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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A look back at the dick-yanking and rod-measuring of medieval England's divorce courts

Illustration for article titled A look back at the dick-yanking and rod-measuring of medieval England's divorce courts
Photo: Memmo di Filippuccio via Fine Art (Getty Images)

For as much as modern life can suck, it’s always good to remember how grateful we should be not to have lived in other, worse places at shittier times in the past. For a good example of this, consider what it was like to get a divorce—and have a bunch of people pulling on and inspecting your bits—in medieval England.


An article called “The Distinguished Medieval Penis Investigators” from Narratively explains just how awful the process of divorce could be for the 14th century English. In order to end a marriage, women of the time had “few grounds” other than to claim their husband was impotent—and to prove it before a court through some really creative experiments.

The article cites an annulment case from 1370 where a woman “filed for divorce ... claiming that her husband was impotent.” To make her case, she produced a witness before a church court. The witness said he saw the pair “applying themselves with zeal to the work of carnal intercourse” in a barn and that, even with the husband’s brother looking on and (sorry for the detail) helping out by literally lending a hand, the husband’s “rod was lowered and in no way rising or becoming erect.”

The church court would also consider evidence from “the defendant’s friends and neighbors,” who would perform “physical inspections of genitals and breasts... to determined impotence, virginity, and pregnancy.” Married or widowed women or sex workers “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.” While “ale, tasty snacks” and a handy in a warm room might not sound so bad, other divorces entailed even more invasive forms of junk-assessment.

One of the other cases mentioned in the article is from 1433. In a divorce recorded that year, a bunch of people got together at a tavern to check out the wiener quality of a guy named William as his marriage fell apart. “One Robert Lincoln testified that William placed his ‘manly rod’ in his hand,” we learn. “On another evening, three men examined William’s ‘secret manly members’ at a friend’s house. They also gave his penis rave reviews, often comparing it to their own. One testified that he himself had fathered 10 children and that ‘William’s was better in length and girth than [my] rod ever was’. Another reported that William Barton had ‘large and fit testicles...’” Some of the women involved disagreed, with one testifying that “his rod was of no value.” We can picture William, moping at this comment after his dick had initially received such glowing public praise.

Read the entire piece for more fraternal dick-yanking, rod-measuring stories, and, maybe, some inspiration for anyone trying to dream up a Divorce spin-off.

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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Reid's a writer and editor who has appeared at GQ, Playboy, and Paste. He also co-created and writes for videogame sites Bullet Points Monthly and Digital Love Child.