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Medieval Penis Investigators

The year is 1370. Location: England (of course). At the time, women could only file for a divorce under very special circumstances, impotence being one of them. But they had to prove it. The case of Lambhird v. Saundirson was brought before the courts - Tedia Lambhird was attempting to divorce her husband John Saundirson. What’s interesting about this case is that the accuser brought forth witnesses - a key element to winning a divorce settlement at the time. However, in this particular case, the witnesses were the couple’s son and the husband’s brother. Not only were they present at the time of intercourse (which took place in a barn - we’re not making this up), the brother claimed that he tried to ‘help’ by stroking the husband's penis.

Needless to say, the wife won the case as witnesses could attest to the husband’s impotence. But it’s this very loophole that led to the much-needed job of the “penis investigator”. One historian states that “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.” These witnesses were either women (sometimes sex workers, widows or even the wives of friends). They would attempt to arouse the men to test their impotence. Sometimes, these investigators were men, hired to watch a sexual encounter to confirm the wife’s account. (God forbid you just believe the women).

Impotence can still be used as grounds for annulment in some U.S. states. Proof is typically needed, but this might come from medical records, the wife’s testimony, or a doctor’s report. The most striking element of these medieval cases is how freely the participants talked about both sex and impotence. Something which would seem highly inappropriate in a modern day court room. Although the days of penis investigators is over, the lack of taboo around sex might be worth a second look.

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