Sex, marriage, and impotence are generally private matters not usually brought up in public discourse. In the 14th century, however, erectile dysfunction was under increased scrutiny in Europe. In pre-revolutionary 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 highly inappropriate method of determining whether a man was capable of performing his marital duty lasted less than a century; however, during their short lifespan, these trials were followed closely and almost religiously by the public.
Enlightenment thinkers cited the practice as an example of the Church's over-reaching authority, while the general public just liked to read about the drama in published accounts. Back then, a man's virility 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.
In the 16th century, Catholics and Protestants, among others, argued that, morally, marriage was the only appropriate outlet for the erotic urges humans suffer. Impotence, in this context, was a criminal offense, fraudulent crime against one party in a marriage.
Christians who took part in marriage in its sacramental form understood that it was an agreement with provisions: marriage was between two baptized Christians, it was monogamous, it was for the purpose of procreation, and it was indissoluble. Protestant views on marriage were similar to those of Catholocism 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 a matter of Church business.
The Catholic Church didn't allow for many exit routes from marriage during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. The basic goals of a matrimonial union were to procreate and provide the only acceptable outlet for sexual urges. Therefore, if a man was unable to fulfill his responsibilities in those regards, an annulment was allowed.
The specific of such an annulment were hardly simple, however. If a woman alleged impotence, a three-year window was put in place before the annulment was granted, in case the condition somehow corrected itself. Additionally, not all annulments allowed those involved to remarry. This was dependent upon what was known about the issue's origins.
Protestant Reformers believed that impotence was a valid reason for divorce, but also that remarriage was imperative. For Protestants, women could only bring impotence to court after enough time had been allowed to procreate – anywhere from one to three years – and divorce was granted after a series of oaths or medical examinations.
Although these so-called impotence trials were brought to court by women, these wives still had to prove they weren't the cause of the couples' sexual woes. As a wife's most viable escape route from an unhappy marriage was to claim that the union was never consummated, she then had to prove she was still a virgin in order for the trial to proceed.
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 allegedly be unaffected. She was often subjected to a physical inspection as well.
An alternate test to establish her own innocence was to prove her husband's insufficiency in intercourse, meaning he had to be subjected to physical scrutiny. In 1370, for example an accused husband was examined and found to have a "member...like an empty intestine of mottled skin ... [which] neither expanded nor grew."
Several days after this examination, the man's marriage was annulled.
The physical examination that a woman underwent to prove her virginity was, naturally, invasive. She was bathed and laid on a bed surrounded by midwives and doctors. A "mirror of the womb" was then inserted to explore the woman's vaginal canal.
Although breaking a woman's hymen was possible – and practically inevitable – in such an invasive procedure, this method was still used to determine virginity regardless. If a woman asserted she was not a virgin, she could claim that her husband had violated her with his fingers or had tried unsuccessful sex, thus breaking her hymen.