Sexual impotence has been a problem since at least the beginnings of recorded history and, since then, people have been striving to cure it. However, the cultural meanings of impotence, (why it matters) and even its definitions, vary wildly over time and space. In Sarah Handley-Cousins’s new book Bodies in Blue, she recounts the stories of Civil War veterans with uro-genital injuries. She describes the non-visible disabilities they experienced, the sexual dysfunction they suffered, and how these realities shaped their performance of masculinity in postbellum American society. In honor of her book’s release, this week’s episode will, with vast chronological and geographical boundaries, explore the cultural history of impotence.

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Researched by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Produced by Marissa Rhodes, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Marissa: Sexual impotence has been a problem since the beginnings of recorded history and, since then, people have been striving to cure it. However, the cultural meanings of impotence, (why it matters) and even its definitions, vary wildly over time and space. In ancient India, couples dealing with impotence traveled to the temple of the goddess Bahuchara. Bahuchara is best known as the goddess of chastity and fertility or shakti (power). She was believed to give men their “virya” or semen. Even today, couples conduct pilgrimages to her temple looking for help with erectile dysfunction. The Kama Sutra recommends several medicinal concoctions to remedy impotence, to enlarge the penis, and to strengthen an erection. When those remedies fail, the Kama Sutra instructs its readers to build a device to be used in lieu of the penis (yes, instructions on how to build a dildo). In what some historians call “the Western World,” this solution would not fly. The Kama Sutra’s suggestion to use a dildo to give a partner pleasure (when the male member is indisposed) focuses on female pleasure.

Sarah: To some of our listeners, this solution for impotence may seem like it misses the entire point. This is because many of our understandings of sexuality are remnants of those developed in resolutely patriarchal societies subject to Greco-Roman traditions and Abrahamic religions: early modern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. For much of recorded history, these patriarchal societies have understood sex as a penetrative act. For them, sexual penetration was (and still is) an imperative. This understanding of sexuality does a few things, (1) it makes female pleasure less relevant to the completion of the act, and (2) it links male sexual performance to his worth as a measure of his masculinity.

Marissa: Childbearing, in addition to the pleasure of one’s partner, gave urgency to the problem of impotence in ancient India. However, for many of us, the cultural meaning of impotence has been shaped (yes by childbirth) but also by men’s emasculating failures to penetrate women with their erections. The problem was, and still is, accompanied by a host of preconceptions and value judgments.

In Sarah Handley-Cousins’s new book Bodies in Blue, she recounts the stories of Civil War veterans with uro-genital injuries. She describes the non-visible disabilities they experienced, the sexual dysfunction they suffered, and how these realities shaped their performance of masculinity in postbellum American society. In honor of her book’s release, this week’s episode will, with vast chronological and geographical boundaries, explore the cultural history of impotence.

I’m Marissa.

And I’m Sarah.

Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Sarah: We want to give a big thank you to all of our Patreon supporters, particularly our Auger and Excavator level patrons: a very special thanks to Danielle, Lauren, Christopher, Colin, Maggie and Peggy! Your generosity will go down in history. Listener, if you are not yet a patron, you can be – just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more.

Marissa: Our current definition of impotence (ie. a loss of sexual power) came into use during the 17th century according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Before that, sexual dysfunction was alluded to using various euphemisms such as a “loss” or “lack” of desire. According to Canadian Historian Angus McLaren (whose history of impotence in Europe served as one important source for this episode), “impotence” could mean any number of things: erectile dysfunction, failure to penetrate a woman’s vagina for mechanical or anatomical reasons, a failure to ejaculate, or a habit of ejaculating prematurely. Does failure to bear a child prove male impotence? Not necessarily. The issue of sexual performance (the act) is confused and conflated with sterility or barrenness (sometimes the consequence of malperformance). Does past fertility exonerate a man accused of impotence? Not necessarily. Impotence could be chronic and permanent or intermittent, and psychological or physiological.

Sarah: Until the advent of sexual modernism (early 20th century), impotence was regarded as a misfortune with much greater and more meaningful consequences than we consider today. A man’s impotence, if it was known, precluded him from making marriages, annulled any marriages he managed to contract, and destroyed his chances of producing progeny to carry on his family name. We see this somewhat in stories of royalty who struggled to beget children. The dynastic fate of patriarchal societies such as those in Europe, the Mediterranean, and East Asia rested on a man’s ability to produce male heirs. (Though to be fair in most cases the woman was perceived to be at fault.)

