The Impotent Husband
What is a husband? In the eighteenth century, a husband might be married to a wife, assigned his duty as a household functionary, or even be the male counterpart to a female animal or plant. The long history of the word encapsulates household management, mastery, frugality, and cultivation, but also breeding, fecundity, and sex. While to present-day eyes an impotent husband does not seem to be an oxymoron, in the eighteenth century, male impotence was considered grounds for divorce, and thus impotency was precluded from the ecclesiastical and legal definitions of marriage. A husband must be able to execute specific bodily actions to maintain his designation and to retain his legal relationship with his wife; the assumptions of what bodily actions a husband must perform were thus cemented into the state of being a husband. In the first decades of the eighteenth century, these expectations were encoded into various sexual treatises published between 1690 and 1720 that spanned anatomical investigations of the body’s inner workings, examples of proper courtship, and the more explicit instructions on coitus. But the valences of husbands and husbandry were especially fluid in the eighteenth century, when the protocols and expectations of marriage began to transform, moving away from reproduction and economy and toward amity.
Glimpses into these mutable expectations are especially vivid in Ned Ward’s Nuptial Dialogues and Debates: Or, an Useful Prospect of the Felicities and Discomforts of a Marry’d Life (1710), a collection of long poems written in the form of comic dialogues between various (and highly specific) renderings of husbands and wives. References to impotence are scattered throughout Ward’s two-volume work, and they are often used as ammunition by wives against husbands even when other conditions—such as drunkenness, salaciousness, surliness, or melancholia—are the primary subject of Ward’s lampoon. Most marriage advice published in the early eighteenth century insists that the success of marriage comes down to appropriate selection, and the works promise they can help discern all of the signs of a good or bad match. But Ward comes at it from the other direction. He assumes that the bad match has already been made or that bad matches are inevitable. His dialogues probe how such inevitability might best be managed between discordant personalities and failing bodies. Two dialogues concern sexual failure directly, each one approaching the topic from a different avenue: “Between a pert Lady, and an old fumbling Libertine” and “Between a melancholy fanciful Gentleman and his merry bantering Wife.” Through very different entry points, both dialogues question the degree to which the state of marriage rests upon the genital capability, and they both craft arguments that husbands should retain all of the power and relative superiority granted by their role even when their bodies betray them. This chapter explores how Ward’s Nuptial Dialogues reflect the growing anxieties of impotence in the early eighteenth century and illustrate how marriage was positioned to both soothe and aggravate the condition.