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The tale follows the life of a young man named Fortunatus from relative obscurity through his adventures towards fame and fortune; it subsequently follows the careers of his two sons. Fortunatus was a native, says the story, of Famagusta in Cyprus, and meeting the goddess of Fortune in a forest received from her a purse which was continually replenished as often as he drew from it. With this he wandered through many lands, and at Cairo was the guest of the sultan. Among the treasures which the sultan showed him was an old napless hat which had the power of transporting its wearer to any place he desired. Of this hat, he feloniously possessed himself and returned to Cyprus, where he led a luxurious life. On his death he left the purse and the hat to his sons Ampedo and Andelosia; but they were jealous of each other, and by their recklessness and folly soon fell on evil days.
Like Cervantes' tale Don Quixote, Fortunatus is a tale which marks the passing of the feudal world into the more modern, globalised, capitalist world. Not quite a morality tale in the purest sense, it nonetheless was clearly written in order to convey lessons to the reader. The moral of the story is obvious: men should desire reason and wisdom before all the treasures of the world. It is far too easy, without wisdom, to lose one's fortune, no matter how it was acquired.
According to the recent English translator Michael Haldane, Fortunatus was first published in Augsburg in 1509. It was printed by one Johann Otmar and sold in Johannes Heybler’s apothecary in that city. Many sources were integrated to create the text. These include:
- The Itinerarius of Johannes von Montevilla (or John de Mandeville), 1355; translated into German 1480, the oldest extant dated editions having been printed in Augsburg (1481 and 1482).
- The Story of Wlad III Drakul (1456–62, 1476 Lord of Wallachia, or Vlad the Impaler), the oldest extant dated German accounts having been printed in Nuremberg (1488), Bamberg (1491) and Augsburg (1494).
- The Gesta Romanorum, printed in Augsburg in 1473.
- Two accounts of St. Patrick’s Purgatory printed in Augsburg in 1489.
- Hans Tucher der Ältere, Beschreibung der Reyß ins Heylig Land [1479-80] (Augsburg, 1482).
- Bernhard von Breydenbach, Peregrinationes in terram sanctam (1486); Die heyligen reyssen gen Jherusalem (Mainz, 1486; Augsburg, 1488?).
- Rudolf von Ems, Willehalms von Orlens und Amelies. 13th century; printed in Augsburg, 1491.
- Perhaps the travels of the Bohemian nobleman Leo von Rozmital (1465–67). These can be read in: Malcolm Letts (ed.), The Travels of Leo of Rozmital through Germany, Flanders England, France Spain, Portugal and Italy, 1465-67. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957.
In its full form the history of Fortunatus occupies, in Karl Simrock's Die deutschen Volksbucher, vol. iii., upwards of 158 pages. The scene is continually shifted—from Cyprus to Flanders, from Flanders to London, from London to France; and a large number of secondary characters appear.
The style and allusions indicate a comparatively modern date for the authorship; but the nucleus of the legend can be traced back to a much earlier period. The stories of Jonathas and the three jewels in the Gesta Romanorum, of the emperor Frederick and the three precious stones in the Cento Novelle antiche, of the Mazin of Khorassan in the Thousand and One Nights, and the flying scaffold in the Bahar Danush, have all a certain similarity.
The author is not known; it has been suggested that he may have been Burkhard Zink (1396-1474/5), an Augsburg merchant, councillor, chronicler and traveller. His Augsburg chronicle covers the years 1368-1468 and comprises four books, of which the third, an autobiography, is considered the best, and he is praised for giving "Einblicke von seltener Eindringlichkeit in die Lebensrealität des SpätMA" ("outstandingly penetrating insights into the reality of life in the late Middle Ages"); The most plausible suggestion to date is that Johannes Heybler—the publisher—was himself the author.
The earliest known edition of the German text of Fortunatus appeared at Augsburg in 1509, and the modern German investigators are disposed to regard this as the original form. Innumerable versions occur in French, Italian, Dutch and English. The story was dramatized by Hans Sachs in 1553, and by Thomas Dekker in 1600; and the latter's comedy appeared in a German translation in Englische Komodien und Tragodien, 1620. Ludwig Tieck has utilized the legend in his Phantasus, and Adelbert von Chamisso in his Peter Schlemihl; and Ludwig Uhland left an unfinished narrative poem entitled Fortunatus and his Sons. Andrew Lang included it in The Grey Fairy Book as "Fortunatus and his Purse".