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The Distinguished Medieval Penis Investigators

In fourteenth-century England, one of the only ways a woman could get a divorce was if her husband was impotent. But first, she had to prove it in court.

Story by Carissa Harris  ·  Illustrations by Sophie Margolin  ·  Edited by Farah Mohammed   ·  11.12.20
Story by Carissa Harris
Illustrations by Sophie Margolin
Edited by Farah Mohammed

In the year 1370, Tedia Lambhird filed for divorce from John Saundirson, claiming that her husband was impotent. Next, she had to prove it. Fortunately for Tedia, she had eyewitnesses.

One key witness, Thomas son of Stephen, testified in church court that he had seen the couple unsuccessfully attempting to have sex in John’s father’s barn before 9 o’clock one springtime morning. In spite of the fact that John and Tedia were “applying themselves with zeal to the work of carnal intercourse,” Thomas reported that he saw “John’s rod was lowered and in no way rising or becoming erect.” Furthermore, Thomas claimed that John’s brother also witnessed the failed sexual encounter, adding that the brother stroked John’s penis with his hand in order to see if he could help.

So to summarize: John Saundirson not only tried (and failed) to have early-morning barn-sex with his wife before an audience of two men but also received ineffective manual penis stimulation from his own brother. Thanks to Thomas’s devastating testimony, Tedia won her case.

Outrageous as it seems, the case of Lambhird v. Saundirson is one of multiple late medieval English annulment cases on record that focus on the question of impotence — which is still grounds for divorce in plenty of places today, including parts of the United States.

In the Middle Ages, impotence was one of the few grounds on which a woman could successfully obtain a divorce, since the Catholic Church believed that spouses owed the “marital debt” of sex to one another. But in order to confirm the husband’s impotence and to ensure that the woman wasn’t simply making false claims to escape the sacrament of marriage — after all, women were thought to be inherently less trustworthy and more prone to lying than men — the courts needed witnesses.

Sometimes these “witnesses” were a little more like investigators. Medieval historian Bronach Kane examines some of these cases in Impotence and Virginity in the Late Medieval Ecclesiastical Court of York, noting how physical inspections of genitals and breasts by the defendant’s friends and neighbors were used to determine impotence, virginity and pregnancy in church court cases.

Often the witnesses in impotency cases were women, either married female acquaintances, widows, or local sex workers. They might be tasked by the court with inspecting the man’s genital equipment, or they might expose their breasts and genitals to the allegedly impotent man, give him ale and tasty snacks, kiss him, and rub his penis in a warm room to see whether he became aroused. But other times, these witnesses were men who looked on as the husband in question tried to have sex, or even lent a hand and stroked his penis themselves, reporting their findings to the court.

Impotence was a pressing concern for men and women in late medieval England. Multiple poems from the time feature women gathering in groups over copious amounts of alcohol and complaining about their impotent husbands, comparing their flaccid penises to maggots, snails and bumblebees. Other poems are voiced by the men themselves, who mourn their impotence and offer advice to others about preserving their virility. “All ye lovers take heed of me, for I was once as lusty as ye,” laments one poet.

Guy de Chauliac, an influential physician and noted medical authority of the time, recommended that impotence be treated with spices, concoctions of spiced and sweetened wine, hot oils, and vigorous penile rubbing in front of a fire made of woodchips. He noted that male physicians were often commissioned as expert witnesses in divorce cases and suggested that they “examine the generative members” of the accused man carefully before ordering him to go to bed with a sexually experienced woman and interviewing her afterward.

When Katherine Barlay filed to annul her marriage to William Barton due to impotence in 1433, more than a dozen people gave testimonies about William’s penis after examining it on numerous occasions. After three men and several women inspected William at a tavern called the Swan, one Robert Lincoln testified that William placed his “manly rod” in his hand; Lincoln described it as “long and large enough to have carnal coupling with any woman alive.” On another evening, three men examined William’s “secret manly members” at a friend’s house. They also gave his penis rave reviews, often comparing it to their own. One testified that he himself had fathered 10 children and that “William’s was better in length and girth than [my] rod ever was.” Another reported that William Barton had “large and fit testicles and other signs of virility … just as [I myself] ever had or better.” Getting into more specific measurements, two witnesses testified that Barton’s penis was “two handfuls” long when erect. (Measuring penis length by the “handful” was not uncommon during this time: One poem features a man who boasts that his penis is “a handful and half” in length.)