Marissa: In Mesopotamia in the 7th Century BCE, men resorted to incantations and root medicine to resolve sexual problems. Ancient  Mesopotamian medical authorities were called Asipu. They practiced a combination of science, witchcraft, religion, and herbology. We have evidence that they treated incontinence and other uro-genital dysfunction but some historians believe they acted as sex therapists as well. Asipu were known to massage iron extracts and medicinal oils onto both male and female genitals in order to cure impotence.

Sarah: JoAnn Scurlock and Burton Andersen argue that ancient Mesopotamians used medical marijuana to treat depression and nausea but also to remedy impotence. They burned the plant in a hooded brazier and instructed patients to breath in the marijuana smoke. Just as they do today, ancient practitioners experimented with several remedies. One Asipu medical text read: “… if a man loses his potency, you dry and crush a male bat that is ready to mate, you put it in water which has sat out on the roof and you give it to him to drink; the man will then recover his potency… .” Though historians are still hard at work uncovering the uro-genital medical history of Mesopotamia, we know very little about the cultural meaning of impotence. 

Marissa: Conversely, we know a lot about the cultural meaning of impotence in the ancient Mediterranean. The documentary evidence that survives from classical Greece, Phoenicia, Iran, Carthage, and, later, Rome dwarfs what we have for earlier civilizations. Our comparative familiarity with these cultures (plus the fact that Christianity was established in the area) are two reasons why so many scholars regard the Greco-Roman tradition as the parent civilization of Europe (calling it the “Western World”- once again we have doubts). To be fair, classical Greeks and Romans did seem to understand male virility in much the same way as we do today.

Sarah: Greek notions of masculinity are familiar to us. The ideal man was vigorous and passionate but his tempestuousness was supposed to be tempered by a rational willpower. They did, famously, make space for casual homosexual and pedophilic relationships that, in today’s sexual paradigm, might injure their masculinity. The Greco-Roman tradition was an embodied one. Social-emotional ideals were projected onto the body in a way that seems somewhat crude to us now. For example, the Greeks preferred the aesthetic of small penises because felt that a small penis embodied the perfect combination of virility and rationality. They also believed that small penises were ideal for conception. Large phalluses were evil, ugly, and comical.

Marissa: This sexual attitude did not survive into the Roman Empire. Romans preferred large, erect penises, decorating with ceremonial phalluses and hosting celebrations for boys’ first ejaculations. Roman authors bemoaned the humiliation and frustration tied to male sexual performance. In Roman society, the ideal man was aggressive and virile, but also authoritative, eloquent, and skilled at self-mastery. Roman men strove to appear strong and active at all times. Gender was performative. Male babies were born with penises but they had to prove their masculinity by performing masculine activities and achieving masculine ideals.

Sarah: Roman literature enhanced and reinforced this masculine culture. To Roman authors (and to a lesser extent their Greek forebears), penetration defined success, and impotence (or flaccidity) defined failure. Angus McLaren argues that masculinity became synonymous with the “impenetrable penetrator.” Not only did penetration make one a man, but the act of being penetrated made one LESS of a man. McLaren suggests that this is tied to the Romans’ inequitable social system. Patrician men had access to plebian servants and slaves and so were able to make their sexual wills known, and satisfied.

It followed logically (to them) that only servants and slaves could be made to perform felatio or be penetrated by another man. Therefore, sexual impotence became inextricably linked to political impotence and a loss of social capital. Therefore when Romans criticized their enemies, they called them “soft.” The Romans were also particularly skilled at martial analogies. They referred to the penis as a tool or weapon used by soldiers to conquer the seas, defeat their enemies, and to enjoy the spoils (ie. “rape and pillage”).

Marissa: Though sometimes it was the Persians, women were often cast as “the enemy” in this sexual play. Physicians, politicians, literati, and most learned Greco-Roman philosophers contended that the female sex was defective. Women were prone to pathological arousal, with libidos that remained uncontrolled by their tiny, incompetent brains. The science of the sex act itself reinforced this belief by confirming that when men and women engaged in intercourse, the womb sucked heat (a life force) from her partner. This, they reasoned, was why sexually promiscuous men and the elderly experiences sexual dysfunction, they were tapped out.

