At face value, René de Cordouan was a lucky man: born into French nobility as the Marquis de Langey, rich without effort, pleasant to look at. By generic, century-spanning sort of standards he was a catch, as endearing to unwed Catholics of the early 1600s (those seeking a deep-pocketed partner with bucolic property to share) as to manicured women with manicured nails browsing EliteSingles.com. The actual minutiae of the Marquis de Langey’s appearance remains a mystery—the size of his feet, the straightness of teeth, the presence or absence of dimples—but one part of his anatomy was so meticulously discussed it secured him a minor place in European history. Inside the nobleman’s underpants, between his upper thighs, was an intromittent organ that would be leered at and prodded before a court of law. To put it plainly, in 1657 the Marquis’s penis was subject to public trial.
In Roman Catholic France, long before the revolution, human bodies were not quite considered private property. Intimate parts of the citizenry’s flesh could be policed and questioned, limbs and organs regulated by external forces. The procreative couple—married, of course—were required, not just or even to love each other, but to perform their conjugal duty by law, each submitting to intercourse at the other’s request. For the sexually impotent, it was an impossible task. In fact, the impotent husband, even if he’d entered into marriage unaware of his condition, was considered to have committed a larcenous act.
By most accounts, divorce was not permitted in France from the early twelfth century. And yet, in 1426, a strange thing appeared in the departmental archives of the Aube region, a quick note concerning a marriage dissolved on account of an “impotent.” (That impotent, according to the historian Pierre Darmon, later took a second wife who bore several children.) It was an anomalous thing, but there it was, in ink or stone or whatever: a divorce willingly and legally granted for an unconsummated union.
It’s hard to know exactly how the impotence trials developed from here, but by the sixteenth century they had reached a kind of carnivalesque zenith, had hardened into a real and rather labyrinthine process that was, even in its attempts to be restorative, very humiliating. The legal process was messy and unreliable, medically dubious at best (no one quite knew the difference between impotence and sterility). It was funny and sad. It was lamentably public. With the release of private medical records, the infirmity of strangers quickly spread beyond the court, their reputations dissected in noisy salons.
Proceedings almost always began with a disgruntled wife. She approached the ecclesiastical court for myriad reasons—both sincere and disingenuous—requesting an annulment of her marriage via the only means possible: clear evidence of her partner’s debilitated loins. She was likely to be wealthy. Trials in themselves were not expensive, but decent lawyers were, and whichever partner was “proved” impotent bore full legal costs of the proceedings. One-fifth of recorded annulment requests originated from the nobility, who represented only 3 percent of the population. (This is drawn from the research of Darmon, whose 1979 book, Trial by Impotence: Virility and Marriage in pre-Revolutionary France, has the aesthetic trappings of a cheap romance pulp. The cover of its English translation sports a genre painting by Dutch Jacob, and on the spine, the title appears in salmon-colored serif.)
The unhappy couple would then be subject to separate examinations—to speculative groping by surgeons, physicians, and midwives. A husband’s natural parts were scrutinized for color, shape, and number—the best thing he could hope for were inspectors of delicate demeanor. Various hypotheses were tested. Could he muster an erection? Expel reproductive fluids on demand? Was he capable of healthy performance, or had he been forcing his partner into lascivious positions without the promise of coming children?
As could be expected, many wilted under pressure. According to reports of a trial in Rheims:
The experts waited around a fire. Many a time did he call out: “Come! Come now!” but it was always a false alarm. The wife laughed and told them: “Do not hurry so, for I know him well.” The experts said after that never had they laughed as much nor slept as little as on that night.
Though it armed plenty of commentators with tragicomic fodder, this peering-at-other-people’s-privates deal caused some writers discomfort. On the hypocrisy of enthusiastic sex chatter in the courts, Voltaire exclaimed, “These astonishing researches have been carried out by no one anywhere in the world, other than our theologians … [and] they have in their earnestness laid bare that which should be cloaked in the secrecy of night.” Darmon, writing from afar, was inclined to agree. Of Philippe Hecquet, a physician to the nuns of Port-Royal-des-Champs and a ruthless pamphleteer on indecency, he ascribes “a devotee’s ardour to the task of observing the erection of the Marquis de Gesvres.”
