The Bell of Justice

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 207C
selected and edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1998-2013


  1. Of the Vicissitude of Everything Good, and Especially of a Right Justice (Gesta Romanorum).

  2. The Emperor Charlemagne and the Serpent (Switzerland).

  3. The Bell of Atri (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tales of a Wayside Inn).

  4. The Dumb Plaintiff (Germany).

  5. Links to additional retellings of this tale:

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Of the Vicissitude of Everything Good, and Especially of a Right Justice

Gesta Romanorum

The Emperor Theodosius had the misfortune to lose his sight. He put up a bell in his palace; and the law was, that whoever had any suit to make should pull the string with his own hands. When the bell rang, a judge, appointed to this end, descended and administered justice.

It chanced that a serpent made her nest immediately under the bell-rope, and in due time brought forth young. When they were old enough, one day she conducted them forth to enjoy the fresh air beyond the city. Now, while the serpent was absent, a toad entered and occupied her nest. When, therefore, the former returned with her young, she found the toad in possession, and instantly began an attack. But the latter baffled her attempts, and obstinately maintained his station. The serpent, perceiving her inability to eject the intruder, coiled her tail around the bell-rope, and forcibly rang the bell; as though she had said, "Descend, judge, and give me justice; for the toad has wrongfully seized my nest."

The judge, hearing the bell, descended; but not seeing anyone, returned. The serpent, finding her design abortive, once more sounded the alarm. The judge again appeared, and upon this occasion, seeing the serpent attached to the bell-rope, and the toad in possession of her nest, declared the whole circumstance to the emperor.

"Go down, my lord," said the latter, "and not only drive away the toad, but kill him; let the serpent possess her right."

All which was done. On a subsequent day, as the king lay in his bed, the serpent entered the bedchamber carrying a precious stone in her mouth. The servants, perceiving this, informed the emperor, who gave directions that they should not harm it; "for," added he, "it will do me no injury."

The serpent, gliding along, ascended the bed, and approaching the emperor's eyes, let the stone fall upon them, and immediately left the room. No sooner, however, had the stone touched the eyes than their sight was completely restored. Infinitely rejoiced at what had happened, the emperor made inquiry after the serpent, but it was not heard of again. He carefully treasured this invaluable stone, and ended his days in peace.


My beloved, the emperor is any worldly-minded man who is blind to spiritual affairs. The bell is the tongue of a preacher; the cord is the Bible. The serpent is a wise confessor, who brings forth young -- that is, good works. But prelates and confessors are often timid and negligent, and follow earthly more than heavenly matters; and then the toad, which is the devil, occupies their place. The serpent carries a stone -- and the confessor the Sacred Writings, which alone are able to give sight to the blind.

The Emperor Charlemagne and the Serpent


Zürich, the old Roman Turicum, on either side of the Limmat at the point where it flows out of the green-hued lake, is the capital of the canton of the same name, and noted alike for the beauty of its situation and for its famous university.

In the days of the early Christian persecution, Felix and Regula, the patron saints of Zürich, were beheaded near this town. Strange to relate, though, immediately after the execution, both martyrs picked up their severed heads, tucked them under their arms, and stalked off to the spot where the minster now stands, where they wound up their marvelous performances by burying themselves comfortably! On the spot where they suffered martyrdom Charlemagne erected a memorial pillar, above which he hung a bell, saying that it could be rung by anyone who had been wronged, and that they should receive immediate justice.

During one of his visits to Zürich, Charlemagne took up his abode in the Choristers' House, and while he sat there at table one day he suddenly heard a loud peal from the bell of justice. He immediately dispatched a servant to see what wrong had been done, and was greatly annoyed when the man reported that careful search had failed to reveal the presence of any living creature. A few moments later the bell rang again, but when the servant once more announced that no one was there, the emperor bade his guards hide near the pillar, and seize the miscreant who dared to pull the bell of justice in mere fun.

Before long the bell sounded a third time, and a few moments later the guards rushed into the emperor's presence with faces blanched with fear, to report that a snake had coiled itself around the pillar, and seizing the rope in its teeth, tugged until the bell rang forth loud and clear. The emperor immediately rose from table, saying he must see this phenomenon with his own eyes, and followed by all his court went down to the pillar.