Sarah: This misogynist understanding of sexuality was, for ancient men, a double-edged sword. Men were the aggressive actors and women were nothing but mere vessels. We see this in Greek theories of generation (which were then borrowed by the Romans). Aeschylus wrote: “She who is called the mother is not her offspring’s Parent, but nurse to the newly sewn embryo. The male– who mounts– begets. The female, a stranger, guards a stranger’s child if no god bring him harm.” But with great power comes great responsibility. It was a man’s responsibility to successfully perform the sex act and it was his seed that determined conception. This did not, of course, absolve women from any culpability for barrenness BUT it did mean that Greco-Roman societies marked the male as the active ingredient in conception so when sexual dysfunction or sterility plagued a relationship, the ultimate responsibility was his.

Marissa: This was no small feat. Marrying and producing a male heir were essential to legal, social and political well-being. This, as you can imagine, spawned countless medical investigations into the causes and treatments for impotence. Natural scientists developed herbal and nutritional cures for ingestion and topical application. In fact, male heirs were so crucial that, given the lack of a magical cure for impotence and sterility, adoption was used to remedy reproductive failures.

Sarah: While the Romans struggled to maintain their overgrown empire in the 280s CE, the Chinese were making great strides in the study of sexuality. The Chinese were arguably the inventors of what some now call sexology. This was, in part, due to the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE which triggered what was called the Three Kingdoms period. During this time, three Chinese dynasties competed for ascendancy to a unified throne. The northern dynasty, the Wei, recognized Taoism (by then nearly a millennium old) as the official state religion. From this point until the end of the Tang Dynasty (c. 907 CE), Chinese Taoists developed the fángzhōngshù (translates to ‘arts of the bedchamber’.)

Marissa: During this period, the Chinese developed and recorded sexual philosophies and practices that came to be censored during later dynasties. Fun fact: they invented kegels. Taoists regarded semen as the bodily fluid that contained the most essence (or Jing). They encouraged believers to conserve their semen (very similar to 19th-century American sexual advice) or, more compellingly, to redirect the essence toward their brains. They therefore attempted retrograde ejaculation (which is the reflux of ejaculate into the bladder) by applying force to the perineum during ejaculation. They believed their essence would (instead of being expelled), travel up their body to nourish their brain.

(Not so fun fact) In the Tao te Ching, male babies are described as the most virile humans possible because they were able to achieve erections without ejaculating and without any exposure to adult sexual practice. This Taoist understanding of male virility is quite different from the Mediterranean understanding we discussed earlier and the European one we will get to soon (and since neither of us are experts in Chinese history, we are offering a generalist’s point of view). But even for a medieval Taoist, erectile dysfunction was a problem. One could not engage in sexual practice (or achieve ejaculation in any form) without maintaining healthy erections. Taoists developed exercises (that are still used today) which are meant to improve virility and stave of male (and female) impotence. The Deer exercise (a prescribed combination of massage and anal contraction) treated male impotence but it was also prescribed to women to prevent menstruation. The Deer exercise is still used to diagnose and cure sexual dysfunction.

Sarah: The practice of Tao sexology waned during the fall of the Tang dynasty (907 CE). Indeed, the arts of the bedchamber underwent successive waves of repression by the next two Chinese dynasties. Still, Chinese physicians absorbed some of the Taoist teachings on sexology. Beyond Taoist teachings, their medical expertise was expansive, easily surpassing that of any other region in Asia. During the 7th-11th centuries, Japanese physicians were sent to China to study Chinese medicine. They compiled a 30-volume medical text called the Ishinho which is known as the earliest Japanese medical text to ever exist though it wasn’t published until the 19th century. According to the Ishinho, impotence was a problem that the Chinese were intent on solving. One centuries-old treatment for impotence was the topical application of a mercury compound to the penis. Another section recommended the combination of five herbal ingredients mixed with rice wine and taken three times per day to resolve erectile dysfunction. According to this recipe, “A Governor of Shu Commandery (in Szechuan) got a child when he was over seventy” by using the enclosed prescription.

Votive male genitalia, Rome ca. 200 BC | Wellcome Collection

Marissa: From the 8th to 12th centuries, Arab and Persian medical scientists such as Ibn Sina, Masoudi, and Al-Zahrawi labored over ancient Indian and Greco-Roman medical texts. Most of the texts had been translated from their original languages in the House of Wisdom, a government-funded Islamic intellectual center in Baghdad opened in the 8th century. Islamic scholars wrote critical commentaries of ancient texts and conducted their own clinical research, adding immeasurably to ancient bodies of knowledge. (This is one of the reasons I object to the term “Western World” because people who use it often exclude the Islamic World from the Western world when, theologically, scientifically, historically, it’s central to the “Western World.” That being said, there was much less cross-over between the regions practicing pagan + Abrahamic religions and East Asian cultures influenced by the Tao, Confucianism, Animism, etc.)

