DAMNING THE INNOCENT: A History of the Persecution of the Impotent in Pre-Revolutionary France by Pierre Darmon

DAMNING THE INNOCENT: A History of the Persecution of the Impotent in Pre-Revolutionary France

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A sly, scholarly look at one of the weirdest episodes in the psychosexual history of Western Europe: the relentless hounding of the impotent (and the hermaphroditic) by church and state in ancient France. Darmon suggests several motives for the Ancien Regime's legal repression of the sexually dysfunctional: the unconscious fear of castration that lurks within every man; the belief that the will to reproduce is a moral imperative; the need for a phallocentric culture to affirm its ideology in the courts. Whatever the reason, impotency trials blossomed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Flagging husbands were required to expose their genitals to public examination, to ensure proper size and functioning; in the most radical cases, ""trial by congress"" was decreed, a bizarre legal procedure wherein husband and wife mated under the eyes of matrons, while crowds cheered or placed bets outside the rented room, all to ensure that the husband could perform faithfully the three magic e's--erecting, entering, emitting. Pity the poor man who wilted under such pressure; he would lose his wife, his reputation, and his dignity. The wife suffered as well; since complaints were often lodged by frustrated newlyweds (presumed to be virgin), the Search for the Hymen in full view of the public played a major role in these trials. Darmon writes with passion and a sense of humor, but his wit doesn't dull the serious message: that society's obsession with private sexual lives is a form of pornography that remains with us today, in the widespread, socially sanctioned myth of the virile male. An erudite book for a limited audience.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1986
Publisher: Viking