Alice Barbour c. William Barbour

A mind-boggling aspect of late medieval church courts was the employment of “juries of matrons” in suits for divorce by reason of impotence: the court could order a group of women to investigate on its behalf whether a man was capable of “having carnal knowledge” of a woman. In other words, they performed a court-ordered examination of his genitals, tested his ability to get an erection., and reported back to the court.

The legal context was that a woman could sue a man to annul their marriage (a “divorce a vinculo,” from the bond), if he was unable to have sexual intercourse. In some cases – as in this one – the court would order an “inspection and certification” by a group of women, sometimes termed a “jury of matrons,” would inspect the man’s genitals to determine whether he was capable of sexual relations.[1] When Alice Barbour sued in 1490 to annul the marriage she had made with William Barbour earlier that year, the matrons testified that something was wrong with his penis (one suggested that he seems to have burned it) and that there was no way he could “know Alice carnally.” In this case, they did not have to test whether he could get an erection, as their testimony suggests the damage to his genitals was too severe even to consider that. This tells us some interesting things about the expectations each spouse might have from a marriage: Alice evidently wanted sex from her marriage, whether for its own sake or for the procreation of children, and was willing to take steps to get out of the marriage when that proved impossible.

Juries of matrons were used in some other contexts in English law, too; most commonly they examined women who “pleaded the belly” after a felony conviction, that is claimed that they were pregnant, which would postpone their executions (see on that Sara Butler, “More than Mothers.”) The matrons thus were seen to have particular expertise in matters relating to sex and reproduction. This was one of the only “official” duties women performed in courts of law in England. It is interesting that the phenomenon of juries of matrons crossed over between the secular and ecclesiastical legal systems (and, according to Richard Helmholz, was not known in church courts outside England).

LMA, MS DL/C/A/001/MS09065, fol. 252v; and MS DL/C/0206, loose folio[2]

Examination of Defendant and order for matrons’ inspection for impotence, 23 Jul. 1490

[GL MS 9065, fol. 252v]

23 July before Shenkwyn in the Consistory place in my, Spencer’s, presence

In Barbour c. Barbour, the said Barbour in the presence of the proctor acting for the wife, admitted the case that he is impotent as regards her but not other women, and that he was ready many times to know her but he did not want to know her even though she diligently demanded it. And then the judge took oaths from Alice Umfrey, Agnes Swalow, Margaret Pulley, Margaret Barbour, and Joan Prat as indifferent for the inspection of the said Barbour and certifying. The judge warned him to say why he should not undergo such an examination and investigation from these persons the following day at 8 am, and to speak against those inspectors or to name and produce other indifferent women, under pain of excommunication.

Testimony of Alice Bawdwyn alias Humfrey, 28 Jul. 1490

[LMA MS DL/C/0206 (loose sheet)]

27 July [14]90, in my, Spencer’s, house, by Shenkwyn. On this day they inspected the member or penis of the said William Barbour.

Alice Bawdwyn alias Humfrey, age forty-two years, of free condition. Sworn as a witness etc., […] she is related neither by marriage nor by blood to either party. Questioned about her knowledge of the parties, she says that she has known the woman for two or three years. Asked about the potency or impotence of virile member of William Barbour, whom she has known for three or four years, she says that he is impotent in her judgment because it is not of a length of two inches […] and that part of it was […] and it appeared to her that he had lost part of his penis by fire. And she believes in her conscience that he is unable to procreate a child with her or with any other woman, as it appeared from inspection of the said penis. And she says moreover that she was present at the solemnization of marriage between them in the church of St. Michael in Cornhill [London] on a certain day within or thereabouts.[3] And since that time they lived together as man and wife for a certain time which she cannot specify. And otherwise she knows nothing to depose concerning the contents in the libel.

Testimony of Alice Nores, 28 Jul. 1490

[LMA MS DL/C/0206 (loose sheet)]

Alice Nores of the parish of St. Benedict Fink of the City of London, forty years old and more as she says. Sworn as a witness etc., she says that she has known William Barbour for four or five years, and Alice Barbour for the same time. Questioned further, she says that on this day in Idis’s house, together with others, she inspected the said William’s penis and according to that inspection, as it appeared to this witness in her conscience, the said William is unable to know Alice carnally or procreate a child with her or with any other woman, because as she says his penis is black, that is, swart and blue, and she believes that his penis was burned and that he lost the back part of his penis. And she says that at the time of the inspection of the penis, it was scarcely the length of a penis of a two-year-old boy. And moreover around the feast of the Purification of the blessed Mary last past, the parties were [joined] in marriage in the church of St. Michael, and from then in that parish they lived together as [man and wife] for three weeks. And otherwise she knows nothing to depose about its contents.

Testimony of Joan Prat, 28 Jul. 1490

[LMA MS DL/C/0206 (loose sheet)]

Joan Prat, wife of Robert Prat of the parish of St. Michael in [Cornhill, where she has lived] for fifteen years, fifty years old and more as [she says. Sworn as a witness etc., she says that she has known] Agnes Barbour for eight or nine years, William [Barbour for …] years. Questioned further, she agrees with Ali[ce… ] examined [above].

Testimony of Agnes Swalow, 28 Jul. 1490

[LMA MS DL/C/0206 (loose sheet)]

Agnes Swalow of the parish of St. Michael aforesaid, where she has lived for twenty-two years, of free condition, fifty years [old as she says. Sworn as a witness etc., she says that she has known Alice] Barbour for seven or [eight] years, William Barbour […]

[1] In a 1475 case, a man who was a defendant in a marriage suit introduced evidence from male physicians regarding his similar sexual incapacity (to indicate his inability to marry): in that case, the testimony emphasized a different kind of expertise. LMA, DL/C/0205, fols. 286r-287v.

[2] Although now filed with a later deposition book from the early sixteenth century (LMA, DL/C/0206), by its date this loose sheet belongs with DL/C/A/001/MS09065, matching up with the administrative note on fol. 252v. The loose sheet may be a rough copy, as the handwriting is extremely poor (accounting for some of the ellipses in the entries here). The folio is also mutilated on the sides and the bottom.

[3] This sentence is unfinished in the MS (not due to mutilations).

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