That Time Women Could Divorce Their Husbands By Having Intercourse in Court
Throughout a certain portion of history in the western world, getting a divorce was almost impossible. Even the royals had issues on this front, with perhaps the most famous example being the plight of King Henry 8th, a man whose desire to get an annulment famously led to him starting an entirely new branch of Christianity virtually identical to the old except that he was the ultimate authority and head instead of the Pope.
However, starting around the 14th century in certain parts of Europe, an avenue for a woman to divorce a man was to simply claim that her husband couldn’t consummate the marriage or, to put it more plainly- wasn’t able to shampoo the wookie.
While, yes, technically a man could also use this very excuse to get out of a marriage, the social stigma attached to not being able to successfully put a little Ranch in the Hidden Valley bottle was so great that we could find no examples of a man using this excuse to annul a marriage, despite that this was basically a free pass out of any marriage if the man wanted it, given he simply had to not get it up during the trial and he was free.
This all brings us to these so called “Impotence Trials”, at their peak with an estimated ten thousand or so taking place throughout Europe in the 17th century alone.
As you can probably imagine, the act of proving one’s innocence of this particular crime in court was naturally, quite hard, despite mostly all you needing to do was, well, get hard, with the occasional added requirement of showing you were capable of a little skeetshooting as well.
So how did this process actually go? It seems to have varied slightly from case to case and country to country, but generally the trials took place in the ecclesiastic courts, though we did find instances of ones that took place in a more normal court of law, one of which we’ll get into shortly.
Before such a trial, a rather lengthy waiting period was often required, up to three years, to see if at some point the man was able to violate the prime directive. If, after that time span, the woman still asserted her husband’s spelunker hadn’t ever explored her cave of wonders then a proper trial would commence.
During the trial, potential witnesses to any relevant acts in question, like servants and friends, would be questioned about any intimate details they knew of the couple.
For example, consider the case of one Nicholas Cantilupe. His wife, Katherine Paynel, gave this account to her friend, Thomas Waus, who, in turn, was a witness at the trial:
That she often tried to find the place of…Nicholas’ genitals with her hands when she lay in bed with… Nicholas and he was asleep, and that she could not stroke nor find anything there and that the place in which Nicholas’ genitals ought be is as flat as the hand of a man.
What was going on with Nicholas’ missing measuring stick isn’t known as the trial abruptly halted when Nick went into hiding. That is all history will ever remember of Nicholas Cantilupe.
The women could also potentially be subjected to numerous, sometimes rather invasive, tests, particularly if the man otherwise seemed to be able to hit the two ball in the middle pocket when he himself was examined. The most important test for the ladies was the court trying to determine if the woman making the accusations was still a virgin.
Various ways of testing this existed, but one of the most common was to insert a mirror into the woman-in-question’s snu-snu to try to see if the one eyed optometrist had ever showed up to give an examination of his own.
Naturally, this type of mirror examination was hardly conclusive, and even if it was determined the woman had at some point had her triangle bisected by something, some would simply claim her husband had used his hands when his flag couldn’t get past halfmast. Thus further casting doubt on the veracity of the results of that examination.
Not all just about being able to get it up, a man being able to impregnate the woman was also a key factor. Thus, other things women had to deal with during impotence trials included being grilled on their sexual proclivities, including how often they had sex and, critically, in what position. The latter was considered especially important because having sex in anything other than the missionary position was considered, if not a sin, at least uncouth, as that position was seen as the best way to get a woman pregnant. This should always, in the eyes of certain clergy, be the point of launching a heat seeking missile at the enemy base. Thus, if the man only ever was willing to put sour cream in his taco from an abnormal position, he was considered not to be doing his marital duties.
Beyond that, if the man had issues finishing the deed when the couple did have sex, the woman could potentially use her man’s inability to put a fresh coat of paint on her garden shed as evidence against him.
Now for the men. The tests men had to endure were equally as invasive and, from a social standpoint, potentially even more humiliating as it was their inadequacy as a man that was being challenged, and in an extremely public way, with trial notes from these proceedings being obscenely popular with the masses- humans gonna human, no matter what era.
Again, exactly what happened here seems to have varied a bit from trial to trial and region to region, but the first thing to be determined was if the man was physically capable of doing his best impression of a narwale.
One particularly amusing test, noted to have occurred frequently in Spain, involved alternately dunking Tiny Tim in cold and then hot water and then seeing if he would stand up after.
In other cases, we found accounts of women who were, shall we say, experts on the male magic stick, thoroughly “examining” it and giving their accounts before the court. For example, in one such 1370 instance, we have this account of the results of three women’s examination of one John Sanderson. His wife, Tedia Lambhird, had accused him of being impotent:
that the member of the said John 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 that place it neither expanded nor grew. Asked if he has a scrotum with testicles she says that he has the skin of a scrotum, but the testicles do not hang in the scrotum but are connected with the skin as is the case among young infants.
