Medieval impotency trials

No, this isn’t another installment of Loco Lawsuits. Nor does it deal with the multibillion dollar sales of erectile dysfunction drugs. While some today may be embarrassed to even ask about or pick up an ED prescription, that’s nothing compared to dealing with ED in the Middle Ages.

Under medieval Church law, impotence was one of the few grounds for divorce. Because marriage was a sacrament it was governed by canon law so divorce cases ended up in ecclesiastical courts. Court records in York, England, have given historians a window into impotence cases. Still, they were uncommon. According to one study, there are extant records for two such cases in the 14th Century and five in the 15th Century.

Generally, ecclesiastic courts utilized an inquisitorial method, meaning the court itself was responsible for gathering and evaluating the evidence. Given the nature of the issues, these cases tended to rely heavily on medical examination. In fact, some European countries, particularly France, used “trials by congress.”  Essentially, this was copulation before an assembly of doctors and ecclesiastical lawyers. Talk about pressure to perform sexually.

While England rarely resorted to trials by congress, even standard impotence cases in York could come awfully close.  In a 1370 case, for example, three women were tasked with physically examining the husband. They reported:

that the member of the [husband] is like an empty intestine of mottled skin and it does not have any flesh in it, nor veins in the skin, and the middle of its front is totally black. And said witness stroked it with her hands and put it in semen and having thus been stroked and put in that place it neither expanded nor grew.

In a 1441 case several women fondled the husband’s penis while “embracing him around the neck and kissing him.” Reportedly, the women remained dressed during their “examination.” A report of a case two years later said a witness

exposed her naked breasts and with her hands warmed at the said fire, she held and rubbed the penis and testicles of the [husband]. And she embraced and frequently kissed the [husband], and stirred him up in so far as she could to show his virility and potency, admonishing him for shame that he should then and there prove and render himself a man. And she says, examined and diligently questioned, that the whole time aforesaid, the said penis was scarcely three inches long.

Other times men were the witnesses. For example, in the 1370 case a man testified he’d seen the husband and wife attempting to have sex in a barn. He said that although the couple were “applying themselves with zeal,” the husband’s “rod was lowered and in no way rising or becoming erect.” In a 1368 case the husband went into hiding when asked to undergo a physical exam. As a result, the court let a man testify that the wife swore that “she often tried to find the place of the [husband’s] genitals with her hands when she lay in bed with [him] and he was asleep, and that she could not stroke nor find anything there[.]”

If the accounts of these “physical examinations” are correct, more than common ED may have been involved. But such issues haven’t disappeared. Just last year a court in British Columbia granted an annulment to a woman who claimed her husband couldn’t have an erection. Fortunately, the only evidence considered was on paper, not physical demonstrations.

If a man and a woman have united in marriage and afterward the woman says of the man that he is impotent, if anyone can prove that this is true, she may take another [husband].

Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, The Penitential of Theodore

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