The French have enjoyed a long, prosperous, and rich history. But among their many significant accolades, they should perhaps be most proud of their reputation for being excellent lovers. While the language itself is nuanced, passionate, and sexually charged, many of the natives I have encountered have been equally flirtatious and, compared to our arguably puritanical culture, sexually open and adventurous.
However like so much of Europe, France has historically been a very Catholic, and thus conservative, country. The infamous Libertine movement would not gain much momentum until the 18th century, which would mean that religion and culture would reserve sex as an act to be enjoyed only between husband and wife. Furthermore, according to historian Tony Perrottet in his book Napoleon’s Privates – 2500 Years of History Unzipped, “the true aim of matrimony was procreation,” thereby removing pleasure from the equation entirely and turning physical love into something pragmatic and boring.
Interestingly, this otherwise insidious spin on sex gave aristocratic women an incredible amount of power in the bedroom, as husbands cursed with erectile dysfunction could be charged with “injurious non-consummation” before ecclesiastical courts – one of the only ways in which a couple could divorce. And how would such a trial proceed? Naturally, a conversation would be humiliating, and with only the wife and husband in touch with the facts, uncovering the truth would have been an impossibility. No no, a conversation or interrogations would have been far too tedious – so how should we move forward? By forcing the husband to prove his ability to have an erection. Before witnesses. In court.
The team of experts that would examine the accused included priests, surgeons, and midwives. “These learned observers would carefully examine his equipment to reach an opinion on its “elastic tension” and “natural motion,” before demanding “proof of ejaculation.”” Now, many would argue that this is an unfair and potentially impossible act, as this sort of pressure could make even the most virile man lose his nerve. According to Perrottet, there are records of one humiliated man telling his examiners, “Just looking at you makes me shrivel!”
Even more horrifying for the accused, the proceedings would become public knowledge, thereby exposing the husband to the shame of losing his wife – and his reputation – in one fell swoop.
There was only one recourse available to the poor gentleman that failed the test: he could demand a ‘Trial by Congress’, in which he and his wife would copulate in front of the team of experts in an agreed upon, neutral location, thereby proving his ability to perform before the court. With the midwives located directly next to the pillows and the male surgeons and priests hiding discreetly (discreetly!) behind a partition, the man would be judged on penetration and whether or not his “emissions” were “suitable.” One can only imagine how uncomfortable this rendezvous must have been.
Aside from being a genuinely fascinating moment in history, the implications of the Catholic church giving so much power to women, let alone the women of the time, is nothing short of remarkable. Here they wanted to preserve the sanctity of marriage and to reserve it for procreation, but in reality, they offered wives a way to escape an unhappy relationship without the risk of destroying her own reputation. It was essentially the only way for her to obtain freedom without consequences.
Again, I cannot stress enough how Tony Perrottet’s research and writings have entirely influenced this piece, and urge you to check out his delightful and fascinating books.
Apologies for the quality of the scan, but consider this the first of many doodles by yours truly!