Anyhow, the moral of the story is that the Islamic Translation Movement is responsible for the transmission of Greco-Roman and Indo-Aryan medical knowledge to Christian Europe. Instead of re-hashing what all the ancients thought and what the Persians and Arabs thought about what they thought, I’d like to take a detour for a moment so we can discuss one aspect of impotence that the Persian scholar Masoudi contributed to the conversation- impotence magic (boner curses?). For this, we will have to move to medieval Europe.

Sarah: Impotence magic was not invented in medieval Europe. The Mesopotamian incantations we mentioned earlier in the show were meant to counteract some kind of bewitching. Greek travel writer Herodotus wrote that the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis had been cursed with impotence by his wife and that the curse was only lifted once she prayed to Aphrodite. The Persian Masoudi wrote about it extensively in his medical encyclopedia, Kitab al-Milaki. Constantine the African (purportedly a Christian convert from Islam) translated Masoudi’s medical text into the Pantegni in the 1070s or 1080s.

BUT the dark art of penile curses was perfected in late medieval Western Europe, according to historian Catherine Rider. Part of this comes down to source availability. Impotence was found in some ancient medical texts (as we have discussed already in this episode) but it does not appear in legal documents. This is different from the medieval period where the bulk of historical documentation dealing with impotence is found in court testimonies and legal summaries.

Marissa: Much of this can be attributed to the codification of Christian doctrine during the early middle ages. There is very little documentation of sexuality in the Apostolic (early Christian) Church but by the 6th century CE, Christian sexual morality was beginning to shape legal policy. It was during the reign of Christian Roman Emperor Justinian (r. 526-565 CE) that impotence became grounds for divorce. Prior to that period, mutual divorce was legal so there was no reason for church courts to litigate over sexual dysfunction.

There was, initially, very little differentiation between love magic and impotence magic. For much of the medieval period, ordinary people failed to differentiate between love spells and impotence spells, since either could result in the dissolution of a marriage. Christian theologians discussed impotence as it related to Christian doctrine but their conclusions were contradictory.  Hincmar, the Frankish archbishop of Reims, believed that impotence was a legitimate reason for the annulment of a marriage. Pope Gregory II (his contemporary) agreed.

Sarah: In the 720s, Gregory wrote that in the case of impotence within marriage, the couple should remain married and live together as brother and sister but that they should not be punished if they felt they could not live with this solution. They should be allowed to dissolve the marriage. Gregory, however, specified that the impotent spouse (almost always the male but in some cases a woman who was unable to perform the sex act for one reason or another) should not be allowed, by ecclesiastical law, to remarry.

Hincmar disagreed, arguing that both spouses should be allowed to remarry after the dissolution of a marriage on the grounds of impotence. Should the impotent spouse prove to be capable of the sex act at a later date, Hincmar argued that the marriage dissolution should stand while Pope Gregory II argued that the first marriage should be reconstituted. Gregory reasoned that the marriage annulment would have been faulty in the first place if the impotence was not permanent. Gregory’s theology, when it was enforced in ecclesiastical courts or codified into civil law, gave the impotent few choices. He was unable to legally marry (which brought both companionship and legal benefits), and unable to sire legitimate children (which gave life meaning but also allowed for the concentration of property by notable families.)

Marissa: As missionaries spread Christian doctrine, however, the evil, idolatrous nature of pagan practices was continually preached and reinforced. By 1100 CE or so, it was imperative that pagan practices be categorized as either harmless (and be absorbed into the fabric of Christendom), or evil (in which case it was suppressed.) Impotence magic was categorized as  irrefutably evil- maleficium. 

Sarah: Initially, though, these theological spats meant little for the every-day lives of ordinary European Christians. Guibert of Nogent, a Benedictine monk in the 11-teens, wrote of his father’s 7-year-long impotence due to an impotence spell. Guibert’s father had purportedly upset a local woman with his choice of wife. She had suggested her niece as a match but he chose to marry Guibert’s mother instead. In revenge, she cursed him with impotence for the period of 7 years. Guibert  wrote: “these arts are so frequently practiced among the populace, that they are known by all uneducated people.” There was regional disagreement on how impotence magic should be dealt with in Catholic ecclesiastical courts. While French ecclesiastical courts annulled marriages on the grounds of “impotence by maleficium,” Roman Catholic Church courts did not.

