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In the Middle Ages, An Impotent Man Was Society’s Blackest Sheep

In ‘Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex,’ Rachel Feltman tells the awkward, often hilarious histories behind our most carnal proclivities and pastimes. None, however, was weirder than the Medieval role of the guy who couldn’t get it up

The following is an excerpt from Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex by Popular Science executive editor Rachel Feltman (full disclosure: Popular Science and MEL share the same ownership). A winking, myth-busting romp through the history of everything from birth control to Hildegard von Bingen’s treatise on the female orgasm, it blasts through one sexual urban legend after another to reveal the surprising, often hilarious truths behind our most awkward, passionate practices. Below is a passage about how impotent men were treated in the Middle Ages.

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Those embarrassed about occasional impotence would do well not to visit medieval Europe. A husband’s inability to get it up was just about the only reason a woman could file for divorce or annulment at the time in England, since men incapable of fathering children weren’t even supposed to get married.

Sex wasn’t just forbidden outside marriage; even married couples were expected to limit their couplings to brief, straightforward, conception-centric affairs. Church documents from throughout the Middle Ages denounce the sinful lasciviousness of heterosexual married folks who…

  • Had sex at a time of the month when conception was unlikely
  • Did anything fancy and unnecessary to conception, like *insert any position but missionary*
  • Had sex more than once every couple of weeks
  • Used the pull-out method

Given that strict sense of who and what and where sex was meant for, one can see the church’s reasoning in condemning men incapable of penetration to a life without marital bliss. With marriage existing solely to create a set of circumstances under which two people could technically have a little tiny bit of a very specific kind of sex — a necessary evil in order to keep the religion from dying out — one couldn’t simply have a wife and not impregnate her. Stop hogging all the fertile wombs, lads! You’re not even using ’em!

From a modern standpoint, I’m tempted to applaud any opportunity a woman in the Middle Ages had for divorce; women in the Middle Ages generally had opportunities for nothing but dying in childbirth or being burned at the stake. But the circumstances were far from ideal for either the husband or the wife involved.

First, a woman had to wait at least three years to declare that she’d been hoodwinked into marriage by an impotent man. This window was presumably meant to allow for the possibility that a husband was simply shy, malnourished, ignorant as to the mechanics of marital sex or overwhelmed by the long list of circumstances under which the church had assured him that he should not screw his wife. Second, the accusing spouse had to have character references from local townsfolk — yes, this was a completely public affair — because women are, as you know, inherently wicked and untrustworthy. Lastly, and most hilariously, the court had to receive proof that true impotence was afoot. In the 12th century, a group of “wise matrons” would spend several nights hanging around the couple in question to accomplish this. As a result, 12th-century court documents are rife with testimonies from respectable married women on the complete inadequacies of various men’s penises

But what could a man do to avoid losing his marriage and reputation? If he had access to an actual scholar, he might receive advice from the 10th-century tomes of Tunisian physician Ibn al-Jazzar, widely considered about as good as it got for the whole span of the Middle Ages. His main shtick was to insist that testicles be kept warm and moist, which he said could be accomplished by eating foods such as chickpeas, turnips, ginger, long peppers and beans (note: hot and farty).

For the majority of these spurned husbands, however, the bulk of the blame would be put on witchcraft, with suggestions running the gamut from asking nicely for the witch to stop hexing your genitals to catching her in a choke hold.

There were also a few slightly less murder-y solutions available. In the 13th century, Friar Albertus Magnus noted that the frenzied copulation seen in sparrows made their meat a perfect cure for frigidity. A roasted wolf’s penis might be even more potent, but the most salacious meal of all was a starfish, which he warned might work so well that a patient would ejaculate blood.

Never fear: these violent emissions could be cured with a “cooling” meal such as *checks notes* a plate of lettuce.