As he drew near, the snake came forward to meet him, and rising upon its coiled tail, bowed low before the monarch in evident recognition of his exalted station. Then, dropping down to the earth once more, it crept away, turning from time to time, and making signs as if to invite the emperor to follow. The serpent's actions were so eloquent that Charlemagne, understanding them, obediently followed it down to the edge of the water, where, parting the reeds, the snake showed him its nest, in which sat an enormous toad.

Charlemagne now bade his guards seize and kill the intruder, and when the snake had bowed its thanks and contentedly coiled itself around its eggs, he went back to his interrupted meal, loudly praising the bell by means of which even dumb animals could appeal for justice.

The next day, while the emperor again sat at dinner, the guards rushed in breathlessly to announce the coming of the strange snake. Charlemagne quickly bade them stand aside and not try to hinder the reptile, which now crawled into the room where he sat, climbed upon the table, did obeisance to the emperor, and delicately lifting the cover of his drinking cup, dropped into it a jewel of fabulous price. Then, replacing the cover of the vessel, the snake bowed low again, and creeping down, left the cloister to return to its nest by the lake.

According to one version of this legend, Charlemagne set this precious stone in a ring which he gave to his wife, Frastrada. Unknown to him, however, the stone had the magic power of fixing his affections upon its wearer. When the queen, therefore, thought she was about to die, she slipped the ring into her mouth to prevent its falling into the hands of some rival. For eighteen years Charlemagne refused to part with his wife's body, and carried it with him wherever he went. But at the end of that time his minister Turpin discovered the secret of his infatuation, and obtaining possession of the magic stone, soon saw all Charlemagne's affections fixed upon him.

As the emperor's devotion proved somewhat of a bore to the old minister, he tried to get rid of the spell by casting the ring into the mineral springs at Aix-la-Chapelle. While out hunting the next day, Charlemagne urged his steed to drink of that water, and when the animal hastily withdrew its foot and refused to approach the pool again, the emperor dismounted to investigate the cause.

Touching the imprint of the horse's hoof, Charlemagne discovered that the mud was very warm, for he was near the hottest of these thermal springs. While resting near that pool, he was seized with such an affection for the spot that he soon founded there his capital of Aix-la-Chapelle.

In memory of the horse which guided him hither, the Cathedral was built in the shape of a horseshoe, and as Charlemagne could not endure the thought of ever leaving this enchanted neighborhood, he left orders to bury him in the minster of Aix-la-Chapelle.

On the spot where Charlemagne's famous bell once hung, at Zurich, stands the Wasserkirche, which now contains a large library with valuable and interesting manuscripts. Charlemagne's great-grandson Louis II. often visited Zürich, where his two pious daughters induced him to build a convent and the Frauenmünster.

It is said that the place for these buildings was staked out by angel hands, and that the stakes were connected by a silken string of the finest make. This rope was hung above the altar of the new church, where it remained until the Reformation. It was then removed with many other relics, and served for years as ordinary bell-rope in a private house.

The king's daughters, who both became abbesses, long dwelt at Baldern Castle, whence, however, they went down to the Frauenmünster whenever the bell rang for prayers. They even attended the midnight services there, and when it was very dark a stately stag invariably walked before them carrying a flaming torch between its antlers.

The Bell of Atri

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

At Atri in Abruzzo, a small town
Of ancient Roman date, but scant renown,
One of those little places that have run
Half up the hill, beneath a blazing sun,
And then sat down to rest, as if to say,
"I climb no farther upward, come what may," --
The Re Giovanni, now unknown to fame,
So many monarchs since have borne the name,
Had a great bell hung in the market-place,
Beneath a roof, projecting some small space
By way of shelter from the sun and rain.
Then rode he through the streets with all his train,
And, with the blast of trumpets loud and long,
Made proclamation, that whenever wrong
Was done to any man, he should but ring
The great bell in the square, and he, the King,
Would cause the Syndic to decide thereon.
Such was the proclamation of King John.

How swift the happy days in Atri sped,
What wrongs were righted, need not here be said.
Suffice it that, as all things must decay,
The hempen rope at length was worn away,
Unraveled at the end, and, strand by strand,
Loosened and wasted in the ringer's hand,
Till one, who noted this in passing by,
Mended the rope with braids of briony,
So that the leaves and tendrils of the vine
Hung like a votive garland at a shrine.

By chance it happened that in Atri dwelt
A knight, with spur on heel and sword in belt,
Who loved to hunt the wild-boar in the woods,
Who loved his falcons with their crimson hoods,
Who loved his hounds and horses, and all sports
And prodigalities of camps and courts; --
Loved, or had loved them; for at last, grown old,
His only passion was the love of gold.

