Impotence in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages witches were often accused of having caused impotence. They could do this, for instance, by putting a spell on the member so that it disappeared completely into the abdomen; German witches especially were regarded as very skilled at this. The first person to link impotence and witchcraft was Hincmar, the archbishop of Rheims, who lived the ninth century. One of his pronouncements was that a man was not allowed to remarry after a divorce on the grounds of proven impotence from physical causes. However, if the impotence was the result of witchcraft, the victim was free to enter into a new marriage.
In addition witches were also charged with having sexual intercourse with the devil. The snag with this was that the devil’s penis differed from that of a normal man. Some witches said that it was divided into two at the tip, forked and lithe as the tongue of a snake. This enabled it to be inserted both vaginally and anally, very like the method used by gynaecologists to examine their patients. The devil’s member was remarkable in several respects. Stories circulated about how his penis was scaly and covered in barbs. Descriptions of the length of the member differed: from that of a little finger to that of an arm. Besides the shape, the composition of the organ was described as abnormal: it was icy cold, as hard as stone, half horn and half iron.
It goes without saying that vaginal contact with such an organ was not much fun! The prince of darkness’s copulations, it was assumed, produced ever more little witches and caused his power to grow accordingly. In the Middle Ages there were hordes of incubi and whore devils, demons who in the shape of a man or a woman crept into someone’s bed and copulated with monks and virgins, servants and mistresses.
The publication of Der Hexenkammer (The Witches’ Chamber) in Cologne in 1487 is generally regarded as the beginning of the witch hunts, though in fact persecution had begun much earlier. This book, written by two notorious inquisitors, includes the story of a man whose penis had been whisked away by witchcraft, a case that today would be considered as an illustration of passing psychological impotence. Briefly summarized, the story is this: after ending his affair with a girl a young man promptly loses his member. His body has become completely smooth in the place it once occupied. He subsequently meets a woman in an inn who asks why he is so terribly sad. Her advice is to make the girl in question give him back his member, if necessary by force. He follows the advice and asks the girl to lift the spell.
When she pleads her innocence, he almost strangles her and says: ‘If you don’t give me back my member, I’ll kill you.’ The girl proves intelligent enough to play along. She puts her hand between his thighs and says: ‘Here it is again,’ From that moment on the young man has his penis visibly and tangibly back in place. The psychological origin of this impotence is clear, though the inquisitors interpret it in their own way: the penis has not been torn from the body, but has been magicked away by the devil!
In De Praestigiis Daemonum (1563) the Dutchman Johannes Weyer (also known as Wier) was one of the first to criticize the witch hunts. Impotence was also dealt with: Weyer demonstrated that this generally had a natural cause, for example the eating of certain herbs. In the event of impotence, he believed, one should not therefore base oneself on spells or accuse innocent people. Weyer did not deny that the devil can damage a man’s reproductive capacity, but argued emphatically that Satan did not require any old women for that purpose. Weyer had no time either for miraculous cures for impotence. On hearing of a man who regained his potency after rubbing himself with raven’s gall, Weyer’s wise conclusion was that superstition can obviously not only harm but also benefit a man.
One can admire the psychological insight of this individual, who was able to put an end to the madness, not by saying that the devil was a fiction, but by taking him seriously and hammering home the message that with his lies about witchcraft he had played a nasty trick on mankind. In Weyer’s view it was not the women indicted for witchcraft who were under the devil’s spell, but their accusers: a sublime turning of the tables, which saved the lives of countless women. Weyer’s name lives on in, for example, the Johannes Wier Foundation, a Dutch organization of obstetricians, doctors and nurses who oppose the violation of human rights and in particular defend the interests of asylum seekers.
While studying a fifteenth-century document found in Montpellier in France the medical historian Sigerist found an interesting treatise on impotence. It includes the statement that there are people incapable of coitus by reason of enchantment by the devil. If this befalls a man, he should address himself to God, who will grant him mercy. However, because there are different forms of spells, the writer of the manuscript feels obliged to deal with them all separately. Some spells are cast with the aid of animal substances, such as cock’s testicles. If these are placed under the marital bed together with the blood of the cock, sexual intercourse becomes impossible. Another method is to cut a nut or an acorn in two and place it along the way to be taken by the married couple after the wedding. Another kind of charm is to hide letters written in bat’s blood, and raw beans are also used, being most effective if they are placed on the roof or above the doorway.
Should the bride or bridegroom be the victim of one of the above- mentioned charms, it is better to talk about it than to remain silent, since those afflicted are disgracing not only themselves but also their relatives and are sinning against the Holy Ghost.
A few freely translated remedies:
A spell by means of letters can be recognized from the fact that the bride and bridegroom are not affectionate with each other. One must search both above and below the doorway, and if one finds anything one must take it straight to the bishop or the priest. If a nut or acorn is the cause, the woman must divide a nut or acorn in two, after which the man and woman, each holding one part in their hand, must stand opposite each other on the road, then walk towards each other and put the two pieces back together for at least seven days. After that they will again be able to have intercourse. In the case of a spell involving bones, this can only be lifted with the help of God.
The gall of a male dog cleanses the house and prevents it from being afflicted by any spell. If the walls are sprinkled with the blood of the dog the spells will also be annulled. If the bride and bridegroom collect fish gall and carry it in a basket made from the branches of a juniper bush and scatter it on the hearth in the evening, the spells will also be banished.
If the above measures did not work, the couple should consult a priest. After making confession the couple had the opportunity to take Holy Communion on Ascension Day. After partaking of the body and blood of Christ, the married couple were supposed to give each other the ‘kiss of peace’. They were then blessed and sent forth with the urgent advice to refrain from any attempt at intercourse for three days and three nights, after which success was guaranteed! Centuries later the celebrated sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson were to incorporate the latter exercise in their therapy.
One may note in passing that doctors or would-be doctors are not exactly famed for their fantastic sexual prowess. They have plenty of excuses: busy, irregular working hours, the great emotional demands made by their work, and so on.
Back to the Middle Ages: Nicolas Famel (1330-1418), a celebrated scholar at the University of Paris, was both an exorcist and an alchemist. He believed that rotting wood was extremely effective with impotence-related problems, but it must be first soaked for three days in the urine of a sixteen-year-old virgin.
One of his other remedies was as follows:
Take some burdock seed; place it in a bowl; mix it with the left testicle of a three-year-old billy-goat, a pinch of powder made from hair from the back of a completely white dog which you have cut on the first day of the new moon and burnt on the seventh day. Pour all this into a bottle half filled with brandy; leave this uncorked for twenty days, so that the stars can do their work.
On the twenty-first day exactly, the first day of the next new moon, boil everything until the mixture thickens to a paste; then add four drops of crocodile seed and strain the mixture through a cloth.
After collecting the liquid in a bowl, you need only rub the parts of the impotent man with it, and he will perform wonders. This mixture is so effective that there have been cases where women have become pregnant simply through the intimate rubbing of the man.
Since crocodiles are quite rare in Europe and since obtaining the seed of this animal is extremely difficult, it may be replaced with the seed of various kinds of dog. Apparently that is possible because dogs are so strangely agile in eluding the eager jaws of a crocodile. On the banks of the Nile these dogs are very common. In any case, we are assured, the above experiment has been repeated several times and up to now it has always succeeded, with both dog and crocodile seed.