard, but the lady assured him that she was serious. With much misgiving and fear, the page agreed. Eventually he shows up, sighing deeply, and he gives the lady what she desires. (Note how his sigh is echoed later, in the bedchamber, and as the king contemplates the imminent sigh of his wife.) Meanwhile the King has difficulty sleeping, and decides to check what is going on in his palace. Now the versions vary. In one, where the Princess is involved, the King finds Gerineldo hurrying back to his quarters through the palace garden. "Where have you been, Gerineldo?" asks the King suspiciously. Gerineldo answers quite truthfully! "I have been picking flowers in the garden!" The King understands the double entendre only too well, but decides to make the best of it, marries off Gerineldo to his daughter, and they live happily ever after.

In the version involving the Queen, the King comes to the Queen's room, and finds her sleeping in the arms of his page. He is furious, but restrains himself and places his sword between them as a signal that he plans to kill both of them in the morning. The lovers wake up, and are terrified at the fate which is awaiting them.

There is a wonderful recording of a Sephardi version of the sad ending by the singer Esther Lamandier. It contains two typically Sephardi expressions, both derived from Hebrew: "quién diera" which expresses a desire for something to happen, and comes from the Hebrew phrase "mi yitten," and " quién es ese, y cual es ese" which comes from what King Ahasuerus says to Queen Esther, when she exposes the dreadful plot of Haman. The song is quite difficult to follow if you hear it without guidance, because the cues and the background are missing. I will reproduce the Jewish Spanish text here, and add the cues in my English translation. Note also that the lady uses the familiar "tu," but Gerineldo responds in the polite, and archaic, plural form. Even among lovers, the social rules are observed. And if you want a treat, get the compact disc entitled "Romances séfarades." It is published by Alienor, 1, rue Courtalon, 75001 Paris, France.

Here is the original Spanish:

"Gerineldo, Gerineldo, mi caballero pulido,
Quién te me diera esta noche tres horas a mi servicio."
"Como so vuestro criado, señora, burláis conmigo."
"Yo no burlo, Gerineldo, que de veras te lo digo."

"Ay! Qué hora vendré, a qué hora vendré al castillo?
"A esa de la media noche, cuando el rey esté dormido."
Media noche ya es pasada; Gerineldo no ha venido.
"Malhaya tu, Gerineldo, y quien amor puso contigo!"

Ella en estas palabras, Gerineldo dio al castillo.
"Quién es ese y cual es ese, que a mi puerta da un suspiro?
"Gerineldo so, señora, vengo por lo prometido."
Entre suspiros y abrazos, los dos quedaron dormidos.

"Mataré yo a la reina; viviré con su suspiro
Mataré yo a Gerineldo; si mi reino sea perdido.
"Levántate, Gerineldo; los dos estamos perdidos,
Que 'l espada del buen rey nos la puseron por testigo.

Here is my English rendering with the cues:
"Gerineldo, Gerineldo, my elegant gentleman,
I should like to have you at my service for three hours tonight."
"As I am your servant, ma'am, you must be joking with me."
"I am not joking, Gerineldo, I am speaking seriously to you."

"Ah, at what time shall I come, ma'am, at what time shall I come to the palace?"
"At midnight, when the King is asleep."
Midnight has already passed. Gerineldo has not come.
Damn you, Gerineldo and me who fell for you!

As she spoke thus, Gerineldo came to the palace.
"Who is this, and what is he, who is sighing at my gate?
"It is Gerineldo, ma'am, I have come for what I promised.
Amid sighs and embraces, the pair slept together.

[The King finds them and says:]
"I shall kill the Queen, and live with her sigh.
I shall kill Gerineldo, yea, though my kingdom perish."
[The King leaves. The Queen awakens and says:]
"Get up, Gerineldo; we are both undone!
They have placed the good King's sword here as a witness against us!"

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