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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


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. 

Waiting for the Verdict, Abraham Solomon, 1859.

Waiting for the Verdict, Abraham Solomon, 1859. (Public Domain)

The Less Lucky Langey

In the century preceding the trial of Marquis de Gesvres, the Marquis de Langey was not so lucky in avoiding a "Trial by Congress". Four years into his marriage, he was accused of impotency, but not of sexual disinterest as was de Gesvres. Both husband and wife were examined and found to be in perfect sexual health, and it was deduced that Marquis de Langey had, in fact, taken his wife's virginity. Yet Madame Langey's accusation remained and the trial continued; the Marquis, she claimed, was a harsh lover and seemingly entirely uninterested in sexual encounters with the intent of procreation. It did not help the Marquis's case that his wife had not yet produced a child.

The Lock, Jean-Honore Fragonard, circa 1776-9.

The Lock, Jean-Honore Fragonard, circa 1776-9. (Public Domain)

It would have been in Langey's best interest to keep quiet at this point, and let the High Court of Paris make the final decision on his impotency. He stood a very good chance of being declared potent, his wife's accusations of sexual incapability squashed in the preliminary examinations. But Langey's pride was wounded; he demanded a "Trial by Congress" to prove he was perfectly capable of procreative performance. Perhaps it was the pressure of attempting to perform in front of "five surgeons, five physicians and five matrons"; perhaps it was the stress of knowing his entire reputation depended on this one physical act. Whatever the reason, Langey failed to publicly consummate, and his wife was rewarded a divorce.

A Public Ordeal

Though these impotency trials may seem rather extensive to the modern mind, consummation was highly important in pre- and post-medieval circles. Consummation was, after all, Henry VIII of England's reason for divorcing his first wife. The act of having sex to create an heir was considered as legally binding as a written marriage contract is today; one can have gone through the ceremony of marriage, but still not be legal spouses until the paperwork has gone through. Such was the case with consummation and offspring in prerevolutionary France. While there are other ways today to test a man's virility and a woman's fertility, the Marquis de Gesvres and the Marquis de Langley were tried in the only way their culture knew how. It is safe to say that both would likely have preferred today's methods.

Top image: Venus and Mars, c 1485. Tempera and oil on poplar panel, National Gallery, London. (Public Domain)

By Riley Winters


Abbott, Elizabeth. 2000. A History of Celibacy. Simon and Schuster. p.356

Bannister, Laura. 2016. "The Hard-on on Trial: Erectile dysfunction and divorce in prerevolutionary France." The Paris Review. Accessed December 28, 2017.

The Cuckold's chronicle: being select trials for adultry [sic], incest, imbecility, ravishment, &c. : Volume I. 1789. (ed. Text Creation Partnership, 2002.) Boston. Accessed December 27, 2017.

Darmon, Pierre. 1985. Trial by Impotence: Virility and Marriage in Pre-Revolutionary France. Chatto and Windus.

"Erectile dysfunction in the Middle Ages – historian examines medieval impotence cases." 2012. Accessed December 29, 2017.

Hoffman, Stephanie. 2009. "Behind Closed Doors: Impotence Trials and the Trans-Historical Right to Martial Policy." Boston University Law Review. 89.5. pp. 1725-52.

Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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