Pierre Darmon's Le Tribunal de l'Impuissance (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1979) was translated into English "for the general reader," minus "technical appendices dealing with juridical matters, and all footnotes and detailed references," according to the publisher's note. The English edition is Damning the Innocent: A History of the Persecution of the Impotent in pre-Revolutionary France (New York: Viking, 1986).
The 17th century was a perilous time for a man to be accused of failure to consummate a marriage. It often led to pseudo-medical examinations by the Church, to a public trial in court, and to legal dissolution of the marriage. The examination was generally informed by “the eternal trinity which confirms a man’s virility: ’erecting, entering, emitting’, in the words of the surgeon Guillemeau.” (p. 13) The examination of at least one man in 1694 was invasive enough to involve the surgical removal of a large bladder stone. (p. 115) By the 19th century, there was a backlash against this entire enterprise, and the public debate about impotence subsided.
"Deep in the shadowy unconscious of every man lurks a terrible fear of castration. The myth of virility can be seen as the sublimation of this anxiety into a more abstract form which is the basis of a man’s prestige, yet completely beyond his control. The forces that do control it are certainly mysterious. From one day to the next, its happy functions, the tangible proof of male prestige and perfection, can vanish like smoke in the wind, for no apparent reason. It is a cruel state of uncertainty. For all his pride, the virile male is a man trapped by his celebrated and over-estimated body, and the endless escalation of his physical prowess, which, far from reassuring him, plunge him into an infernal spiral of anguish. At any moment, the world which he has built up around himself may disintegrate. For this reason, the trial and condemnation of his impotent fellow men affords him substantial consolation. It serves to idealise his own position, and allows him the opportunity to display his own conformity with the collectively approved sexual norms – a conformity which is statutory, mandatory and of divine ordinance. The priests themselves submit to it, and the Church casts out all those whose virile organ, though sworn to inaction, reveals the slightest anomaly." (p. 2)
Thus impotence trials had a “dual objective: to reassure and to incriminate.” (p. 13) "Is it any coincidence that, from Sparta to Nuremberg, the most disastrous ideologies have been those founded largely upon a coherent mythology of virility?" (p. 229)
Darmon says we need a "categorical" and "visceral rejection" of the impotence trial, and a recognition that "to debate impotence in the first place is to trigger off a poisonous chain of logic" that will lead to an impotence trial. (p. 228-229) These trials were especially bad for men, constituting a form of public shaming. They did seem to empower women to divorce their husbands, but this could backfire, as sometimes the woman would be taken into custody. In 1667, a woman who petitioned the High Court of Provence for separation from her husband was sent to a convent by the bishop. Darmon says this was about "depositing temporarily in the hands of a third party an object whose ownership was in dispute. The husband had first of all to prove his ability to operate the object before he could reclaim it. In the eyes of the law, the title deed was acknowledged as valid only under these conditions." (p. 127)
Despite this opinion, however, Darmon's writing conveys humor when relating many situations. In describing the idea of "relative impotence" (when a man is able to perform sexually with one person but not another), he says this idea "was responsible for situations which made complete nonsense of the institution of marriage," including a man who fathered children with several concubines in his house but had never slept with his wife. "After twelve years of this regime, his wife finally came to realise that her household was in certain respects infringing the laws of Christian marriage." (pp. 25-26) He also quotes a transcript of an investigation in which a physician Croissant de Garengeot noted of one man's erection: "far from lasting longer upon being handled, as is the case with the true erection, it immediately faded away." After which Maître Simon: "What penis, he [Simon] exclaimed, however swollen it might be, when handled and examined by Garengeot (since M. Col de Vilars was content to hold the candle all the time) would not wilt on the very spot? Did this oracle from Bourges flatter himself that he was of sufficiently comely appearance and had a sufficiently enlivening hand to stroke the imagination of a man of modesty?" (p. 183)
There was a longstanding fear that if a woman was bound to a man who could not have the kind of intercourse that was sanctioned by the authorities, she was at risk of being abused as he took out his sexual frustration on her. “For the theorists of the classical period, the ‘counsel’ and advocacy of chastity drew its inspiration from an excessively refined conception of human nature. Sexual continence in marriage was merely a fiction, an abstraction. In reality – which was rather more prosaic – the wife of an impotent man was prey to the lascivious excesses and perverse wit of a spirit unhinged by its disability.” (p. 66) In part because of this, from the 16th century, “the marriage of a eunuch was seen as an intolerable threat to the doctrine of Christian marriage.” (pp. 12-13) As an example, in 1655, Denis Pinot wanted to marry Marie Bulot, but their parish priest would not publish the banns because Denis Pinot was, “by common knowledge,” a eunuch. The couple appealed to the High Court of Paris, but the court rejected the appeal. This case was famous for being a rare outcome. Generally, partners who wanted to marry would not reveal such a secret. (pp. 68-69, 71) In the eyes of the authorities: “By marrying, the impotent man commits an act of larceny, profanes a sacrament, and indulges in an inhumane, cruel and dangerous act. These were the three themes which, from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, recurred incessantly in the writings of jurists and theologians.” (p. 59) Yet: “At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the surgeon Guillemeau noted that the removal of one or even of both testicles did not put a definitive end to sexual relations.” (p. 23)
Accusations of impotence could, of course, be brought up as a pretext for preventing marriages that others opposed for other reasons and interests.
