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Erectile dysfunction in the Middle Ages – cases from 14th century York

Medieval female physician – From an early 15th century English manuscript

Like today, the problem of male impotence in the Middle Ages was often serious, and had important consequences for marriages and families. A recent article deals with the issue, explaining how it showed up in court cases in 14th century York.

‘Privates on Parade: Impotence Cases as Evidence for Medieval Gender’, by Frederick Pederson, a senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, analyses two cases where wives attempted to annul their marriages because they claimed their husbands were impotent. They are among six cases from the city’s records that deal with impotence that survive from the Middle Ages.

These cases were adjudicated in ecclesiastical courts, also known as consistory courts, where decisions were based on canon law. Church officials were responsible for issues relating to marriages and could pronounce an annulment in cases of impotence.

Pederson notes that in the English cases the court would call upon a number of ‘honest women’ to perform a physical examination of the alleged erectile dysfunction. For example, in the case between Tedia Lambhird and John Sanderson, which dates from 1370, three women were charged with doing a physical examination of John, and reported back to the court:

that the member of the said John is like an empty intestine of mottled skin and it does not have any flesh in it, nor veins in the skin, and the middle of its front is totally black. And said witness stroked it with her hands and put it in semen and having thus been stroked and put in that place it neither expanded nor grew. Asked if he has a scrotum with testicles she says that he has the skin of a scrotum, but the testicles do not hang in the scrotum but are connected with the skin as is the case among young infants.

Within a few days of this testimony the court annulled the marriage. In another case from two years earlier, Katherine Paynel took her husband of four years, Nicholas Cantilupe, to court to annul their marriage. Although the court called upon Nicholas to be physically examined, the husband went into hiding. He may have realized that examination would have not gone well, for several witnesses were produced to say that they were aware of his impotence problems.

One witness, Thomas Waus, told the court that Katherine had sworn:

That she often tried to find the place of the said Nicholas’ genitals with her hands when she lay in bed with said Nicholas and he was asleep, and that she could not stroke nor find anything there and that the place in which Nicholas’ genitals ought be is as flat as the hand of a man.

Pederson believes that the court testimony shows that both Sanderson and Cantilupe were suffering from separate and rare medical problems that are known as hypospadias in John’s case, and congenital adrenal hyperplasia with Nicholas.

The article notes the difficulties that historians have interpreting the evidence from these ecclesiastical records. Pederson comments that “the interpretation of these unusual cases is a task that must be approached with an open mind, a willingness to accept the prejudices and superstitions of the past as real motivators instead of indicating the existence of a thick smoke-screen which obscures the ‘real’ (and decidedly twentieth-century) fears and phobias, and a sound knowledge of the contemporary culture and the legal framework that produced the sources that survive today. Only if the historian can avoid imposing his or her own prejudices on the sources and base his or her analysis on a reading of the cases in their entirety can we hope to uncover what thoughts and assumptions that lie behind the processes of medieval ecclesiastical courts.”

Pederson has continued his research on this issue, and last month gave a paper at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds entitled ‘Murder, Mayhem and a very small Penis’ which examines how the dispute between Nicholas Cantilupe and Katherine Paynel would lead to the murder of Nicholas’ brother William in 1375.

‘Privates on Parade: Impotence Cases as Evidence for Medieval Gender’, appears in Law and Private Life in the Middle Ages: Proceedings of the Sixth C..., which was published by DJOF Publishing in Denmark

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