Since antiquity, sexual enfeeblement proved a reputation killer. Perhaps the abundance of tumescent dicks played a role in this—giant members were paraded on the comic stages of Athens until the fourth century, the phallic stele of Olympian god Hermes was placed at the doorways of Greek houses for good luck. In Roman gardens, replicas of the hypermasculine deity Priapus stood, in place of scarecrows, to ward off intruders, an oversized penis threatening rape. For the prosecuted Frenchman, talk of a fleshy, pink failure-to-launch signaled his perpetual incompleteness. It was in his best interest, then, to overturn the verdict.
The precise origins of the Trial by Congress are unclear. Here’s what we know: the first mention emerged around 1550, though primitive versions were noted in Spain. It was the appeal route, via the ecclesiastical courts, for defamed husbands who wished to retain the appearance of sexual potency, and it permitted women the ability to divorce and remarry. Depending on ethical persuasion, the recourse manifested as a darkly humorous experiment or an exercise in obscenity. It involved a couple—likely estranged—who were compelled to have sex in semiprivate quarters, either within the courthouse or rented rooms, with medical people and legal people and close family nearby. In some accounts, all that shrouded the copulating pair were thin paper screens; in others the small crowd gathered behind a half open door or in an antechamber. The entire trying event lasted roughly two hours, punctuated by the kind of bickering achievable only by two people-in-hate. Before and after there were careful checks for fraud. On entering, each party was stripped and examined in every available orifice, searched for vials of blood, and checked for the use of astringents. Afterward, their genitals and bedsheets were subject to examination for fluids.
Of the several dozen aristocratic men who undertook a Trial by Congress, the Marquis de Langey protrudes as the sorest of thumbs. His trial was one of the last and most audacious, and, if it weren’t for his battered ego, the prolonged ordeal would have never occurred. The Marquis was married on April 2, 1653, to a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girl, Mademoiselle Marie de St Simon de Courtemer. At the time, the Marquis was twenty-five. According to The Register and Library of Medical and Chirurgical Science, it began as a cheerful union:
When the husband was absent, his wife used to express in her letters the lively impatience she experienced for his return, and always addressed him with that tenderness of affection which constitutes the happiness of wedded life. This good understanding continued during four entire years, that is, until the year 1657, when Madame Langey accused her husband of impotence.
Her complaint, on reaching the legal authorities, proceeded to interrogation at the High Court of Paris—not the ecclesiastical court, as the Marquis was a Protestant. Throngs of eager women, drawn to his prepossessing exterior, reportedly gathered at the exit to catch a glimpse. When specialists on the nether regions were later dispatched to the couple’s bedside, they found each physically fit enough to perform the requisite matrimonial activities. On reading the (very explicit) reports detailing Madame Langey’s condition, an adviser to the Châtelet apparently exclaimed, “It cannot be denied that Langey has done a fair amount of work with his ten fingers these past four years.”
Madame de Langey, understandably upset with the verdict, claimed that if she was not a virgin, it was only due to her husband’s brutish affections; his insistence on making fruitless advances. The Marquis, po-faced and insulted, insisted on an unnecessary Trial by Congress to prove her wrong a second time. It was, in hindsight, a terrible decision.
It is hard to imagine a 1659 waiting room, the sort of place you can only yawn in, drumming fingertips on a side table, counting the minutes down until an appointment. Here, there would be no mollified jazz, no thumbed-over Hollywood rags on thin, sad paper, stacked toward the ceiling—only a gut-wrenching sense of dread and the sound of your own breath. The trial of the Marquis and his wife was to take place in a private home belonging to a local bathhouse owner. It’s unclear how long they had to wait, how long each sat, knowing their life’s direction relied on one act of copulation, but they knew the stakes were impossibly high. By now Parisians of varying status were thoroughly invested: placing bets, scrawling caricatures, swapping smutty pamphlets. And when the defiant Marquis, after hours of trying, was unable to deliver—in front of a fifteen-person jury comprising five surgeons, five physicians and five matrons—he was quickly and forcefully belittled by his comrades, his name synonymous with flaccidity. Incidentally, though forced to return his wife’s dowry and forbidden to remarry, the not-actually-impotent Marquis did the latter anyway. And his second wife, unaffected by persisting rumors of a hidden, dark disorder, bore seven whole and healthy children.
Laura Bannister is the editor in chief of Museum. She writes for numerous other magazines about contemporary art and culture.