Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Case of Impotence
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This illumination and its related text appear in a deluxe version of the Decretum Gratiani, a manuscript of canon law. The text first circulated around 1140, and became part of the compiled canon law used by the Catholic Church until the twentieth century. The author, Gratian, originally entitled the manuscript Concordia discordantium canonum, or the Harmony of Discordant Canons. Gratian's title reflects his desire to parse through and synthesize the conflicting canon law of the era. This particular deluxe edition of Decretum Gratiani was created ca. 1280-1290. The lively decoration of the manuscript indicates a marked taste for narrative. The glosses (small annotations made in the margins of the work) were done by Johannes Teutonicus and updated by Bartholomew of Brescia, an Italian canonist. This manuscript exhibits scribal features that suggest a connection with the Cistercian abbey of Cambron in Hainaut.

    The text of Causa XXXIII concerns a legal case in which a woman seeks a divorce and takes a new lover because her husband is impotent. The husband eventually recovers his virility, but his wife has already married the other man. The previously impotent husband separates the newlywed couple and reinstates his previous marriage with his wife. After this turn of events, he vows celibacy, even though he did not receive the consent of his wife for this change. Gratian addresses the various legal quandaries found in the case, and prescribes how each particular matter should be handled. Gratian does this by frequently citing authorities, both theological writers and the Bible itself.

    The illumination of Causa XXXIII depicts a canon law expert listening to the case. The most striking detail is the nudity of the man bringing suit. In cases such as this, the afflicted man had to prove his potency through examination of his genitals. The man’s palms face outwards in what appears to be embarrassment, and he averts his eyes towards the floor. The two women surrounding the man are likely midwives brought in to examine him, and they pull aside his clothes to display the proof of his impotence to the judge.

    In Causa XXXIII, the afflicted man claims that a maleficent hex is the cause of his impotence. Many canon law experts of the twelfth century contended that if a man could not fulfill the marital debt to his wife (to have sex and produce children), the couple could be separated. This was only permitted if the marriage had not yet been consummated. Typically, either the husband or the wife would be examined. The husband's complexion and genitals might be checked by a physician or midwife. A matron was then called to apply warming ointments and watch the couple attempt to have sex. If the wife was being examined, two skilled midwives would determine whether she was still a virgin.

    Causa XXXIII also outlines the rights of women in marriage and annulment. Gratian states that if a wife “denies that her husband knew her, one should give the benefit of the doubt to the husband,” because “the husband is the head of the wife.” Additionally, Causa XXXIII states that a husband may ignore a vow of abstinence made by his wife if he did not give her permission. This, Gratian asserts, is “because of her subordinate condition, in which she obeys her husband in all things....it is just that the lesser serve the greater.”

  • Source: Walters Art Museum
  • Rights: Public domain. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Access Rights, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/legalcode.
  • Subject (See Also): Canon Law Divorce Gratian, Canonist- Decretum Husbands Impotence Magic Marital Separations Sexuality Wives
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 13
  • Date: circa 1280- 1290
  • Related Work: Other manuscript illustrations of Canon XXXIII:
    The plaintiff and his wife embrace in bed while two women and two men observe and talk among themselves, Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Ms. Lat. Fol. 4, fol. 285r.
    The wife embraces her new lover while he tenderly caresses her hair. The spurned husband stands to the side and points at their demonstration of intimacy, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Ms. Clm. 17161, fol. 145v.
  • Current Location: Baltimore, the Walters Art Museum, Ms. W.133, fol. 277r
  • Original Location: Probably Hainaut, Cambron, the Cistercian abbey
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Manuscript Illumination
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 42/27.5/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Gratian. Marriage Canons from The Decretum of Gratian. Translated by John T. Noonan, Jr. Revised 1994. See Canon 33 The Marriage Debt;
    Melnikas, Anthony. The Corpus of the Miniatures in the Manuscripts of Decretum Gratiani. Vol. I. Studi Gratiana, 18. Studia Gratiana, 1975;
    Murray, Jacqueline. "On the Origins and Roles of 'Wise Women' in Causes for Annulment on the Grounds of Male Impotence." Journal of Medieval History 16, 3 (1990): 235-249;
    Rider, Catherine. "'A Defect of the Mind or Body': Impotence and Sexuality in Medieval Theology and Canon Law." In The Ends of the Body: Identity and Community in Medieval Culture. Edited by Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Jill Ross. University of Toronto Press, 2013. Pages 193-210;
    Rider, Catherine. Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages. Oxford University Press, 2006.