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The Hard-on on Trial

Throughout history, people have been subjected to extreme, torturous treatments to combat the highly stigmatized impotence.

Approved as Sildenafil on 27 March 1998, Viagra pioneered to target the social stigma by referring to impotence as erectile dysfunction.

When the drug was first advertized in the Time magazine, the demand was so high that doctors had to use rubber stamps to keep up with the prescriptions.

However, in the pre-Viagra world, when psychosocial factors and a person's mental health wasn't featured into many of the Church's decisions, medieval justice systems that looked at marriage as an institution for procreation, had other views on impotence.

I introduce you to numerous compilations of scandalous court records detailing The Cases of Impotency.

1370. City of York. Impotency case of John Sanderson.

...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. She 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...

Still prevalent in the 21st Century, Divorce and Annulment laws wherein Impotence is often the headliner, are based upon the Gratian Decretum. Established in the year 1139, the Gratian Decretum is a compilation of papal letters, penitentials and the writings of various Church fathers that became the foundation textbook for European law schools to rule impotence as legal grounds for divorce.

Divorce can be obtained if the respondent was impotent at the time of the marriage and at the time of the institution of the suit; Section 12(1)(a), Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.
So why was impotency considered a big deal in the first place?

Divorce, was impossible to attain in the medieval era. So much so that it did not permit a party to remarry whilst the other lives! For the medieval Church, impotence however, made more sense. No sex, no kids, no point.

Sex, in many cultures is still considered immoral. Its existence solely depends upon the heteronormative narrative revolving around child rearing and that "couplings under the eye of the God can only be permitted under the clause of furthering the current flock". Furthermore, preference for monogamy stigmatized Divorce for the medieval Church, and is prevalent in several cultures today.

However, impotence trials weren't that easy. Women, under the eyes of the Church were considered distrustful, second-class citizens and the man's property, hence were prone to lying to get ahead. Their word was taken with a grain of salt. As a result of which impotence trials were rather elaborate and their descriptions slightly uncomfortable to read.

Today, if an accused husband was to prove his virility, the doctor would perform a series of tests: perhaps a nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) or an intracavernosal injection or even order a Doppler ultrasound.

One of the earliest uses of the word Congress was during the Trial by Congress. Canterbury,1292. Walter de Fonte's virile member was declared as utterly useless by 12 women (wise matrons).

In the medieval period, a Congress, consisting of a priest, a group of women: wise matrons (the number depends on the reputation of the man accused) and a medical personnel, would be required to publicly examine the gigglestick (1944) to restore the man's sullied reputation.

The Hard-on on Trial

Decoupling was an expensive, time-consuming and a humiliating affair. It was accompanied by an elaborate set of requirements, rules and rituals.

> Prelims

First off, the couple should have been married for at least 3 years to take part in the Decoupling.

> Surveillance

If the charges are denied by the husband, the wife should produce witnesses to testify for her good reputation, as her character is now under question.

If the husband agrees, the neighbors would be brought in for questioning.

If you're a new neighbor in the Medieval era, remember to keep your eyes and ears open. Also take notes. Your dedicated act of voyeurism could be especially helpful for a court's resolution.

> Trial by Congress

If there exists no contradictions to the couple's claims, a trial by congress would be ordered. The accused would be subjected to a public examination by a group of women (wise matrons/prostitutes) and a dedicated attempt to rouse the beast.

1433. Trial of John of York.

She exposed her naked breasts and with her hands warmed by the fire, she held and rubbed the penis and testicles of John. She embraced and kissed the said John. When questioned, she examined and aid that the whole time, the said penis was scarcely three inches long.

The French took it a step ahead where they ordered the couple to copulate in front of the Church and the entire village.

1657. Marquis De Langey, was accused by his wife of 4 years.

The mob’s sympathy was squarely with the dashing De Langey, who was thought to have been falsely accused by a harridan. The wife was loudly booed while the Marquis strutted arrogantly before his admirers. In Paris, bets were laid on the outcome of the trial and dirty songs composed. Society ladies flirted with the Marquis, with a certain Madame d’Olonne declaring openly, “I would so like to be condemned to Trial by Congress.”
As he slipped beneath the sheets with his wife, De Langey jauntily yelled to the doctors: “Bring me two fresh eggs, that I may get her a son at the first shot.” But disaster struck. The Marquis was heard by the doctors to be grunting, cursing, and finally praying. After two hours De Langey gave up, crying, “I am ruined.”

> I put a spell on you, and now you're mine.

A medieval research is incomplete without the reference of Witches. The infamous witch-hunting manual, The Malleus Maleficarum (1486), had a lot to contribute to the public's opinion on impotency.

A witch can do much worse than simply curse your jumble giblets, they can remove the entire penis if they like it. They sometimes, remove your family jewels and keep them hidden in prolific numbers, 20-30, in birds nests in trees or boxes.

857. Francia. Divorce of King Luthar and Queen Theutberg.

Hincmar, the archbishop of Rheims suggested that the king's favorite mistress, Waldrada, had bewitched him into no longer having sex with his wife.

1190. King Philip of France and Queen Ingeborg of Denmark.

3 months after the wedding, Philip produced a fake family tree, in desperate efforts to convince Pope Innocent III that the Queen and him were related. Unhappy with the Pope's lack of interest, the King then tried to convince the Pope to grant an annulment by accusing the Queen of witchcraft. The Pope ordered the King and Queen to stay married.

Philip's response: Lock up Ingeborg in the chateau of Etampes and marry Agnes of Merania in 1196.

The Pope was so enraged that he not only refused to recognize the wedding, but ordered all the churches in France to be shut down for 9 months, and imposed an edict that rendered all the children born during those dark days, as illegitimate.

Despite the exhibitionism, penile humiliation, stress and non-consensual probing, impotence trials continued to feature in the divorce court throughout the 18th Century. Many of these proceedings are often published as lurid erotica.

Its been 24 years since the release of Viagra, and I salute the many useless members that contributed to the successful treatment of erectile dysfunction, allowing millions of people to get their mojo back.


A Handbook On Impotency As A Ground For Dissolving Marriage In India. (2020, October 9). Academike.

Antonio Maria, D. V., Bartolomeo, D. B., Gratian, A. 1. C. A. & Joannes, T. (1480) Gratian's "Decretum". Venice: Johann von Köln und Manthen. [Pdf] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Darmon, P. (1985). Trial by Impotence: Virility and Marriage in Pre-Revolutionary France: Chatto & Windus.

Pierre Darmon. (1986). Damning the Innocent: A History of the Persecution of the Impotent in pre-Revolutionary France. New York: Viking Press.

Rider, C. (2006). Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages: OUP Oxford.

Section 12(1)(a), Hindu Marriage Act. (1955). Divorce Act (1869).

Time Inc. (n.d) Time Magazine Cover. Cover Page. (1998). Viagra: The Potency Pill. Time.

Tozzi, J., & Hopkins, J. S. (2017, December 11). The little blue pill: An oral history of Viagra.


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