“Thus in 1639 an inhabitant of Pamiers decided to get married. His brother tried to prevent him, on the grounds that he lacked ‘those natural parts necessary for marriage.’ The accused retorted that ‘the beauty, whom the matter most concerned, had no complaints, and, when this was no longer the case, she would have him tamquam patrem, non tanquam maritum’ (as a father if not as a spouse). The parliament of Toulouse ruled that the marriage could proceed. Needless to say, ‘the beauty’ had been made heiress to a tidy little fortune.” (p. 67-68)
Darmon mentions one brief anecdote from Ancillon's 1707 Traité des Eunuques, but it is possible he learned about it from a secondary source, as this book is not mentioned in his bibliography. (It was a rare book that seems never to have been reprinted until it was digitized in 2010.) He does, however, address the question of eunuchs, since this overlaps significantly with the question of impotence.
"In the case of eunuchs – those afflicted by 'overt impotence' (Tagereau) resulting from some congenital malformation – there were fewer problems. In its fullest snese, the term 'eunuch' means a complete absence of genitals. Occasionally these do exist, but with some flagrant anomaly. Tagereau reported the case of a man 'possessed of two penises, each hindering the other', of another whose testicles were situated above his penis, and of a third 'who had a penis the size of a wart and testicles that of two peas, hardly discernible.'
The contempt in which these unfortunate individuals were held by the general public reduced them to the level of outcasts or monsters. 'They bear the mark of their ignominy upon themselves,' wrote the theologian Fevret. 'How might we consider them to be whole, since this blemish in them is so considerable, and what reasons might induce us to believe them fit for marriage?' The verdict of Sébastien Roulliard was even more savage: 'These castrates are incapable of progeny, and we do take it as given that it is these which either sex is accustomed to hold in abomination, and whom the Greeks termed half-men or half-women, neither men nor women.' In their hatred of eunuchs, some went so far as to call them creatures of the devil. According to the lawyer Peleus, 'spados [eunuchs] are incubate demons, for which reason, in the manner of those spirits that have relations with women, their substance is colder than the icy wastes of Scythia, and does spoil the reproductive faculty that women possess by nature.
As a result, eunuchs found themselves outcasts, rigidly ostracised by ecclesiastical and civil legislation....the articles of canon law...prescribe[d] a scrupulous and intimate physical examination of candidates for the monastic orders. ...eunuchs were prohibited from admittance to [civil] public office..." (pp. 17-18)
Through the 16th century, eunuchs – men with no testicles and no ability to ejaculate, but sometimes with the ability to get erections – were permitted to marry, but if their wives brought them to impotence trial, the marriage could be dissolved. On June 27, 1587, Pope Sixtus V required that the marriages of eunuchs should be dissolved regardless of whether the married couple wanted that. This was followed at the turn of the century by a prolonged legal battle of the Baron d'Argenton who sought to prove that his testicles, while undescended and thus not visible, nevertheless existed. He lost the case. In 1604, "[t]he whole of Parish rushed to be present for the autopsy of his body," and, when the doctors found his undescended testicles, "D'Argenton was posthumously declared potent, and the Faculty of Medicine in Paris pronounced by decree 'that for the purposes of engendering offspring, it is not requisite that the testicles be present in the scrotum of a man, provided nevertheless that he display other and sufficient marks of virility.'" (pp. 21-22)
Meanwhile, "hermaphrodites" – those who exhibited physical characteristics of both sexes – were at risk of summary execution from Roman times all the way through the ages, despite Ulpien's third-century Lex Repetundarum statute that dictated that they should be assigned to one sex or the other and treated accordingly, a precedent that continued to influence pre-Revolutionary France.