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  • Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages
  • Elspeth Whitney
Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages. By Catherine Rider. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. 268. $163.00 (cloth).

"There are some people who, impeded by spells, cannot have intercourse with their wives." So begins the section on impotence caused by magic in Constantine the African's Pantegni, a seminal text for many later medical discussions of the topic. Catherine Rider's highly readable and impeccably researched survey explores the intersection of magic and impotence from the ancient world through the first half of the fifteenth century. Focusing on references to impotence caused by magic in learned culture but sensitive to the dynamic interaction of popular and elite culture, this beautifully executed volume illuminates a little-researched subject with clarity and thoroughness.

Rider's careful tracing of textual references elucidates the diversity and persistency of elite interest in impotence caused by magic and demonstrates [End Page 419] how it came to be of such importance in medieval marriage law, pastoral care, and medical learning. This book thus confirms the work of Richard Kieckhefer, Valerie Flint, and others in demonstrating that magic was an integral part of medieval society on both the elite and popular levels.1 The legal importance of magically caused impotence stemmed from the fact that, following a judgment reached by Hincmar of Rheims in the ninth century (a principle called Si per sortiaris), impotence caused by bewitchment, if found to be incurable by prayer and confession, was grounds for the dissolution of a marriage and allowed both parties to remarry. The principle made its way into Gratian's Decretum and Peter Lombard's Sentences, ensuring that it would be widely commented on and its premises often debated. As Rider persuasively shows, medieval canonists did not write in a vacuum but were aware of lay beliefs and practices, sometimes incorporating magical cures into their discussion and outlining legal procedures for proving impotence, including oaths taken by the wife, husband, and other witnesses and the physical inspection of the wife to ascertain if she were still a virgin. Rider suggests that the opinions of the canonists may often have reflected real cases, giving us a glimpse into the marital problems and anxieties of medieval couples. (Appendix 2 provides a list of twenty-two actual cases of alleged impotence caused by magic between 857 and 1450 of sufficient importance to have been recorded in sources.) The church's growing interest in pastoral care in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries also stimulated an interest in impotence magic, along with the attendant problems of whether magic could legitimately be used to cure impotence and whether, once cured, a husband must return to his wife. Sometimes ecclesiastical writers included descriptions of magical cures, even when recommending against their use; Roffredus of Benevento, for example, tells us that "many women" make their impotent husbands wear their trousers on their heads for a day and night or stand naked outside all night wearing only a stole. Both canonists and theologians varied in the degree to which they were willing to accommodate the desires of the laity to escape unhappy marriages; while some were sensitive to the emotional pain of impotence within marriage, others were more attuned to the possibility that impotence could be used as a frivolous excuse to dissolve a marriage. Not surprisingly, the church opted to guard against the latter possibility by requiring couples to stay together and try to have sex for three years before granting an annulment on the grounds of impotence caused by magic.

Rider also provides a very interesting review of impotence caused by magic in medical texts. Here the pivotal text is Constantine the African's [End Page 420] Pantegni, and Rider thoughtfully provides a critical edition and translation of the relevant chapter in an appendix. The medical literature, some of which was influenced by texts on magic translated from Arabic in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, was less systematic in its treatment of impotence caused by magic than discussions in canon law or theology, in large part, according to Rider, because physicians did not comment on a text in the way that canon lawyers...


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