The impotence trials of renaissance France

Medieval impotence trial

If you ever checked out the Books section of theResources menu on this website, you already know I have a penchant for rather unusual essays. While some of them get reviewed here, most are just too off topic to be mentioned on – but my latest read deserves an exception. Damning the innocent: a history of the persecution of the impotent in pre-revolutionary France by Pierre Darmon examines a remarkable French legal custom originated in XIV century, which grew to a widespread phenomenon in the 1500s and throughout the XVII century.

The impotence trials were the tool of choice for women wishing to end their marriages in a slightly more civilized fashion than the spouse-slaying so common in that age. Since the prevailing theological doctrine said that the only aim of matrimony was to procreate new faithful sons and daughters of god, the reasoning went, demonstrating the husband’s impotence before a court would void the marriage in a “respectable” way. You know this couldn’t end well.

Hundreds of such trials were requested by greedy or simply bored female aristocrats, the only women who could afford the court expenses. And they had to be substantial, since the proceeding called for surgeons, priests, midwives and of course a judge and all the related clerks, guards and courthouse personnel. Not to mention the cost of a suitable neutral ground for the performance, since actual courts were not to be desecrated.
If you were lucky and very, very brave you could be declared innocent on the first part of the trial. Here the man was examined to ascertain his «natural motion» and «elastic tension» – in other words, he had to get an erection before a committee of strangers. Then he had to ejaculate in full view of them all. Unfortunately, performance anxiety often prevailed on the most ardent intentions, forcing everybody to move to the second phase.

The next event took place on a bed surrounded by the same legal crowd, only partially hidden by paper screens: the midwives, in example, huddled right beside the mattress. The estranged couple was first thoroughly searched for hidden devices, medications or other tricks. Then they had a couple of hours to go at it – and one can only imagine how helpful the wife would be – until the judge and the others intruded to check for emissions. Several reports state that «insufficient» or «aqueous» stains were not considered enough to acquit the man.
Impotence trials were a source of entertainment for the whole city. Minstrels composed ballads to mock or incite the accused, wagers were placed on the results and screaming crowds gathered around the locations where the tests were held. Brawls were common, as surprising verdicts were – often forcing the poor, traumatized ex-husband into exile. Now look at the picture above again, and be thankful of not living in XVI century France.

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    Proof that the Catholic Church has had a history of perversion…