Women in the 16th century sued their husbands for erectile dysfunction

Sex, marriage, and impotence are the sorts of private matters not usually heard in public discourse. But in the 14th century, erectile dysfunction was under increased scrutiny in Europe. In pre-modern France, a woman could bring her husband to public trial for an annulment on the grounds that he was impotent. Impotence as a basis for divorce wasn’t unique to France, similar accusations were made in medieval Spain and England as well.

The methods by which men had to prove their virility reached increasingly invasive and public levels during the Early Modern period with intricate medical exams, virginity tests, and even Trial by Congress – a public display of one’s sexual ability. This insane method of determining whether a man was up for his marital duty (sorry, the puns write themselves) lasted less than a century. However, in a pre-reality TV world, the public followed these erectile trials closely.

Enlightenment thinkers called it an example of the over-reaching authority of the Church, while the general public just liked to read about the drama in published accounts. Back then, a man’s erection was his only weapon in a challenge to his manhood. Without a doubt, pre-revolutionary impotence trials brought what we now consider to be private matters into very public places – literally.

The Church Had A Right To Be In Your Bedroom

From a moral perspective, Catholics and Protestants, among others, argued back then that marriage was the only appropriate outlet for the erotic urges humans suffer (yes, suffer). Impotence, in this context, was a criminal offense. A fraudulent crime against one party in a marriage.

Marriage didn’t explicitly become a sacrament of the Catholic Church until the Council of Trent in the 16th century, but theologians and clergymen were active in matrimony through late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Christians who took part in marriage in its sacramental form understood that it was an agreement entered into with provisions. Marriage was between two baptized Christians, it was monogamous, it was for procreation purposes, and it was indissoluble. Protestant views on marriage were similar to Catholics in that it was a necessary institution.

Whether Catholic or Protestant, all religious officials agreed impotence was a valid reason to end a marriage and was definitely a matter of Church business.

Divorce Was Rare So Impotence Was A Woman’s Best Chance To Get Out

When it came to marriage during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, the Catholic Church didn’t allow for many exit routes. The basic goals of marriage were to procreate and provide the only acceptable outlet for sexual urges. Therefore if a man couldn’t hold up his side of the bargain, an annulment was allowed.

It wasn’t as easy as that, however. If a woman alleged impotence, there was a three-year window before the annulment was granted. In case the condition corrected itself. Additionally, not all annulments allowed those involved to remarry. This depended upon what was known about when and how the problem started.

Protestant Reformers believed that impotence was a valid reason for divorce, but also that remarriage was a must. For Protestants, women could only bring impotence to court after enough time had been given to procreate – anywhere from one to three years – and divorce was granted after a series of oaths or medical examinations.

A Wife Had To Prove She Wasn’t To Blame

Unsurprisingly, a woman still had to prove she wasn’t the cause of a couple’s sexual woes. Her easiest way out of the marriage was to claim the marriage was never consummated. In this scenario she then had to prove she was still a virgin.

One test to prove this was to drink a diuretic. Since the urinary and reproductive systems were believed to be the same, if she urinated immediately, her hymen had been corrupted. An un-penetrated woman would be unaffected (or really good at holding her bladder). She was often subjected to a physical inspection also.

A woman’s second best route to prove she was blameless was to claim her husband came with a faulty tool kit. This meant her husband was subjected to physical scrutiny. In 1370, for example, a certain John, was examined and found to have a “member…like an empty intestine of mottled skin… [with no] flesh in it, nor veins in the skin, and the middle of its front…totally black…[that] neither expanded nor grew…”

The Test To Verify Virginity Could, In Fact, De-Flower A Woman

The physical examination that a woman underwent to prove her virginity was, naturally, invasive. She was given a bath, in case she was using something to fake virginity, and then put on a bed in front of midwives and doctors. Her legs were spread and a doctor used a “mirror of the womb” or a mock-penis to explore the woman’s genitals.

It was possible to break a woman’s hymen this way but was still used as a method to determine virginity nonetheless. If a woman was said to not be a virgin, she could claim her husband had violated her with his fingers or had tried unsuccessful sex thus breaking her hymen.

A Man’s Package Was Under Severe Scrutiny

A man with a penile malformation was a relatively straightforward case in these affairs. Similarly, cases of men with too little going on downstairs to allow for sex were quickly found lacking and a divorce was granted. Such was the case of Nicholas Cantilupe whose wife Katherine claimed that “that she could not stroke nor find anything there and that the place in which Nicholas’ genitals ought be is as flat as the hand of a man.”

Other cases weren’t so clear cut. In the late 16th century, Magdeleine de Chastre claimed that her husband, the Baron d’Argenton, had no testicles and was thusly impotent. The two had consummated their marriage, proven by bloody sheets found after their wedding night, but the wife took her case to court anyway. The Baron’s lawyer, Sebastien Roulliard, argued that denying the existence of hidden testicles was similar to denying the existence of the heart, lungs, or other non-visible organs. Nor, he argued, were they necessary for an erection.

All manner of impotence was brought before the courts. Accidental, temporary, and intermittent impotence all muddied the waters, so to speak. An increase in medical knowledge complicated impotence divorce later in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Men Had To Give Quite The, Ahem, Public Performance

Doctors in Spain devised their own methods of testing a man’s penis in the fourteenth century: A hot and cold water test. A man’s penis was put into cold water, then hot, and then observed for dilation and blood-flow. If this proved inconclusive a male surgeon would then attempt to stimulate the man to erection.

In Naples, matrone (female sex experts) were used. This woman would accompany a couple, rub ointments on them, encourage them to relax, give them aphrodisiacs, and watch to see what would happen. She’d then report back to the court. In France, in a Trial by Congress, men were expected to get an erection in front of the Court, usually by mounting his wife and copulating on demand.

Church officials and doctors did seem to realize that the inability to perform in front of an audience was possible but, generally speaking, a man could either get it up or he couldn’t.

Impotence Was An All-Out Epidemic In 16th Century France

Based on the number of impotence cases in France by the 16th century one would assume there was something in the water. Of course, as one of the few ways to dissolve a marriage, it was an appealing process for a woman in a loveless marriage. Upper and middle class women were the most common litigants because they could afford to bring the cases to court.

Several factors contributed to the increased number of and interest in impotence trials. As more and more cases of impotence came to court, treatises and books about law and marriage alike proliferated. Contemporaries attributed the rise in trials to overall moral corruption, as well as the growing audacity and overt sexuality of women, with as many as ten thousand trials held during the 17th century.

There Were Three Possible Results From An Impotence Trial

If a man and woman in an impotence trial abided by their three-year trial period, endured the physical exams, and provided all the necessary info a court needed, there were three possible outcomes. If impotence was not proven, the parties were “condemned to live as man and wife.” If the impotence was proven, the marriage could be annulled – with provisions that one or both could remarry. Last, in rare cases, the couple was asked to give it another three-year trial period and see if things worked themselves out.


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