The Congress is a uniquely French practice, having lasted about 100 years under the Ancien Régime, requested by a woman to annul her marriage because of the husband's impotence. This humiliating practice, carried out in public, demeaning humans to the rank of animals was fortunately abolished in February 1677.
In ancient times
In Greek times, a woman married to a man unable to procreate could live with another member of her husband's family. Emperor Justinian allowed divorce if for two years the husband could not fulfill his marital duty. Until the 15th century, in the event of a divorce petition, any bishop could decide and summon the husband to swear at the foot of the cross.
Congress under the Ancien Régime
From the 16th century, until the dissolution of the marriage, the road was long and the ordeals more resembled torture: the man had to perform an act of flesh in public "to train, penetrate, wet"!
The two spouses are first questioned separately by judges, in front of a large audience often made up of ecclesiastics and clerks, where they are asked very intimate questions, sometimes leading to misplaced innuendos, even harassment.
After the interrogation, an examination of each of the spouses is scheduled: the man's organ is then "checked, felt, triturated, measured for length and elasticity with natural erection movement".
Either the judges quickly conclude that the husband is helpless and the wife is then not worried, or they cannot make up their minds and request an inspection of the wife's private parts, as to breadth and depth.
Then comes the demonstration in front of witnesses "the Congress"! The man has to storm his wife, in front of doctors, judges, matrons. If he does not succeed, and very often it is the case as mentioned in the dictionary of Trévoux in 1771 "the modesty and the disorder caused by the presence of experts produced the same effect as the natural impotence", it is declared powerless, the marriage dissolved, the man no longer having the right to remarry. Finally, this practice is very advantageous for a woman who wants to get rid of her husband and take her lover.
Following two cases that hit the headlines in the 1650s, the Parliament of Paris drew up a law on February 18, 1677 "forbidding all judges to order proof of Congress in the future". From that time on, when a woman accuses her husband of impotence, it suffices to check whether the reproductive parts are well formed; in the positive case, the woman's request is then rejected.
The adventures of the Marquis de Langey
In 1656, the 25-year-old Marquis de Langey was married to a 14-year-old Saint Simon de Courtomer. After three years of marriage, the bride requests annulment because of her husband's helplessness. The customary interrogations and examinations are carried out and even though the young lady is no longer a girl, she invokes a sterile and "furious" love on the part of her husband. The discontented husband readily submits to the practice of Congress, wanting to prove that he is not powerless, before an assembly made up of prelates, jurists, witnesses and a matron "who went from bed to the next room where the company stood to report on the situation. Alas for the marquis she could only repeat "it is a great pity, he does not nature" ... Having failed, he therefore loses the case, must set his wife free and give her some land. Decided to take revenge, he remarried a few months later with a Protestant who would give him six or seven children!
During this time his ex-wife also remarried a Nompar de Caumont and had three daughters.
The judges did not reverse their decision, believing that a helpless could quite "operate" on time. Then faced with many other cases, not always cleared up, this practice was finally abolished by parliament in 1677.
- The congress, by Jean Guy Soumy. Roman, Editions Robert Laffont, 2010.
- The Impotence Tribunal. Virility and marital failures in ancient France, by Pierre Darmon. Points Histoire, 1986.