Limp Laws

The Catholic Church's impotence index.


He wrote the book on impotence.

The Catholic Church has long enjoyed involving itself in the most intimate details of the conjugal bedroom, although its motives took a radical turn in the Middle Ages.  Early thinkers often looked on sex-free marriages as the Christian ideal, celebrating the saintly couples who abandoned the pleasures of the flesh and lived like sterile hermits. But after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, theologians decided that procreation was the sacred purpose of all conjugal unions. While divorce was still impossible without a special papal dispensation, Church lawyers became open to legal annulments of if one spouse was unable to carry out their holy marital duty. Courts needed to be au fait with the minutia of male performance, so in 1570 the Spanish intellectual Diego de Covarrubias y Leyva wrote the learned text De Frigidis et Maleficiatis to help distinguish the five categories of impotence that might affect the bonds of wedlock:


1: Natural impotence

Definition: A “permanent and irremediable problem,” discovered on the wedding night. This covered more than erectile dysfunction:  In the 16th century, French Baron d’Argenton had his marriage annulled because of his testicles, “which did withdraw inside his person when he turned over.” Incompatibility could also be taken into account: In 1613, Magdelaine de Charbonnier was allowed an annulment “on the ground that her said husband’s virile organ was so large as to be beyond any virgin to sustain it.”

Grounds for annulment? Yes.

2: Accidental impotence

Definition: Damage to male genitals due to mutilation after marriage, such as that from a horse-riding accident.  This category also covers permanent impotence due to illness.

Grounds for annulment? Yes, if the couple had no children; if they already had a family, they were forced to battle on.

3: Relative impotence

Definition: Occurs when a man cannot have intercourse with certain types of women — such as widows — but is otherwise deemed capable by doctors. 

Grounds for annulment? Yes.

4. Impotence by evil spell

Definition: Impotence due to “mischief” from witchcraft, charms, or curses. For example, during a wedding ceremony, an enemy might tie three knots in a string and chant the words “Ribald, Bobal, and Varnabi” to cause sexual problems.

Grounds for annulment? No, because the evil effects can be combated by using “positive magic.” Recommended remedies include pouring white wine over a new wife’s wedding ring or having the husband urinate through the keyhole of the church where he was married.

5. Female impotence

Definition: Ex clausura uteri aut nimia arctitudine, “obstruction or excessive narrowness of the vagina.”

Grounds for annulment? Yes. • 12 July 2010

SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Pierre Darmon, Damning the Innocent: A History of the Persecution of the Impotent in Pre-revolutionary France (New York, 1986); McLaren, Angus, Impotence: A Cultural History (Chicago, 2007).

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.

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