And, yes, this account of poor John’s Little Soldier is all history will ever remember of him. Rest in Peace John Sanderson. I bet even at the height of your shame, you never considered that 649 years later a description of your genitals would still be fodder for the amusement of the masses.
Moving swiftly on, in other cases, a (male) doctor might be hired to stimulate the man’s noodle to see if it could be cooked al-dente. Understandably, even men capable of normally rising to the occasion struggled to do so under these circumstances.
For example, in one famous account of the Marquis de Gesvres, it is noted, in his case he was able to achieve a partial erection while being examined, but the examiners felt the, to quote, “tension, hardness, and duration” were inadequate for the required cloning via boning.
Lucky for the men, many of the males who were a part of the trial were sympathetic to this plight, and so failing to release the Kraken wasn’t usually immediately seen as a definitive sign that the man wasn’t capable of having his corn dog battered under more normal circumstances.
Further, some men even stated their inability to perform during the trial was because the wife had hired a sorcerer to bewitch his giggle stick, such as the case of one Jacques de Sales. In 1603, de Sales was subjected to such a trial and, when he couldn’t salute the jurors, stated his wife herself had cast a spell on his penis to keep it from saying hi.
Given the uncertainty in all this and attempts to give the men in question every opportunity to show they could storm the pink fortress, these trials often drug out for some time, even months, or, in some cases, the ruling would be to tack on another duration of up to three years to see if things sorted themselves out, quite literally, in the end.
This all brings us to what was generally the final, and most definitive test- Trial by Congress, which, just so we all know what we’re talking about here, was loading the clown into the cannon with an audience nearby.
To give an idea of how potentially humiliating this could be for the man, especially given the trial notes would soon be public fodder, we’ll mention a particular one that occurred in Rheims, France, where it was noted:
The experts waited around a fire. Many a time did he call out: “Come! Come now!” but it was always a false alarm. The wife laughed and told them: “Do not hurry so, for I know him well.” The experts said after that never had they laughed as much nor slept as little as on that night.
After the deed was done, or at least the attempt at it, experts would then examine the couple intimately, as well as the sheets, to see if the doughnut had been properly glazed.
However, as you might imagine, doing the dipsy doodle with someone you probably hate at this point, as well as with an audience nearby and your marriage on the line, wasn’t exactly an ideal scenario for the man, especially for men that may have already genuinely had trouble saluting Sergent Furburger.
Case in point- one René de Cordouan, aka, the Marquis de Langey. In 1657, the Marquis had his man-handle were put on trial, not in the ecclesiastical courts, but by the High Court of Paris itself. His then 17 year old wife, Mademoiselle Marie de St Simon de Courtemer, had claimed in the four years they’d been together, she had only ever observed his pooch lying there, to quote her, “absolutely destitute of motion”.
This disdain for his ability to hold a joint session of congress was in stark contrast to their seemingly happy relationship in the early going given letters that were brought to account during the trial.
Interestingly, in this case, eager to prove his abilities in the bedroom to the masses, Langey himself demanded the Trial by Congress, even though up to this point it had appeared the trial might go his way as he had otherwise demonstrated the necessary abilities and the lady herself was considered not to be a virgin by their examination.
Unfortunately for Langey, the pressure to pickle the prime meridian lest his reputation be besmirched forever, someday even recounted on the interwebs, was too much. After several hours of trying, he could not do the deed. It probably didn’t help that a fifteen person jury was hanging out nearby to observe the results.
Thus, the marriage was dissolved, he was forced to pay the legal fees for both he and his ex, he became the butt of jokes among the nobility and the masses, had to return his wife’s dowry, and was forbidden to ever marry again.
Critical to his tale is that, after the divorce, despite the court order against it, he went ahead and took another wife, Diana de Navailles. This time he had no such issues, managing to father a whopping seven kids with Diana. Once his virility was proved, he then appealed his former sentence successfully and his marriage to Diana was officially confirmed.
From this and other similar accounts, it does appear there were at least some men back then fully capable of using their schnoodlypooper who were charged with being impotent or otherwise incapable of getting a puck past the goalie.
To add insult to injury, as mentioned in the case of Langey, should the man lose the case, not only was his inability to Mickey a Minnie Mouse now known to the world, along with very explicit and detailed descriptions of his dud of a Weapon of Mass Destruction, he was also liable for the court and legal fees of both he and his former wife.
On this note, upper class women were far more likely to bring claims of impotence against their husbands as they both had the means to hire a lawyer in the first place, and pay if she lost, and also would typically have better prospects for a future husband more able to give her a proper root canal if she won.
As an idea of how much more likely this was, it is noted that in France approximately 20% of all known instances of Impotence Trials were between members of the nobility, despite that these individuals represented only about 3% of the general populace.
In the end, several famous cases where men supposedly proven to be impotent during a trial managed to father children after started to shift the tides against such trials proving anything. Eventually other avenues of divorce also opened up, which all saw impotence trials falling by the wayside by the 19th century. However, let us not forget that for a brief period in European history, men could literally be put on trial for not being able to take the bald-headed gnome for a stroll in the misty forest.
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