Women In The 16th Century Could Sue Their Husbands For Erectile Dysfunction

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.

Photo: David Henry Friston / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • The Church Had A Right To Be In Your Bedroom

    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.

    Marriage didn't explicitly become a sacrament of the Catholic Church until the Council of Trent, though 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 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.   

  • Divorce Was Rare, So Impotence Was A Woman's Best Means Of Escape

    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.

  • A Wife Had To Prove Her Own Innocence
    Photo: Chérieux / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Wife Had To Prove Her Own Innocence

    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. 

  • Ironically, The Test To Verify Virginity Could "Deflower" A Woman
    Photo: PurpleCar / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Ironically, The Test To Verify Virginity Could "Deflower" A Woman

    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.

  • Men Were Expected To Perform Publicly

    Several Spanish doctors in the 14th century devised their own method for testing a man's virility: a man's penis was put into cold, then hot water and was observed for dilation and blood-flow. If this test proved inconclusive, a male surgeon would then attempt to stimulate the man to erection. 

    In Naples, matrones – female sex experts – were consulted. This woman would accompany a couple, relax them, administer aphrodisiacs, and wait for results. She would then report back to the court. In a Trial by Congress, typically practiced in France, men were expected to become erect in front of the Court, copulating with their wives on command.

    Church officials and doctors did seem to recognize that the inability to perform in front of an audience could be due to the discomfort of the public setting, but generally speaking, these trials' results were stringent.

  • Impotence Was An Cultural Epidemic In 16th-Century France

    Based on the number of impotence cases in France by the 16th century, one would assume the possible presence of an environmental cause. Of course, as one of the few ways to dissolve a marriage, it was an appealing process for a woman stuck in a loveless marriage. Upper- and middle-class women were the most common litigants, as 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 proliferated. 

    With as many as ten thousand trials held during the 17th century. contemporaries attributed the rise in trials to overall moral corruption, as well as the growing audacity and overt sexuality of women.