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.
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.
Three Scenarios Could Result 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 information required by a court, 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 endure another three-year trial period in case the situation righted itself.
Men's Defenses Ranged From Indigestion To Evil Spells
One defense men used to explain alleged impotence was that they were under a magic spell. The connection between magic and impotence was common during the Middle Ages, and in view of the growing concerns surrounding witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries, the connection gained strength.
In 1603, Jacques de Sales argued that his impotence was caused by a magic spell cast by his wife. The annulment was granted, and both parties were allowed to remarry. The reasoning of "frigidity through evil spell" lost traction after the seventeenth century.
Men would often argue that impotence was temporary, caused by indigestion, a chill, a broken rib, or some other similar ailment. They would also claim that their "frigid" wives were rejecting their advnaces. In desperation, a man might claim his wife had been pregnant at one time, clear proof of his ability to perform.