not Penelope: sailor’s wife claims God provided him with a son

Odysseus and Penelope

According to an early fifteenth-century Roman account, a very poor sailor in search of earnings on the seas was away from his young wife for five years. He returned home to find his dilapidated house had been repaired, beautified, and enlarged. He asked his wife how these improvements had come about. She declared:

By the grace of God, who gives help to all.

{ omnibus fert opem, Dei gratiam affuisse. }

He then went into their bedroom. There he saw an elegant bed and other new furniture that he couldn’t have afforded to buy. He asked his wife how she had gotten this new furniture. She again declared that it was by the grace of God.

Then a little boy of over three years old appeared and clung affectionately to the sailor’s wife. He asked his wife whose child the boy was. She said that he was her child. The sailor-husband, much simpler than Odysseus, didn’t understand:

Amazed, he asked his wife how she could have had a child while he was absent. His wife affirmed that the boy placed there was also obtained by the grace of God.

{ Stupenti, quaerentique viro, unde se absente puer provenisset, Dei quoque in eo acquirendo sibi astitisse gratiam mulier affirmavit. }

Could a husband question his wife’s integrity, or question the grace of God? For many husbands, those two questions are indistinguishable. But this medieval husband distinguished between God and his wife:

Then the husband became indignant at the divine grace that abounded to such an extent as to procreate children for him. “Already,” he said, “I am much obliged to God, who has cared so much for my interests.” He thought it seemed that God had been too busy in providing him with children during his absence.

{ Tunc vir indignatus divinam gratiam etiam in procreandis filiis sibi adeo exuberasse: ‘Multas jam,’ inquit, ‘gratias Deo habeo agoque, qui tot cogitationes suscepit de rebus meis.’ Visum est homini, Deum nimium curiosum fuisse, qui etiam de comparandis, se absente, liberis cogitarit. }

Children were so highly valued in pre-modern times that some impotent husbands would arrange for themselves to be cuckolded so that they could have children. This man had no need to do that. He wanted to provide children through his own action. He felt that he didn’t require so much help from God.

Not all men are like Odysseus. Not all women are like Penelope. May God help simple men who marry a woman not like Penelope.

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Notes:

The above story and quotes are from Poggio, Facetiae 1, “First tale which is about a poor sailor of Gaeta {Fabula prima cujusdam cajetani pauperis naucleri},” Latin text from Poggio (1879) vol. 1, pp. 7-10, my English translation with help from that of id. Here’s the Latin text in machine-readable form. Gaeta is an ancient, sea-faring town on the Italian coast southwest of Rome.

[image] Odysseus and Penelope. Painting by Francesco Primaticcio from about 1563. Via Yorck Project and Wikimedia Commons.

Reference:

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).

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