A rich King’s Treasurer, Etienne de Bray was married to Marie de Corbie, who had very little dowry except for her youth and her charms.
After twenty-seven months of union, the young wife demanded the dissolution of the marriage which, she said, had not been consummated.
The parties were therefore ordered to submit to a visit.
The husband was recognized to have a slight defect in his sexual conformation, but which did not render him inapt to perform his duties.
As for the wife, the matrons declared that she was “corrupted”, that is to say that she had lost her virginity, but they were unable to decide if it was “by the natural work of man or by extension done by something violent”.
Interrogated, Marie de Corbie affirmed that she was a virgin, that her husband had only “touched her with his fingers” and, at other times “had forced her with a metal object or something similar until she bled”.
Etienne de Bray upheld that he had succeeded – with difficulty, he admitted – after six weeks, but that his wife had “then experienced that he was a natural man four or five times the said night and others subsequent”. He asked for a delay of three years to refute the accusation brought against him. And he was ready to accept the test of the congress, if necessary.
By sentence of the 4 July 1578, the test was ordered and, as a special favour, Bray was allowed to make several attempts.
The plaintiff’s lawyer revealed during the debates which followed:
“At the first attempt of this congress, he was so drugged and had taken so much medicine and drugs, that it was impossible to stop him urinating and he had to be sent away to be treated against the drugs which he had excessively taken.”
In other words, he had absorbed an energetic aphrodisiac, probably cantharides, and the usual symptoms of intoxication by this product, of such delicate manipulation, had manifested themselves.
He claimed a second try, which ended as badly as the first.
Refusing to admit defeat, he tried again. But the experts came to the same conclusion. He was offered another attempt, on the condition that it was “in a fairly short delay”. He declared this time to have been beaten, and laid down his arms.
Far from taking it all philosophically, he proclaimed that the experts were idiots or dishonest; that the matrons had all recognized that his wife was no longer intacta virgo and that the marriage had really been consummated. The order was nevertheless published in favour of the young wife, who was authorised to re-marry.
It was during this case, that the legal experts took sides for or against the congress. The defender of Etienne de Bray, Francois Hotman, rose vehemently against this archaic institution, invented, he said, to “moderate the wives’ complaints”, and which only served to fortify them in their pretensions. Weren’t they the ones who claimed the test with the most insistence, “knowing all of them that this is the most indubitable way to win their case”? For,
“whatever assurance any man can promise himself (if he isn’t as brutal and impudent as a dog) he will confess (if he wishes to well consider it to himself without passion) that it is not in his power to appear capable of marriage, in the presence of the justice that he respects, in front of doctors, surgeons and matrons that he fears, and with a wife that he holds to be his enemy, in view of the fact that such actions require assurance, secrecy and friendship.”
The Angevin Tagereau also wrote a work filled with the spiciest details, where he too demands the abolition of this practice, “more pernicious than profitable”.
The congress also had its defenders. Etienne Pasquier, author of Recherches de la France, tried to establish that the congress was, in an affair of impotence, “the greatest test there was and can ever be”.
A lawyer from Melun, Sebastien Rouillard, pronounced a plea before some commissionaries of the Holy See, named by the Pope, to judge as a last resort a case of impotence, in which the wife had won a first time before the Official of Sens.
The congress was conserved in canonical jurisprudence for nearly a century. From time to time, some courageous lawmen attacked it with indignation, publicly demanding its suppression. But it took another case, of great publicity, to give the final blow to this old institution.
It had already been in decline for some time. A member of the Academy had wanted to exclude the word “Congress” from the Dictionary and, to justify this ban wrote:
“Congress comes from Congressus, but because it has a very different meaning in French, and that this can be equivocal, it does not appear that other assemblies would want to take the name in the future.”
As luck would have it, this same gentleman, an occasional diplomat, was charged precisely with representing France at a congress, thereby consecrating the word that he had wanted to exclude.
We shall continue next time with the widely publicised case which brought about the end of the congress for impotence.