Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

IMPOTENCE.

I commence by this question, in favor of the impotent —“frigidi et maleficiati,” as they are denominated in the decretals: Is there a physician, or experienced person of any description, who can be certain that a well-formed young man, who has had no children by his wife, may not have them some day or other? Nature may know, but men can tell nothing about it. Since, then, it is impossible to decide that the marriage may not be consummated some time or other, why dissolve it?

Among the Romans, on the suspicion of impotence, a delay of two years was allowed, and in the Novels of Justinian three are required; but if in three years nature may bestow capability, she may equally do so in seven, ten, or twenty.

Those called “maleficiati” by the ancients were often considered bewitched. These charms were very ancient, and as there were some to take away virility, so there were others to restore it; both of which are alluded to in Petronius.

This illusion lasted a long time among us, who exorcised instead of disenchanting; and when exorcism succeeded not, the marriage was dissolved.

The canon law made a great question of impotence. Might a man who was prevented by sorcery from consummating his marriage, after being divorced and having children by a second wife — might such man, on the death of the latter wife, reject the first, should she lay claim to him? All the great canonists decided in the negative — Alexander de Nevo, Andrew Alberic, Turrecremata, Soto, and fifty more.

It is impossible to help admiring the sagacity displayed by the canonists, and above all by the religious of irreproachable manners in their development of the mysteries of sexual intercourse. There is no singularity, however strange, on which they have not treated. They have discussed at length all the cases in which capability may exist at one time or situation, and impotence in another. They have inquired into all the imaginary inventions to assist nature; and with the avowed object of distinguishing that which is allowable from that which is not, have exposed all which ought to remain veiled. It might be said of them: “Nox nocti indicat scientiam.”

Above all, Sanchez has distinguished himself in collecting cases of conscience which the boldest wife would hesitate to submit to the most prudent of matrons. One query leads to another in almost endless succession, until at length a question of the most direct and extraordinary nature is put, as to the manner of the communication of the Holy Ghost with the Virgin Mary.

These extraordinary researches were never made by anybody in the world except theologians; and suits in relation to impotency were unknown until the days of Theodosius.

In the Gospel, divorce is spoken of as allowable for adultery alone. The Jewish law permitted a husband to repudiate a wife who displeased him, without specifying the cause. “If she found no favor in his eyes, that was sufficient.” It is the law of the strongest, and exhibits human nature in its most barbarous garb. The Jewish laws treat not of impotence; it would appear, says a casuist, that God would not permit impotency to exist among a people who were to multiply like the sands on the seashore, and to whom he had sworn to bestow the immense country which lies between the Nile and Euphrates, and, by his prophets, to make lords of the whole earth. To fulfil these divine promises, it was necessary that every honest Jew should be occupied without ceasing in the great work of propagation. There was certainly a curse upon impotency; the time not having then arrived for the devout to make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.

Marriage in the course of time having arrived at the dignity of a sacrament and a mystery, the ecclesiastics insensibly became judges of all which took place between husband and wife, and not only so, but of all which did not take place.

Wives possessed the liberty of presenting a request to be embesognées — such being our Gallic term, although the causes were carried on in Latin. Clerks pleaded and priests pronounced judgment, and the process was uniformly to decide two points — whether the man was bewitched, or the woman wanted another husband.

What appears most extraordinary is that all the canonists agree that a husband whom a spell or charm has rendered impotent, cannot in conscience apply to other charms or magicians to destroy it. This resembles the reasoning of the regularly admitted surgeons, who having the exclusive privilege of spreading a plaster, assure us that we shall certainly die if we allow ourselves to be cured by the hand which has hurt us. It might have been as well in the first place to inquire whether a sorcerer can really operate upon the virility of another man. It may be added that many weak-minded persons feared the sorcerer more than they confided in the exorcist. The sorcerer having deranged nature, holy water alone would not restore it.

In the cases of impotency in which the devil took no part, the presiding ecclesiastics were not less embarrassed. We have, in the Decretals, the famous head “De frigidis et maleficiatis,” which is very curious, but altogether uninforming. The political use made of it is exemplified in the case of Henry IV. of Castile, who was declared impotent, while surrounded by mistresses, and possessed of a wife by whom he had an heiress to the throne; but it was an archbishop of Toledo who pronounced this sentence, not the pope.

Alfonso, king of Portugal, was treated in the same manner, in the middle of the seventeenth century. This prince was known chiefly by his ferocity, debauchery, and prodigious strength of body. His brutal excesses disgusted the nation; and the queen, his wife, a princess of Nemours, being desirous of dethroning him, and marrying the infant Don Pedro his brother, was aware of the difficulty of wedding two brothers in succession, after the known circumstance of consummation with the elder. The example of Henry VIII. of England intimidated her, and she embraced the resolution of causing her husband to be declared impotent by the chapter of the cathedral of Lisbon; after which she hastened to marry his brother, without even waiting for the dispensation of the pope.

The most important proof of capability required from persons accused of impotency, is that called “the congress.” The President Bouhier says, that this combat in an enclosed field was adopted in France in the fourteenth century. And he asserts that it is known in France only.

This proof, about which so much noise has been made, was not conducted precisely as people have imagined. It has been supposed that a conjugal consummation took place under the inspection of physicians, surgeons, and midwives, but such was not the fact. The parties went to bed in the usual manner, and at a proper time the inspectors, who were assembled in the next room, were called on to pronounce upon the case.

In the famous process of the Marquis de Langeais, decided in 1659, he demanded “the congress”; and owing to the management of his lady (Marie de St. Simon) did not succeed. He demanded a second trial, but the judges, fatigued with the clamors of the superstitious, the plaints of the prudes, and the raillery of the wits, refused it. They declared the marquis impotent, his marriage void, forbade him to marry again, and allowed his wife to take another husband. The marquis, however, disregarded this sentence, and married Diana de Navailles, by whom he had seven children!

His first wife being dead, the marquis appealed to the grand chamberlain against the sentence which had declared him impotent, and charged him with the costs. The grand chamberlain, sensible of the ridicule applicable to the whole affair, confirmed his marriage with Diana de Navailles, declared him most potent, refused him the costs, but abolished the ceremony of the congress altogether.

The President Bouhier published a defence of the proof by congress, when it was no longer in use. He maintained, that the judges would not have committed the error of abolishing it, had they not been guilty of the previous error of refusing the marquis a second trial.

But if the congress may prove indecisive, how much more uncertain are the various other examinations had recourse to in cases of alleged impotency? Ought not the whole of them to be adjourned, as in Athens, for a hundred years? These causes are shameful to wives, ridiculous for husbands, and unworthy of the tribunals, and it would be better not to allow them at all. Yes, it may be said, but, in that case, marriage would not insure issue. A great misfortune, truly, while Europe contains three hundred thousand monks and eighty thousand nuns, who voluntarily abstain from propagating their kind.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25