Marissa: As the Christian canon hardened and ecclesiastical courts exercised their authority over Western Europe, both ordinary people AND church authorities became preoccupied with impotence magic. Catherine Rider writes that after 1100, impotence magic was legitimized by the three university disciplines that acknowledged its presence and made impotence magic subject of serious inquiry: canon law, theology, and medicine. At the same time, the laity’s concern over impotence magic is documented in pastoral manuals (which instructed priests on how to counsel the laity), but also in hagiographies and narrative histories. Rider argues convincingly that impotence magic acts as a nexus between popular culture and academic culture in medieval Europe.

Sarah: It does appear that canon law and theology mingled meaningfully with popular pagan tradition during this time. The following story, recorded in Rider’s monograph, was originally told in 1216. “It happened once in Paris that a certain sorceress impeded a man who had left her so that he could not have intercourse with another woman whom he had married. So she made an incantation over a closed lock and threw that lock into a well, and the key into another well, and the man was made impotent. But afterwards, when the sorceress was forced to acknowledge the truth, the lock was retrieved from the one well and the key from the other, and as soon as the lock was opened, the man became able to have intercourse with his wife.”

Marissa: This portrayal of impotence magic became increasingly compelling to medieval Europeans. At the same time, Christian demonology and the mythology surrounding witchcraft grew exponentially more complex. The early medieval disdain for pagan ritual was transforming into full-blown ecclesiastical paranoia. Rather than follow the pagan/Christian canonical framework of earlier claims of impotence magic, later medieval and early modern narratives of impotence magic relied on contemporary demonology and heterodox Christian doctrine concerning witchcraft. Parisian physician Jacques Despars wrote in 1427: “I know a certain count who said to a newly-married knight, “You see this strap?” He replied that he did. The count said to him, ” I will tie it and until I untie it, you will not be able to have intercourse with your wife completely.” This happened, as the knight swore to me and to others, although he was sexually very potent and his wife was beautiful and full of energy and twenty years old.”

The tying of knots- known as the aiguillette- was a prominent aspect of the new doctrines on early modern witchcraft. In 1486, inquisitor Heinrich Kramer and Dominican friar Jacob Sprenger wrote Malleus Maleficarum, a text that reinforced the growing conception of the devil-worshipping witch and aroused witchcraft paranoia on a massive scale. Witchcraft trials (in contiental Europe, Britain, and the American colonies) peaked from 1560-1630. An estimated 50,000 people were burned at the stake or, in America, hanged. Impotence magic was an important aspect of early modern witchcraft. Witchcraft hysteria followed two models. It either (1) arose to explain misfortune — such as impotence, sour milk, storms, etc., OR (2) was based on entirely fabricated, fantastical events that never happened. Impotence was thus, complicit in triggering and legitimizing witchcraft hysteria.

Sarah: Kramer and Sprenger drew heavily on Thomas Aquinas’s and St. Bonaventure’s treatises on impotence magic. They wrote, “men are very often bewitched in this way because they have cast off their former mistress, who, hoping that they were to be married and being disappointed, so bewitch the men that they cannot copulate with another woman.” Kramer and Sprenger described how one can know whether their impotence had natural causes or whether it was a result of witchcraft. They borrow from Italian canonist Henry of Segusio: “When the member is in no way stirred, and can never perform the act of coition, this is a sign of frigidity of nature; but when it is stirred and becomes erect, but yet cannot perform, it is a sign of witchcraft.”

Marissa: Kramer and Sprenger also propose solutions for how to handle impotence magic in ecclesiastical courts and within the confessional. In courts, they suggest that it should be ascertained if the impotence curse is permanent or temporary. If temporary (by their definition, which involves constant experimentation for the course of three years to no avail) the marriage is not dissolvable. If three years have passed and the impotent party has done all they can to reverse the condition to no avail, then the marriage should be dissolved by the church. 

Sarah: As Kramer and Sprenger suggested, the Church supported any remedy for impotence by maleficium- even if the remedy was something that went against Church doctrine: “the Church may well tolerate the suppression of vanities by means of other vanities.” Ecclesiastical authorities encouraged medical experimentation on this front. Indeed, the European Renaissance drew heavily on Persian and Arab scholarship of the non-magical variety. It was Islamic translations of Aristotle and Galen that served as the basis for anatomical study of the 16th century. (Which we’ve covered in our forensic pathology episode a bit.) The sixteenth century witnessed the birth of the fields of embryology, obstetrics, and gynecology (see what I did there?) so impotence continued to be of interest to medical scientists. At the same time, the Protestant Reformation triggered tomes of theology about marriage (Remember: major protest was that priests should be able to marry and that married life was just as holy as abstinent lives). The Protestant Reformation revived the legal battles waged in ecclesiastical, and now criminal and civil courts, regarding the legality of marriages suffering from impotence.

