When “Desire Refuses Service”

in Impotence

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print April 2007 | ISBN: 9780226500768
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226500935 | DOI:
When “Desire Refuses Service”

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When deciding whether a marriage should be annulled on the grounds of the husband's impotence, fifteenth-century English church courts sometimes employed “honest women” to examine the man. Christians had to know whether or not a marriage had been sexually consummated. But, pondered celibate church doctors, what was consummation? Was it simple penetration? Or did it require emission? Might it even necessitate the wife's orgasm? Michel Foucault tartly observed that the pagans were too reserved to conduct such a full and intrusive discussion of conjugal rights, methods, and duties. Why then did the church ultimately so immerse itself in the messy discussion of impotence? Why did churchmen, at first embarrassed by the issue of male potency, eventually come police it? Some historians have suggested that a cultural shift occurred in the late Roman world, when sexuality became a topic of discussion in poetry and advice literature, as well as a privileged source of pleasure. Unlike the Jews, Christians lauded continence, celibacy, and life-long virginity.

Keywords: impotence; marriage; consummation; penetration; emission; sexuality; Christians; celibacy; church doctors; virginity

Chapter.  11155 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Social and Cultural History

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