He sold his horses, sold his hawks and hounds,
Rented his vineyards and his garden-grounds
Kept but one steed, his favorite steed of all,
To starve and shiver in a naked stall,
And day by day sat brooding in his chair,
Devising plans how best to hoard and spare.

At length he said: "What is the use or need
To keep at my own cost this lazy steed,
Eating his head off in my stables here,
When rents are low and provender is dear?
Let him go feed upon the public ways;
I want him only for the holidays."
So the old steed was turned into the heat;
Of the long, lonely, silent, shadeless street;
And wandered in suburban lanes forlorn,
Barked at by dogs, and torn by brier and thorn.

One afternoon, as in that sultry clime
It is the custom in the summer time,
With bolted doors and window-shutters closed,
The inhabitants of Atri slept or dozed;
When suddenly upon their senses fell
The loud alarm of the accusing bell!
The Syndic started from his deep repose,
Turned on his couch, and listened, and then rose
And donned his robes, and with reluctant pace
Went panting forth into the market-place,
Where the great bell upon its cross-beams swung,
Reiterating with persistent tongue,
In half-articulate jargon, the old song:
"Some one hath done a wrong, hath done a wrong!"

But ere he reached the belfry's light arcade
He saw, or thought he saw, beneath its shade,
No shape of human form of woman born,
But a poor steed dejected and forlorn,
Who with uplifted head and eager eye
Was tugging at the vines of briony.
"Domeneddio!" cried the Syndic straight,
"This is the Knight of Atri's steed of state!
He calls for justice, being sore distressed,
And pleads his cause as loudly as the best."

Meanwhile from street and land a noisy crowd
Had rolled together like a summer cloud,
And told the story of the wretched beast
In five-and-twenty different ways at least,
With much gesticulation and appeal
To heathen gods, in their excessive zeal.
The Knight was called and questioned; in reply
Did not confess the fact, did not deny;
Treated the matter as a pleasant jest,
And set at naught the Syndic and the rest,
Maintaining, in an angry undertone,
That he should do what pleased him with his own.

And thereupon the Syndic gravely read
The proclamation of the King; then said:
"Pride goeth forth on horseback grand and gay,
But cometh back on foot, and begs its way;
Fame is the fragrance of heroic deeds,
Of flowers of chivalry and not of weeds!
These are familiar proverbs; but I fear
They never yet have reached your knightly ear.
What fair renown, what honor, what repute
Can come to you from starving this poor brute?
He who serves well and speaks not, merits more
Than they who clamor loudest at the door.
Therefore the law decrees that as this steed
Served you in youth, henceforth you shall take heed
To comfort his old age, and to provide
Shelter in stall, and food and field beside."

The Knight withdrew abashed; the people all
Led home the steed in triumph to his stall.
The King heard and approved, and laughed in glee,
And cried aloud: "Right well it pleaseth me!
Church-bells at best but ring us to the door;
But go not in to mass; my bell doth more:
It cometh into court and pleads the cause
Of creatures dumb and unknown to the laws;
And this shall make, in every Christian clime,
The Bell of Atri famous for all time."

The Dumb Plaintiff


The story of "The Bell of Atri," which Longfellow has so charmingly told in his Tales of a Wayside Inn, is said to have originated in Eckhardtsberg near Breisach.

In early days, when the ruins now crowning the hill were part of a strong fortress, the lord of Eckhardtsberg, wishing to render justice to all men, placed a bell in his tower. He fastened to it a long piece of rope which hung outside the gate, within easy reach of every hand, and bade all those who wished redress to ring it loudly, promising to grant them an immediate hearing.

One day the bell pealed loudly, and when in answer to its call the lord of Eckhardtsberg, followed by all his retainers, came out to hear the complaint, he was surprised to find a poor old horse, which, urged by hunger, was trying to chew the end of the hempen rope. One of the bystanders immediately recognized the horse as belonging to a neighboring knight. For many a year the horse had been his favorite steed, had borne him safely through many a fight, but now that it was old and useless the cruel master had turned it out to seek pasture along the highway, where it found but scant subsistence.

The lord of Eckhardtsberg, seeing the animal's sorry plight, and hearing how faithfully it had served its master in the days of its youth, declared that in return for its former services it should now be treated with respect, and condemned the unfeeling, avaricious owner to give it a place in his stable and plenty of food as long as it lived.

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Revised March 19, 2013.