Huh. I guess I am a big ol’ prude

You probably are, too. People apparently had a different attitude towards nudity and public sexual displays in the medieval era, at least as revealed by divorce records, where one of the few ways a woman could get an annulment of a marriage was to prove her husband was impotent. With witnesses. Which seem to have been surprisingly easy to get.

In the year 1370, Tedia Lambhird filed for divorce from John Saundirson, claiming that her husband was impotent. Next, she had to prove it. Fortunately for Tedia, she had eyewitnesses.

One key witness, Thomas son of Stephen, testified in church court that he had seen the couple unsuccessfully attempting to have sex in John’s father’s barn before 9 o’clock one springtime morning. In spite of the fact that John and Tedia were “applying themselves with zeal to the work of carnal intercourse,” Thomas reported that he saw “John’s rod was lowered and in no way rising or becoming erect.” Furthermore, Thomas claimed that John’s brother also witnessed the failed sexual encounter, adding that the brother stroked John’s penis with his hand in order to see if he could help.

So to summarize: John Saundirson not only tried (and failed) to have early-morning barn-sex with his wife before an audience of two men but also received ineffective manual penis stimulation from his own brother. Thanks to Thomas’s devastating testimony, Tedia won her case.

Uh, kinky? I have no idea how common this kind of behavior was — maybe John and Tedia were swingers, atypical for the time. Or maybe we modern people are the weirdos, with our fetish for privacy and the wealth to have houses with multiple rooms and doors, and no need to resort to our nearby hay pile in the barn. Go to a zoo and you’ll see that primates are generally not particularly shy.

I have to say, though, that some of the approaches taken would make me flee — there’s a degree of casual intimacy that makes me cringe deep down inside.

Often the witnesses in impotency cases were women, either married female acquaintances, widows, or local sex workers. They might be tasked by the court with inspecting the man’s genital equipment, or they might expose their breasts and genitals to the allegedly impotent man, give him ale and tasty snacks, kiss him, and rub his penis in a warm room to see whether he became aroused. But other times, these witnesses were men who looked on as the husband in question tried to have sex, or even lent a hand and stroked his penis themselves, reporting their findings to the court.

Impotence was a pressing concern for men and women in late medieval England. Multiple poems from the time feature women gathering in groups over copious amounts of alcohol and complaining about their impotent husbands, comparing their flaccid penises to maggots, snails and bumblebees. Other poems are voiced by the men themselves, who mourn their impotence and offer advice to others about preserving their virility. “All ye lovers take heed of me, for I was once as lusty as ye,” laments one poet.

I am repelled by all of that…except for the bit about bringing “ale and tasty snacks”. Ladies, I won’t object to that at all. Bring it on!

Wait, “bumblebees”? I don’t get that one.


  1. cartomancer says

    There was a cheeky habit among medical writers at Medieval universities to give examples in their tracts on sexual disease or dysfunction by using the names of their fellow teaching faculty.

  2. wzrd1 says

    You bring the ale, I’ll bring the aqua vitae.
    But, it seems that they oddly forgot the wisdom of the sages. An excess of spirits may bringeth the desire, but it would deny the ability. If memory serves, it fouls up NO signaling.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    A song! My Husband’s Got No Courage in Him.

    Every night when I goes to bed
    I lie and throw my leg right o’er him
    And my hand I clap between his thighs
    But I can’t put any courage in him

    Seven long years I’ve made his bed
    And every night I’ve lain beside him
    And this morning I rose with my maidenhead
    For still he’s got no courage in him

    I wish my husband he was dead
    And in his grave I’d quickly lay him
    And then I’d try another one
    That’s got a little courage in him

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Hmm…reminds me of some parts of the Konosuba anime.
    When the demon Sofia tries to seduce the protagonist in front of everyone, he is all into it… until Sofia mentions she is made from organs stolen from mortals, both men and women, setting up a “Crying Game” situation.

  5. Howard Brazee says

    Apparently, all sorts of body functions were public. Even much later, people in the palace of Versailles would defecate in corners without bathrooms being available. And royal births were witnessed by crowds.

  6. microraptor says

    birgerjohansson @5: Which is why that particular anime has caught a lot of flack for being transphobic.

  7. jenorafeuer says

    Also, with regards to the main article, I suspect growing up on a farm and dealing with breeding animals on a regular basis desensitizes one to some of this. Certainly my farmer girl grandmother had the most scatological vocabulary of the family.

  8. says

    “Bumblebee” – I suspect a mistranslation. Languages change, but even today one word in Spanish for bumblebee is abejón, which means drone, or a person who doesn’t enjoy working.

    Obviously I don’t know what language the original text was, but it’s possible this is why “bumblebee.”

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    Helge @12: It would have been Middle English, and the word used then was probably humblebee or a slight variation, where ‘humble’ is cognate with ‘hum’, and also with words for ‘bumblebee’ in other Germanic languages.

  10. davidc1 says

    Cor ,got any Embroideries of the barn action ? My late father ,born 1920 ,was a proper Shropshire man.
    I was earwigging one time his was telling my older brother about a time he and a few other boys were watching a boy and girl ,well young adult trying to get it on in a barn, there was some talk between the pair about a lack of lubrication .
    To share everyone’s blushes i won’t go on

    In the 70’s on British TV there was a tv film set in Norfolk around the turn of the century ,complete with proper Norfolk dialect .
    There was an outrage about all the bonking among the Hay ricks ,i think mary whitehouse fainted at one stage .

  11. nekomancer945 says

    All makes sense now. Jerry Falwell Jr.’s current sexual practices with his wife and cabin boy are as medieval as his theology.

  12. birgerjohansson says

    Microraptor @9
    Oops, my bad. I just thought the whole anime is too silly, the way the horribly racist things said by Eric Cartman in South Park are too silly to warrant attention. I see these fragments out of context at Youtube which makes it harder to get an overall view.

  13. birgerjohansson says

    Nekomancer945 @ 15 Jerry Falwell Jr. would go straight past the medieval era to bronze-age concubines of the Old Testament if he could.
    For a really messed-up, explicit sex life, read what the hadith say about a specific middle eastern guy (pbuh) 1400 years ago. It is very gross.

  14. bravus says

    Shakespeare got into the act in Macbeth*, with a possible explanation for all that impotence:

    “…much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery. It makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.”

    *I’m not a theatrical