Marissa: The medical, religious, and legal problems surrounding sexual impotence were played out on the national stage in the 16th and 17th centuries, owing to the unification of most European states (except Italy and Germany) under powerful, centralized monarchies (except the Swiss Confederacy). In this period, the virility of European monarchs was a civic matter. Queens were often suspected of spoiling royal bloodlines by committing adultery or, in the case of Queen Mary of Modesta (wife of England’s James II), they were suspected of having put a changeling on the throne to disguise their own barrenness.

Sarah: The specter of impotence, however, haunted Kings as well. An inability to sire children could result in courtly rumor, but also political unrest and diplomatic nightmares. Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici are thought to have experienced sexual dysfunction. They failed to produce an heir for nearly eleven years into their marriage despite reports that they engaged in dutiful intercourse. Catherine was initially accused of barrenness, especially by those who did not know the King intimately. He had conducted several affairs and sired an illegitimate child from one of those unions. At court, however, his genital abnormalities were an open secret. His doctor had diagnosed him with a congenital defect of the penis. He had two conditions we now call hypospadias and chordee which hampered the mechanics of conception, at least with Catherine. Once Henry consulted a physician on the matter, he was instructed to penetrate his wife from behind (rather than the customary missionary style) and they went on to beget 10 legitimate children.

Marissa: Their son Henry III was suspected of impotence. His 14-year marriage to Louise of Lorraine produced no children. His enemies accused him of buggery (sodomy) with a contingent of young men who came to be called his mignons. Some historians have decoded their marital sterility and the presence of the mignons as proof of his sexual preference for men. Suspicions of impotence could easily spill over into accusations of sodomy or effeminacy. These sins/crimes were dangerous for monarchs if they faced the social and political pressures faced by Henry III. Henry III was the fourth son of Henry II and Catherine de Medici. His eldest brother Francis II had died young (the husband of Mary, Queen of Scots). The next brother died as an infant and his brother Charles IX, who ordered the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, died without a male heir. Henry III’s inability to produce an heir led to a civil war and succession crisis called the War of the Three Henrys. So for Henry III, his sexual impotence, whether it was medical or due to a profoundly inflexible sexual preference, resulted in the political impotence of the French crown. (It won’t be the last time for France, but more on that below.)

Sarah: Henry VIII of England is suspected to have suffered from intermittent impotence, especially in the last years of his life. Some instances have been proven to be part of the courtly machinations surrounding his 6 ill-fated marriages but in at least one instance, Henry VIII admitted to his inability to perform, though he shifted the blame to his new wife Anne of Cleves. He told his minister Thomas Cromwell, he had done “as much to move the consent of his heart and mind as ever man did” but he failed to have intercourse with the Queen because he, he says, he found her body disgusting.

Hans Eworth, Henry VIII, 1537-1547 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: He also tried to shift the blame for his impotence on Anne of Cleves in another way, by doubting her virginity. According to Cromwell “he mistrusted her to be no maid, by reason of the looseness of her breasts and other tokens, which, when he felt them, struck him so to the heart that he had neither will nor courage to prove the rest [and] left her as good a maid as he found her.” The three physicians Henry consulted about his impotence with Anne secretly suspected he was unwell but most historians believe he purposely avoided consummating the marriage because he had his eye on an annulment. Nonetheless, Henry’s ability to perform was hotly contested at court, especially since he went on to annul his marriage to Anne and marry twice more without issue.

Sarah: The impotence of Charles II of Spain was broadcast after his death and subsequent autopsy in 1700. (We mentioned him in the first episode in our Eugenics series because his life and death ignited an interest in human heredity.) Charles II’s atrophied testicles were used to demonstrate the unfortunate consequences of Hapsburg inbreeding (aka hereditary monarchy). Charles II’s disabilities (including his impotence) were marshalled as proof by republican revolutionaries and other anti-monarchical groups that monarchies were unnatural and tyrannical. Opponents of monarchy conjured images of a hypothetical mad, monstrous, and impotent tyrant that ruled his kingdom without the benefits of bodily health and learned reason. 

