Apart from death, one of the few ways one could dissolve a Catholic marriage was proof of impotence. But how on earth could you prove it? .The only valid way at the time was to participate in a “public impotency trial”
As bizarre as it may sound, church officials aided by doctors, from the mid 16th century right up to the start of the 18th century, actually conducted physical tests for impotency. The husbands underwent erection tests and the wives, virginity tests. There were even “trials by congress”, basically, marital intercourse for a select audience.
The legal tradition for this somewhat harrowing experience has its roots in the early 13th century when theologians announced that the true aim of matrimony was procreation.
It appears that if a woman wanted a divorce at this time all she had to do was to claim that her erstwhile husband had committed “injurious consummation”, that is to say a lack of sexual activity and would call upon the marriage to be annulled. It is interesting to note that even in the sexually enlightened times we live in now it is doubtful that women have the same amount of power in the bedroom as their sisters did half a millennium ago.
The accused husband would have to appear in court and then in front of a judge prove that he was capable of performing his marital duties. The poor fellow had to show a group of priests, surgeons and midwives that he was capable of having an erection. These learned observers would prod and poke his genitals in order to ascertain its “elastic tension” and “natural motion.” If that was not harrowing enough, the final step was “proof of ejaculation.” Hardly surprisingly, many men were unable to comply. If this was the case, the now completely humiliated husband would have to go through a “Trial by Congress”
One can only imagine the embarrassment of what was about to follow, the already strained relationship between the husband and wife was about to reach a new level.
In Pierre Darmon`s wickedly entertaining “Damning the Innocent” (Viking 1986) he recounts a commentary of a trial by congress written by a Vincent Tagareau in 1612
“Each of the participants is inspected naked from the crown of their heads to the soles of their feet in all parts of the body to discover if they are hiding anything that could help or hinder the sexual trial.
To prevent the wife from using astringents to tighten herself up, she is put in a half bath for a little while.
Next, the condition of the privy parts is then examined, and by this means, they seek to judge the difference in her opening and her dilation before and after the sexual trial.
That done, the man and the woman lie down in broad daylight on a bed, the attending experts either remain or retire leaving the door ajar and matrons stationed by the bed.
The [bed} curtains are drawn, it falls upon the man to go about proving his potency. Often squabbling and silly fights break out; the husband complaining that his spouse does not want to let him do it and is blocking insertion while she denies it and claims he wants to put his finger in there and dilate her and open her up by this means.
A man would have to be amazingly determined and even brutish if he didn`t lose his erection – that is, if he ever had one. And if notwithstanding these indignities and obstacles, if he survives long enough to insert himself, he would not be able to do so unless someone held the hands and feet of his partner.
Finally after the couple have spent maybe an hour or two in bed, the experts are summoned, or else they come on their own because they are bored; they then approach and open the curtains to inspect what’s happened and examine the woman to see whether she is more open than before she got into bed and to judge whether his “emissions” were suitable.
This is all done without candle and eyeglass, though not without extremely perverse and shameful questions and arguments. They draw up their reports which they deliver to the judge in another room by the side. The prosecutors and elite of the Ecclesiastical Court await the final results of this drama, whose verdict always goes against the man, unless he achieved intromission (penetration)”
According to Darmon, one poor fellow a Monsieur De Bray, even though he had satisfied the doctors as to his member being “ in place and in good order,” apparently failed the test because he had only scattered “aqueous” seed upon the mattress.
A contemporary chronicler of Parisian life, Tallemant des Réaux wrote a number of scandal ridden Historiettes of people of the time. In one, he writes with relish about a handsome young nobleman René de Cordouan, the Marquis De Langey accused of impotence by his young wife in the summer of 1647. Even though the first examination suggested that his wife was not a virgin, sufficient doubt remained to force the Marquis to endure a Trial by Congress.
The venue for the trial was to be a bath house much frequented by the aristocracy. On the day there was such a large crowd surrounding the place that servants had to force a path through the mob of curiosity-seekers. M.des Réaux writes of much betting taking place on the trial`s outcome.
As De Langey was taking his clothes off prior to joining his wife in bed he was heard to tell the doctors to “Bring me two fresh eggs, that I may get her a son at the first shot.” But calamity struck. The Marquis was heard by the jury to be grunting, cursing, and finally praying. After two hours De Langey gave up, crying, “I am ruined.”
He subsequently requested a retrial but was refused and in France his name later became a byword for flaccidity.