Next year will be the twenty-year anniversary of the little blue pill that has allowed couples around the world to successfully consummate their twenty year anniversaries (and beyond); Sildenafil (trade name, Viagra). The effects of Sildenafil were discovered by accident when UK scientists at Pfizer were testing it as a cardiovascular drug to lower blood pressure. The irony that Viagra was once thought to lower anything at all is almost too delicious to bear, but it is true nonetheless. The drug works by increasing blood flow into the penis during sexual arousal which means that Captain Winky can steer into port, rather than capsizing in the shallows. This unexpected side effect was reported when members of the clinical trial refused to give the medication back to Pfizer.
It’s easy to make jokes about Viagra, but it has spearheaded a sexual revolution. According to The Pharmaceutical Journal, the drug has been prescribed for more than 64 million men worldwide and will likely be reclassified as a pharmacy medication in the UK (Three Decades of Viagra, 2017). Of course, we all know Viagra is used recreationally by silly sods who believe that popping a pill will morph their penis into a power ranger, but the drug wasn’t made for them. Intimacy is important in a relationship, and that’s what Viagra can offer to those who have been dealt a cruel blow by mother nature.
Today, a trip to the pharmacy or an online form may be all that stands between you and your happy ending, but things were far from this simple in a pre-Viagra world. The medieval church looked on marriage (and indeed sex) as necessary conduits to procreation. So central was sex to married life that the twelfth-century legal text, Decretum Gratiani, listed impotence as grounds for annulment. Despite the popular myth of weak and feeble Damsel in Distress, medieval wives could demand an end to their marriage if their husbands weren’t delivering the goods. To the medieval Church this made perfect sense; no sex, no children, no point. However, the church did not trust women to tell the truth, and certainly did not like annulling marriage. As keen as they were that their flock ‘go forth and multiply’, proof of a husband’s ascension deficit disorder was required before a union could be dissolved. And this is where it gets interesting.
How do you ‘prove’ your husband’s wields a less than magic Johnson? Today, a doctor may carry out a nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) test, a intracavernosal injection test or even order a Doppler ultrasound. But, in the twelfth century, all that was required was a group of ‘wise matrons’, a priest and an event known as ‘congress’. Congress was required in most annulments proceeding from a charge of impotence, and it meant a group of women subjecting the accused man to examination and sustained efforts to rouse the beast. In Summa Confessorum, Thomas of Chobham (1160-1230) recommended the following;
"After food and drink the man and woman are to be placed together in one bed and wise women are to be summoned around the bed for many nights. And if the man’s member is always found useless as if dead, the couple are well able to be separated."
Other medieval texts are more explicit in how the matron could assist the unhappy couple. Fourteenth-century physician, Guy de Chauliac, recommended the couple lie together for successive days and that the wise matron must,
"administer spices and aromatics to them, must comfort them and anoint them with warm oils, she must massage them near the fire, she must order them to talk to each other and embrace. And then she must report what she has seen to the physician." (Chirurgia magna, 1363)
Thanks to budget cuts, such treatment is no longer available on the NHS, but in practice not all congress was as gentle, or indeed respectful. The results of these tests can be found throughout medieval court records, and they do not make for comfortable reading. Take, for example, the 1370 case of John Sanderson of the city of York. John’s wife, Tedia, took her case to the ecclesiastical court, who ordered three women to inspect poor John’s Johnson. Congress was performed and the matrons reported the following back to the court;
"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". (Pederson, 2009)
In 1368, Katherine Paynel demanded her husband, Nicholas, be examined and unsurprisingly Nicholas legged it. However, this did not stop Katherine calling various witnesses to testify that Nicholas had never risen to the occasion. Thomas Waus, told the court that Katherine had,
"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, 2009)
In 1292 in Canterbury, twelve women of ‘good reputation’ testified that Walter de Fonte’s ‘virile member’ was utterly ‘useless’ (Leyser, 2013.) In 1433, at the trial of John of York, things got carried away when one matron,
"exposed her naked breasts and with her hands warmed at the said fire, she held and rubbed the penis and testicles of the said John. And she embraced and frequently kissed the said John, and stirred him up in so far as she could to show his virility and potency, admonishing him for shame that he should then and there prove and render himself a man. And she says, examined and diligently questioned, that the whole time aforesaid, the said penis was scarcely three inches long". (Leyser, 2013)
In each case, the wife was granted her annulment and given permission to find a man who could ‘better serve and please her’.
So when Viagra celebrates its twentieth birthday next year, whatever else you raise, make sure you raise a glass to all those unfortunate fellas whose Dr Doolittle was publically subjected to inspection by a gaggle of ‘wise’ women and a priest. Please remember to give a full salute to all the ‘useless’ members who entered the history books because they couldn’t enter anything else.
Evans, G. (1985). Thomas of Chobham on Preaching and Exegesis. Recherches de Théologie et Philosophie Médiévales, 52(0), pp.159-170.
Guy, Rosenman, L. and Nicaise, E. (2007). The major surgery of Guy de Chauliac. [Philadelphia]: Xlibris Corporation.
Leyser, H. (2003). Medieval women. London: Phoenix.
Pederson, F. (2011). Privates on Parade: Impotence Cases as Evidence for Medieval Gender. In: P. Anderson, ed., Law and Private Life in the Middle Ages: Proceedings of the Sixth Carlberg Academy Conference on Medieval Legal History 2009. Copenhagen: DJØF.
Pharmaceutical Journal. (2017). Three decades of Viagra. [online] Available at: http://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/infographics/three-decades-of-viagra/20202847.article [Accessed 19 Jul. 2017].