Several women also inspected William Barton’s genitalia, including one who agreed that William’s “rod and testicles appeared sufficient to serve and please any honest woman.” But some women had less glowing comments about William’s genitalia, supporting his wife’s accusation of impotence. Robert Lincoln, however, countered that these particular women had handled William’s penis too roughly and with such cold hands that “on account of shame, his rod retracted itself into William’s body.”

The true state of William’s penis even divided one married couple: While Katherine Mycholson claimed that “his rod was of no value,” her husband, John, testified that this assessment was “contrary to his sight and knowledge” and promised to make his wife confess her penile “perjury” to their priest as soon as possible. (As with many of these medieval cases, there is unfortunately no record of who won the case of Barlay v. Barton.)

In 1561 or 1562, when Margaret Alatt filed for divorce from Richard Pierson on the grounds of impotence, Richard admitted that the couple had never had sex, but he was full of elaborate explanations. He testified that he had wanted to consummate the marriage on their wedding night, but “by chance hurt himself before he could have his pleasure.” He decided to abstain from sex for the next eight weeks in order to see if he might heal on his own.

In the meantime, “before he could be perfectly healed,” Margaret told everyone that Richard lacked “members that which a man should have.” When she asked him to have sex with her, Richard answered that “he was not well, but he thought he should amend in continuance of time.” Richard then visited a doctor, who gave him a special medicinal drink — a sort of liquid Viagra — that he drank every morning and evening for nine days until he “was cured, and perceived himself lusty.” But by then, he says, he had no desire to sleep with Margaret. At the trial, he insisted that he couldn’t possibly be impotent because he’d had sex with another woman (whom he conveniently failed to name) and was sure that her child was his. When the church court asked him why he’d cheated on his wife, he explained that “he would never have done so, but that she had raised such a slander” — by publicizing her accusations of impotence — that he’d had no choice.

A key witness in Margaret and Richard’s divorce case was Edward Amery, a 44-year-old friend of the couple. Edward had extensive conversations with Richard about his impotence and search for a cure. Edward testified that the medicinal drink had had no effect and that Richard still “could not do any more than afore” in the bedroom. He reported that when Richard learned that Margaret had filed for divorce due to his alleged impotence, he had been so ashamed that he ran away and had traveled 30 miles before his friends caught up with him and fetched him home to face the allegations.

In addition to being scandalous and sexually explicit, these cases demonstrate that medieval people spoke frankly and openly about their sex lives, in a way that we may not have imagined. They show how male family members, housemates, and neighbors not only discussed, viewed, and compared each other’s genitals but even held and stroked them in church court–sanctioned hand jobs.

They also demonstrate, notably, that men weren’t afraid to discuss their impotence with their doctors and friends. This is in sharp contrast to the modern era, when the subject is verboten for so many men. Take contemporary advertisements for erectile dysfunction (ED) drugs, such as Bob Dole’s iconic 1999 Viagra commercial, in which he encouraged men to discuss their impotence with their doctors. Speaking seriously and wearing a navy suit with an American flag in the background, Dole said, “You know, it’s a little embarrassing to talk about ED, but it’s so important to millions of men and their partners that I decided to talk about it publicly.” Twenty years later, impotence is largely still a taboo topic, and advertisements for ED-focused startups like Roman and Hims emphasize that their products can be delivered discreetly.

Moreover, the idea of filing for divorce on grounds of impotence isn’t as “medieval” as we might think: It is still part of divorce law in some states today, including Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Alabama, Oklahoma and Georgia. However, today’s courts are a bit more prudent in their examinations, requiring unhappy couples to submit medical documentation confirming impotence rather than see evidence for themselves firsthand.

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