Venus and Mars, c 1485. Tempera and oil on poplar panel, National Gallery, London.

Trial by Public Performance: The Impotence Trials of Pre-Revolutionary France

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The impotence trials of prerevolutionary France sound a bit like a political joke. France had mostly squelched the ability for couples to divorce, and it was in the wake of this that the impotence trials arose. Yet due to the religious necessity that sexual encounters with one's spouse should produce—or at least be capable of producing—children, when a man failed to hold up his end of the bargain, it was technically an act against religion and cause for a re-evaluation of the marriage. Divorce itself was not a concept taken lightly, so naturally, the accused husband and his possibly flaccid "instrument" were put on trial.

Equipment Inspection

In much the same way women were once "inspected" before marriages to prove virginity, men could be taken to court by their wives if there was suspicion of an inability to consummate the marriage, or an apparent disinterest in even attempting to consummate, as seen with the below cases of the Marquis de Gesvres and the Marquis de Langely. These examinations "demanded inspection of the genitals to prove that the man could achieve erection. Sometimes the judges insisted on more elaborate evidence that the couple could consummate their marriage and called for 'Trial by Congress,' which forced a husband and wife to attempt to copulate in front of staring, note-taking witnesses." While not all cases went as far as 'Trial by Congress', the preceding investigations were highly unpleasant, and the affairs of the bedroom were exposed for public judgement.

Female physician makes an examination. From 15th century manuscript. (Public Domain)

Female physician makes an examination. From 15 th century manuscript. (Public Domain)

Part of the examination was an investigation of the "color, shape and number" of the male's genitals; in the matter of reproduction, the privacy of the marital chamber was no longer private, as spouses were interrogated on all aspects of their bedroom lives, including sexual positions. Was there evidence that the husband could perform properly, "or had he been forcing his partner in lascivious positions without the promise of coming children?" It was very important that marriages produced children; in fact, there were laws in medieval Europe (set by the Church) that husbands and wives could only have intercourse in the missionary position, as it provided the best chance for conception and had nothing to do with pleasure. (Sex for enjoyment was considered a sin, even between spouses.)

A scene from Trial by Jury as illustrated in the magazine Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of 1 May 1875. (Public Domain)

A scene from Trial by Jury as illustrated in the magazine Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of 1 May 1875. ( Public Domain )

Public Witnesses

To ensure the above regulations were followed, all who might have been privy to the bedchamber could be interrogated. Chambermaids, servants, etc. were among those who could be propositioned by the courts. It was only after these inquisitions that a "Trial by Congress" was considered, depending on the collective assessment of the testimonies of the wife, husband and witnesses, and the physical examination of the spouses. If a satisfactory decision could not be reached, the husband and wife had to undergo a "Trial by Congress", performing sex in the middle of the courtroom.

The Trial of the Marquis de Gesvres

One of the most widely recorded French trials is that of the Marquis de Gesvres in the 18 th century, accused by his wife. According the trial records, his wife—called the Mademoiselle de Mascranny—claimed that three years into their marriage, the Marquis refused to do more than lie stoically next to her in bed and, when she attempted to illicit "only urges" for intercourse, the Marquis's "organs", as they are called on record, were "absolutely destitute of motion." In other words, the Madame was accusing the poor Marquis of being unable to get it up.

Fresco of Priapus, Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii. (Public Domain)

Fresco of Priapus, Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii. ( Public Domain)

While the Marquis avoided the bedroom examination, he was forced to undergo numerous inspections of his "organs." Yet, there even appeared to be official stipulations for what constituted properly working genitals: all evidence had to point to an ability to procreate. As such, the Marquis de Gesvres suffered both a win and a loss at once: "his examiners noted harshly that they observed an erection, but because of its 'tension, hardness, and duration' they discounted it as evidence of the ability to procreate." Therefore, the ability to have an erection was not enough proof that the man was not impotent; the marquis was only saved from being divorced from his frustrated wife by her sudden death. Otherwise, for the poor Marquis, all signs pointed to impotent. 

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