Towards the middle of the XVIth Century, the “congress” is inaugurated. What exactly is meant by this word?
A lexicographer from the beginning of the XVIIIth Century defined the congress as the “charnal coupling of the man and the woman, ordered by decision of the Court”.
The dictionary of the Jesuit fathers, by Trevoux gives another definition.
“The test of potence or impotence of married people, formerly ordered by justice and which took place in the presence of surgeons and matrons, on the occasions which concerned the nullity of a marriage for cause of impotence: Congressus.”
According to President Bouhier, who wrote in favour of this institution, the congress was already in vigour in the XIVth Century, and he cites many canonists who mention an inspection by matrons during “the charnal coupling of the man and the woman”, and the decision of the judge relying on their declarations.
Zacchias, papal doctor, reports several decisions of the Roman Rota, which ordered the congress, or a test which was very much like it, when, after examination of the man accused of impotence, there remained any doubt in the minds of the medical experts.
But this canonical jurisprudence, while being accepted and approved for a long time in Italy, did not penetrate France before the middle of the XVIth Century. It was only able to be installed because of the moral corruption of the court.
It was around 1540 that the congress appeared for the first time in France. This date is furnished by an eminent legal expert, Anne Robert, who points to the declaration of a contemporary writer, the author of the famous De la dissolution pour l’impuissance et froideur de l’homme et de la femme, Hotman.
“The argument taken to authorise the congress because of past practice, cannot be traced back more than thirty or thirty-five years.”
Hotman’s treatise is dated 1578, which would take us back to 1548 or 1543.
Vincent Tagereau, to whom we owe a Discours sur l’impuissance de l’homme et de la femme, which is often quoted, and was published in 1611, traces the introduction of the congress into the code of the officialities and the jurisprudence of the parliaments to no more than sixty years at his date of writing, which still brings us to the middle of the XVIth Century (1551).
The first case that the congress jurisdiction was given to judge, took place in 1568. But, before the first trial, and after the last one, there had been the “visit” or “visitation”.
This obscene custom goes back to the first days of Christianity. The girls, the nuns accused of impudicity, were submitted to a scrupulous visit, from which the proof of their innocence or culpability was deduced.
A bishop from Verona, who lived around the end of the IVth Century, condemned a nun to suffer this outrageous examination. Saint Ambroise, his metropolitan, disapproved the bishop’s sentence, calling this test indecent. This shows that the odious practice was already being used.
Its use continued through the centuries, and ecclesiastic and civil tribunals often ordered the test. The congress was only an extension of this custom.
Ann Robert describes the visit as it was practised during the whole of the Middle Ages and beyond. The young girl was placed in the position which can be imagined, none of her private parts being covered. Matrons, doctors, surgeons soiled her nudity by their gazes, then proceeded to such manoeuvres, that it was impossible for a virgin not to get through the ordeal without being completely soiled, “being in the power of those who visited her, to report whatever they wanted, virgin or corrupted”.
It is understandable that the judges had some hesitation in ordering this visit, even though it was allowed by both canon law and by the authority of the Fathers of the Church.
In practice, this visit was frequent, even outside of any cases of marriage nullity for cause of impotence. Joan of Arc, upon her arrival at the court of Charles VII from Domremy, having declared that she was a virgin, was, by order of the King, visited by the matrons, who proclaimed her virginity.
This example is far from being an isolated case. The chronicler Froissart, on the occasion of the engagement of Isabeau de Bavaria to King Charles VI, says expressly “that it is the custom in France that any lady, daughter of a high lord that she may be, accepts to be looked at and seen completely naked by the ladies, to know if she is properly formed for bearing children”.
History furnishes many similar examples. One of them is contemporary to the Wars of Religion. The Huguenots held several assemblies in Paris in 1560, and their enemies rushed to spread rumours about the reason for these meetings and what took place there. Catherine de Medicis ordered President de Saint-Andre to open an enquiry.
Two witnesses were found who affirmed that they had attended the meeting of Good Thursday, composed “of a great number of men, women and girls, around midnight”; “after having preached, made their sabbath, eaten a pig instead of the pascal lamb, and the lamp which lighted them, extinguished, each man coupled with a woman”.
They insisted that they recognized several women who were there, among others the wife of a lawyer, whom they named and affirmed to have met with her two beautiful young daughters, whom she prostituted to anyone who wanted them. One of these two false witnesses even declared to have possessed one of them (two or three times, according to him).
The lawyer’s wife, having learnt of the accusations, took her daughters to the Chatelet, and demanded that their purety and their integrity be verified by the experts and the matrons. Theodore de Beze says that the court “had the girls visited by several surgeons, mid-wives, and diverse times. But no visitor, except an old matron, could be found who did not judge them to be intact; and even she could not resolutely assure that they were corrupted by man’s touch, and finally asked their pardon after they were set free, declaring that she had been bribed”.
To be continued.