Marissa: Similarly to Henry III of France whose impotence launched the War of the Three Henrys, the purported impotence of Louis XVI of France is often interpreted as having launched a revolution. Louis XVI was feared impotent after his marriage to Marie Antoinette initially failed to produce heirs. It took seven years of marriage for the couple to conceive a child. Historians have squabled over the cause of Louis XVI’s impotence. He was known to have overly tight foreskin (phimosis) and it is unclear if he underwent an operation to correct it. Phimosis is common in adolescence and can cause painful erections. Louis was merely 15 when he married Marie Antoinette. His youth may have also contributed to his naivete and immaturity. After a discussion with Louis, his brother-in-law, Emperor Joseph II of Austria, called the couple “two complete blunderers.”

Sarah: According to Joseph, Louis and his new wife had no idea how to have sex: “He has strong erections, he inserts his member, remains there for perhaps two minutes without moving, withdraws without ejaculating, and while still erect, bids good night.” Regarding Louis’s level of sexual desire, Joseph writes, “He’s satisfied, saying he does it only out of a sense of duty but has no desire for it.” This comment, paired with the fact that Louis XVI was the only French monarch without a mistress, has led historians to conclude that Louis may have suffered from hypogonadism. After taking the advice of his confidantes, the couple were able to conceive several children. But for French subjects, the damage had already been done.

Marissa: Louis XVI’s predecessor and grandfather, the womanizing Louis XV had angered French notables when he ceded political power to his mistresses. Though Louis XV and XVI could not have been more different men, the younger Louis’s impotence, his lack of sexual prowess (in short, his bumbling inability to penetrate his wife) revived French subjects’ displeasure with the monarchy. Critics called the monarchy impotent, effeminate, corrupt, and ineffective. Political pamphlets depicting Louis XVI as a flaccid penis or as a humanoid penis with a defective glans circulated around the capital. The cultural meaning of impotence for French subjects came to be conflated with disquiet caused by widespread hunger, political corruption, and hereditary tax exemption.

Sarah: And yes, this REALLY matters to people. French historians and authors are still arguing bitterly about Louis and Marie Antionette’s sexual dysfunction. Author Simone Bertière, for example, has argued that historians have gotten the couple all wrong. Bertière argues that no, Louis was not a foppish, effeminate, and sexually incompetent king. She claims that most evidence suggests Louis XVI had a very large penis and that Marie Antoinette had a very narrow vagina and that their sexual dysfunction was a matter of mere incompatibility. It is tempting to conclude that French authors are anxious to rehabilitate Louis XVI’s masculinity retroactively.

Marissa: In the 1980s, historian Pierre Darmon wrote a scathing book criticizing France’s celibate clergy for engineering impotence trials in the 17th- and early-18th-centuries. The English edition is titled Damning the Innocent and His language is so strong that I honestly thought it was satire at first: “This book therefore relates the strange and little-known story of all those individuals who, because of a supposedly deficient sexuality, found themselves dragged before the courts and offered up as random to the age-old myth of virility. Their story is a pitiful drama of loneliness and silence, a timeless drama which persists in some ways to the present day…. the individual accused of impotence was a defenceless victim, crushed in the wheels of indifferent legal and ecclesiastical machinery… it was only a matter of time before he found himself condemned, openly despised and relegated to the ghetto of the morally reprobate.”

Sarah: Of the celibate clergy who committed these atrocities, Darmon suggests, “at some level they were perhaps acting out the same drama of inadequacy as their victims.” Darmon goes on to analyze extensive documentation of impotence trials in pre-revolutionary France. He accuses the ecclesiastical courts of voyeurism, and argues that the French Revolution emancipated impotent men from the jealous vagaries of the celibate clergy. While, I see his point, I tend to think this kind of argument has not aged well. It casts the Ancien Régime as dogmatic, tyrannical, and cruel, all stereotypes developed by whiggish historians who heralded the French Revolution as a triumph of republican ideology.

Marissa: Still, Darmon’s book is very well-researched and presents many anecdotes from impotence trials such as instances when men we required to work up an erection in court, sometimes they were made to ejaculate in court to disprove their purported impotence. Others admitted to impotence and lived lives as outcasts (according to Darmon). Most importantly for us, Darmon’s book reinforces the idea that male impotence was an important aspect of early modern communal life and that historical impotence has social, religious and political implications for us- still matters to us today.

