Body Explanations and the Meanings of Impotence in Early Modern England 1
Medical manuals blamed men’s as well as women’s bodies for infertility throughout the period 1500 to 1800, though most texts prioritized the failings of the female body. The Galenic one-sex model of the body figured female “seed” as weaker than men’s. However, van Leeuwenhoek’s observations of the wriggling “homunculi” under the microscope challenged the idea that female “seed” was just a weaker version of men’s, encouraging reassessment of the role of seed in the sex act and fertility. The failings of men and their bodies came under the spotlight against a backdrop of falling marriage and birth rates after the civil war. Male impotence entered a cultural discourse that embraced everything from pronatalism to political satire and popular sex manuals. One of the consequences was a shift from thinking that compact, smaller penises were ideal to a cultural premium being placed on large penises. A man’s “impotence” signified his failure of masculinity at home and in the state. As a result, libertine behavior became tolerated, as men pursued a self-regarding, priapic masculinity at the same time as anxiously concerning themselves with the damaging consequences of masturbation and sexual vice. Therefore, if there was a “first sexual revolution” from the later seventeenth century, it came at the high price of men fearing penile failure just as witchcraft and other explanations for male impotence lost cultural currency.