Poggio Bracciolini’s vital, lost insight into husbands’ sexual failures

Jacob asked Laban for Rachel, but was bed-tricked into taking Leah

The great medieval churchman Poggio Bracciolini made a much more important contribution to world culture than merely recovering from obscurity an ancient manuscript of Lucretius’s De rerum natura. Poggio recorded for posterity Facetiae. Poggio’s Facetiae are towering monuments to medieval freedom of expression and a lost age of critical engagement with prevailing orthodoxy. Despite great medieval reverence for mother Church, Poggio even dared to write words that risked offending women.

Consider Poggio’s sexually edifying tale of the Florentine knight Rosso de Ricci and his wife Telda. Rosso de Ricci was a great man who was both spirited and serious. His wife was vindictive, scheming, and verbally abusive toward him. She was also old and far from beautiful. Not surprisingly, Telda and Rosso had a sexless marriage. Rosso naturally began sexually harassing a servant girl working within their home. Medieval servant girls were strong, independent woman fully capable of immediately reporting sexual harassment to a supervisor. This servant girl immediately reported Rosso’s sexual harassment to her supervisor, the mistress of the house, Rosso’s wife Telda.

Telda exploited for her own interests Rosso’s sexual harassment of their servant girl. Telda instructed the servant girl to engage in inappropriate action:

She advised her to assent and to arrange an assignation with Rosso at a specific time in a dark place. Then Telda would secretly bring herself in place of the servant girl.

{ Suasit ut assentiretur, ac certo in loco subobscuro horam Rosso assignaret, in quem pro ancilla se Telda clam contulit. }

Telda’s scheme fooled her husband Rosso, but didn’t succeed:

Arriving at the place, Rosso spent much time fondling the woman whom he thought was the servant girl, but his drooping penis would do nothing.

{ Accedens ad locum Rossus, ac mulierem pro ancilla diutius tractans, tandem, demissa mentula, nihil agere potuit. }

Telda characteristically responded with abuse:

Then his wife shouted: “Ey,” she said, “you horse shit, if the servant girl had been here, you would have raised up rightly to have her.

{ Tum exclamans uxor: “Eia,” inquit, “Eques merdose, si hic ancilla extitisset, recte cum ea rem habere potuisses.” }

Rosso then politely explained to his wife the genius of a man’s penis:

Then the knight: “Oh! Telda my dear, by God!” he said, “this companion of mine is wiser by far than I am. For even after I, in my ignorance, embraced you as the servant girl, he immediately knew that you are bad flesh for putting out, and for that reason he shrunk back into his normal position for me.

{ Tum Miles: — “Oh! Telda mi, per Deum!” inquit, “hic meus socius prudentior admodum est quam ego. Nam postquam te pro ancilla ignarus attigi, statim ille malam carnem te esse cognovit, ac propterea retrocedens me restituit.” }

Men today are commonly disparaged as thinking with their penises, their little heads. That continues a long, sordid history of disparaging men’s penises. As the great medieval churchman Poggio Bracciolini recognized, men’s penises are amazingly smart. Men’s penises deserve respect. They are jewels, not junk.

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The story above is from Poggio Bracciolini, Facetiae 85, Faceta jocatio militis Florentini {A fine jest of a Florentine knight}, Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 1, pp. 136-7. The quotes above provide my English translations, drawing upon that of id., but tracking the Latin more closely. Men historically have faced burdensome obligations of bodily performance.

[image] Jacob asks Laban for permission to marry his younger daughter Rachel. From Foster (1897) p. 46, via Wikimedia Commons. Laban tricked Jacob by substituting the older daughter Leah for Rachel in Jacob’s bed. Showing admirable manly vigor that is important in both the Jewish and Christian religions, Jacob took both as wives and produced children with both women. See Genesis 29-30.


Foster, Charles. 1897. Bible pictures and what they teach us. Philadelphia: Foster Pub. Co

Poggio. 1879. Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini. The facetiae or jocose tales of Poggio, now first translated into English with the Latin text. Paris: Isidore Liseux (vol. 1, vol. 2).

2 thoughts on “Poggio Bracciolini’s vital, lost insight into husbands’ sexual failures”

  1. As ever, thank you Douglas for the regular supply of interesting posts.

    May I ask if you are aware of any references to the state of the ‘genius man’s penis’, specifically if Poggio Bracciolini and perhaps by proxy Rosso de Ricci were intact or genitally mutilated men?

    best wishes

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I know of no evidence directly indicating whether Poggio Braccioolini or Rosso de Ricci (who may well have been a historical person) suffered ritual genital mutilation.

      The story emphasizes the natural genius of Rosso’s penis. In that context, the best interpretation is that Rosso’s penis was in its natural form, i.e. not ritually mutilated.

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