From the middle of the XVIth Century in France, earlier in Italy, the tribunals could order a congress to verify whether or not a husband was impotent. If found to be so, the marriage could be annulled.
On the appointed day, the husband and wife arrived separately, escorted by family members. However, the families were kept at the door, which was immediately besieged by onlookers. The archers had great difficulty in containing them. Only the spouses were allowed to enter. Judges and experts were already inside, and weren’t supposed to leave the house until the legal act was accomplished.
The official, or his lieutenant, began the ceremony by making the parties swear
“that they would try, in good faith and without dissimulation, to accomplish the marriage act, without bringing any impeachment in one way or another”.
Then, he swore in the experts, who pledged to make
“a faithful report of that which happens at the congress”.
The procurators of the parties and their lawyers were present, as well as the agents of the officiality. Sometimes, the parliament named commissionaries to attend the operations of the congress. However, they did not attend ordinarily, and they retired to a separate chamber from the one where the spouses often obtained the right to remain alone. But, just as often, the experts did not leave this chamber as long as the sitting lasted.
These experts (doctors, surgeons and matrons, chosen and delegated by the tribunal) first proceeded to another visit of the man and the woman, whom they had already visited by order of the official. This visit was to verify that the man had not contracted a venereal disease and that his state of health offered no danger of contagion. As for the wife, visited at the same time, it was to make sure
“that she had not used any astringent remedies to prevent the execution of the congress, and also the state and disposition of her shameful part, not to say of her virginity or corruption”.
In the first edition of his Discours, Tagereau gives a more explicit and less decent precision on the nature of this visit of the woman. He says that the experts’ job was
“to consider the state of the shameful part, and, by this means, to know the difference in its opening and dilatation before and after the congress and if intromission had been made there or not”.
This visit was more or less detailed, according to the instructions given to the experts by the magistrates. Tagereau adds that
“in some cases, the parties are visited naked from the summit of the head down to the soles of the feet in all parts of their bodies, etiam in podice, to find out if there was anything on them which could help or hinder the congress, and the woman is put in a half bath, where she remains for some time”.
This inspection over,
“the man and the woman lie down in full daylight in a bed, the experts present remain in the chamber or retire (if the parties require it, or one of them) into some wardrobe or nearby gallery, the door partly open nonetheless, and as for the matrons, they remain close to the bed. And the curtains being drawn, it is up to the man to try to prove his potence; where often disputes or ridiculous discussions occur: the man complaining that his partner does not want to let him have his way and is preventing the intromission; she denying it and saying that he wants to put his finger in and dilate and open her by this means… “
And the audacious legal expert continues
“at last, the parties having remained for some time in bed, like an hour or two, call the experts, or on their own accord, when they get bored (having had enough of the subject, if sint viri) approach and open the curtains, informing themselves of what has happened between them and visit the woman immediately, to find out if she is more open than at the preceding visit, before she went to bed, and if the intromission has been made, also an facta sit missio, ubi, quid et quale emissum. This is not done without a candle, nor without glasses, for the people who use them in their old age, nor without very dirty and shameful searches and disputes. And they make and draw up their minutes of what has happened at the congress (at least what they know or what they want, that depends on their conscience) that they send to the judge being in the same lodging, in a room or chamber apart, with the procurators and practicians in the Church Court, waiting for the end and the result of this act, which report is always to the disadvantage of the men, for failing to have made the intromission.”
Such is the almost inevitable result of all of these congresses. They serve only to demonstrate the impotence, usually apparent, of the accused husband. All of the jurists who have examined and discussed the question of the congress agree on this point: that this test could only ever result in the husband’s failure.
To be continued.