Sarah: Americans also play this game. Let’s consider the role of impotence in the stories that Americans tell themselves about George Washington. While Louis XVI’s impotence is regarded as central to the destruction of the French monarchy, Americans, in some ways, embrace George Washington’s presumed impotence. As the first President of the new republic, Washington’s impotence is sometimes reframed as a symbolic blessing. His inability to father his own children allowed him to act as father of the fledgling United States of America.

Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, 1797 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Historian Thomas A. Foster (in Nursing Clio) has pointed out that, yes Washington’s purported impotence was important to his biographers and to generations of historians since his death BUT Foster points out that this was only so that they could issue denials of impotence. Author Marcus Cunliffe wrote in the 1950s: “There is nothing in his behavior… to suggest that he was impotent, or that his sexual nature caused him any deep uneasiness.” Historian and journalist Willard Sterne Randall wrote in the 1990s that Washington was “mystified why, year after year, he and Martha could produce no Washington heir.”

Sarah: Even physicians are getting in on this. Medical doctor and Professor of Medicine John K. Amory published an article in the medical journal Fertility and Sterility in 2004 that discussed Washington’s inability to father a child. Amory wrote that Washington was unlikely to be impotent because he was a “healthy, vigorous man.” Amory also denied the possibility that Washington could have been made infertile by a sexually transmitted disease, a problem of epidemic proportions at the time. Amory dismisses this possibility, citing Washington’s “character and strong sense of moral propriety.” Amory also ruled out the possibility that Washington and Martha failed to conceive by chance because their sexual relations were too infrequent to guarantee conception: “Inadequate sexual frequency is theoretically possible but unlikely because Washington’s relationship with Martha was intimate, and as a farmer and expert mule breeder he was certainly well aware of the necessary means!”

Foster smartly suggests that for Americans, an impotent Founding Father is problematic but that biographers and historians have found a way to masculinize him nonetheless:

“In the absence of documentation, Americans have conceded that their virile Founding Father may have been infertile but impotence is beyond the pale. Sexualized manhood has long been predicated on the ability to penetrate. On the scale of emasculating sexual deficiencies, sterility ranks slightly lower than impotence.”

Marissa: This leads us, finally, to impotence in the 19th century, a topic close to Sarah’s heart. In antebellum America, sexual impotence became a private matter. This is entirely different from the instances of impotence we’ve discussed in the ancient, medieval, and early modern contexts. Erik Seeman, Professor at UB, told me about a find in the archive that I have mentioned on the show before. He was studying documents from 17th century colonial America and read about an encounter between a man in his neighbor as they chatted casually in the field. The man confided in his neighbor that he’d recently struggled to maintain an erection. In response, the neighbor said, “Let me see.” The man pulled out his penis and attempted to work up an erection to no avail. He and his neighbor continued to trouble-shoot. When I described this encounter to my History of Sexuality class and asked them what they thought, several of them said, without hesitation, “Gay!” This is a good anecdote to convey how differently medieval and early modern people conceived of sexual privacy. But it also reminds us that in the seventeenth century, impotence was not only a personal problem but a communal problem, one that everyone took interest in as they tried to preserve the health and order of the body politic. 

Show Notes

McLaren, Angus. Impotence: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). 

Matthews-Grieco, Sara F., Ed. Cuckoldry, impotence and Adultery in Europe (London: Routledge, 2018).

Foster,Thomas A. “George Washington’s Bodies,” Nursing Clio, https://nursingclio.org/2014/03/20/george-washingtons-bodies/

Gordetsky J, R Rabinowitz, and J O’Brien. “The “Infertility” of Catherine De Medici and Its Influence on 16th Century France”. The Canadian Journal of Urology 16 (2009): 4584-8.

Rider, Catherine. Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008.

García-Escudero López, Ángel, Arruza Echevarría A, Padilla Nieva and R. Puig Giró, Padilla Vātsyāyana, and Richard Francis Burton. The Kama Sutra The Classic Hindu Treatise on Love and Social Conduct. New York: Dutton, 1962.

Bajada, Joseph. Sexual Impotence: The Contribution of Paolo Zacchia (1584-1659). Roma: Ed. Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 1988.

Fogg, Ryan N., and Stephen A. Boorjian. 2010. “The Sexual Dysfunction of Louis XVI: A Consequence of International Politics, Anatomy, or Naiveté?” BJU International 106, no. 4: 457-459.

Darmon, Pierre. Damning the Innocent: A History of the Persecutions of the Impotent in Pre-Revolutionary France. New York: Viking, 1999.


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