Men’s Honour, Women’s Lives

Peter Burke

  • Trial by Impotence: Virility and Marriage in Pre-Revolutionary France by Pierre Darmon, translated by Paul Keegan
    Chatto, 234 pp, £10.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2914 X
  • The Boundaries of Eros: Sex, Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice by Guido Ruggiero
    Oxford, 223 pp, £25.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 19 503465 1
  • The Tuscans and their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427 by David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber
    Yale, 404 pp, £32.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 300 03056 8
  • Women, Family and Ritual in Renaissance Italy by Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, translated by Lydia Cochrane
    Chicago, 338 pp, £25.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 226 43925 9
  • French Women in the Age of Enlightenment edited by Samia Spencer
    Indiana, 429 pp, $35.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 253 32481 5

‘And if you know of any impediments, either of consanguinity, affinity or spiritual relationship, or of any other reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, you are bound to declare the same to us as soon as possible.’ As a child, hearing the banns read out in church, I used to wonder idly what kind of ‘other reason’ there might be. In fact, the canon lawyers distinguish quite a number of such reasons, including force, error, insanity, homosexuality, and also impotence, the subject of Pierre Darmon’s study, published in French in 1979 and now available in English translation.

Darmon’s book, written with passion in a rather heavy Gallic rhetoric somewhat difficult to turn into fluent English, is at once a history of an institution of the old regime and a critique of it, culminating in a plea for the Catholic Church to allow divorce. It begins with a flourish: ‘Among the many groups of people who suffered at the hands of the Ancien Régime in France – the insane, the poor, sodomites, alchemists and blasphemers – the impotent have long been forgotten.’ With these words, Darmon carefully places himself in the tradition of the late Michel Foucault, his history of madness as well as his more recent, regrettably unfinished history of sexuality. But the book does not live up to the expectations aroused by the beginning.

Trial by Impotence deals in turn with the canon lawyers’ categories of impotence (natural and accidental; male and female; absolute, relative and ‘respective’); with marginal cases, notably with hermaphrodites; with the procedures followed in the courts; and, rather briefly, with the social status of the litigants. Although the author does not discuss the chronology of the trials in any detail, a picture of development over time does emerge from the book. ‘From the 16th century onwards,’ we learn, ‘the trickle of impotence trials took on the proportions of a tidal wave.’ The causes célèbres – Langey, Gesvres, Michel – came in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The ‘indecent publicity’ of these trials (‘Never did private parts have less privacy than those of the Marquis de Gesvres or Jacques François Michel’) led to criticisms of the system, which was in any case abolished after the French Revolution. It was, however, revived in the 19th century, and continues in vigour – if that is the word – today.

Darmon’s book is solidly based on the trial records and also on Early Modern legal and medical treatises, from Aguesseau to Zacchia. It includes a good deal of curious information, together with a number of memorable anecdotes – some comic, some tragic, and some nauseating. The author makes a few psychoanalytical observations, and a few remarks about the ‘myth of the hymen’ and the ‘myth of virility’, which are interesting in themselves but are not developed or indeed integrated with the details of the trials. A valuable piece of work in many respects, it fails to give the reader much idea why the law relating to sexuality was the way it was in pre-Revolutionary France.

The problem is that Darmon the moralist is constantly getting under the feet of Darmon the historian. The moralist sees everything in black and white (mainly black). He praises occasional ‘liberal’ attitudes but condemns what he calls – in defiance of his own chronology – ‘iniquitous Medieval severity’. Among his favourite adjectives, or his translator’s (but the difference between the French and English editions is not very great in these cases), are ‘reactionary’, ‘bizarre’, ‘obscene’ and ‘inefficient’. His targets are the lawyers and the Church, a church treated as if it were monolithic and diagnosed as if it were a suitable case for treatment: ‘obsessional’ and given to ‘voyeurism’ and even to ‘intellectual onanism’, whatever that may mean. The celibate clergy are described, without a hint of irony, as ‘phallocentric’. A reader does not have to be an apologist for the old regime, or even, for that matter, for the Church, to feel that Darmon’s moralising approach, much coarser as well as much more conventional than Foucault’s, prevents him from understanding, or allowing us to understand, how there came to be such trials and such a legal system.

A generation ago, it was the witch-trial which historians condemned without making the imaginative effort to understand the ‘logic in witchcraft’, as the late Max Gluckman called it. If a study of impotence trials aspires to be more than a piece of historical voyeurism itself, it needs to address this kind of question, but Darmon does not do so. Although his fourth chapter bears the title ‘The Impotence Trial in Context’, context is precisely what his study lacks.

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