"In fourteenth-century England, one of the only ways a woman could get a divorce was if her husband was impotent. But first, she had to prove it in court." And so begins this eye-raising piece on Narratively. Who knew that there were people tasked by the court, sometimes even female and male friends of the couple, with attempting to arouse the accused hubby.
Often the witnesses in impotency cases were women, either married female acquaintances, widows, or local sex workers. They might be tasked by the court with inspecting the man's genital equipment, or they might expose their breasts and genitals to the allegedly impotent man, give him ale and tasty snacks, kiss him, and rub his penis in a warm room to see whether he became aroused. But other times, these witnesses were men who looked on as the husband in question tried to have sex, or even lent a hand and stroked his penis themselves, reporting their findings to the court.
Impotence was a pressing concern for men and women in late medieval England. Multiple poems from the time feature women gathering in groups over copious amounts of alcohol and complaining about their impotent husbands, comparing their flaccid penises to maggots, snails and bumblebees. Other poems are voiced by the men themselves, who mourn their impotence and offer advice to others about preserving their virility. "All ye lovers take heed of me, for I was once as lusty as ye," laments one poet.
Read (or listen to) the rest on Narratively.
[H/t Mark Casale]
Illustration by Sophie Margolin for Narratively