Think the Spanish Inquisition was harsh? Just as intimidating to many men were the French impotence courts of the 16th and 17th centuries, when husbands charged with erectile dysfunction were obliged to prove their virility before witnesses.

A husband’s inability to perform was one of the few reasons that the Church would allow a marriage to be annulled, so disgruntled women who could afford the legal costs would regularly charge their husbands with “injurious non-consummation” before ecclesiastical courts. The legal tradition dated to the 1300s, when theologians agreed that the true aim of matrimony was procreation. Statistics are vague, but by the 1500s, says French historian Pierre Darmon in his detailed account Damning the Innocent, courts were faced with “a tidal wave of accusations.” The onus was placed on the husband to demonstrate his powers of erection before an expert team of priests, surgeons, and midwives. These learned observers would… More…