|The truth about Louis XVI's marital difficulties|
Could the phimosis of Louis XVI (1754-1793) have been responsible for his sexual difficulties and his delayed fertility?
George AndroutsosHistory of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ioannina, Greece
Key-Words: delayed sexuality, difficult fertility, phimosis, anorgasmia.
Progres en Urologie, Vol. 12, 2002, pp. 132-137
Translated from the French by Dennis Harrison
SYNOPSISHistorians agree that the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was only consummated seven years after the official ceremony. The delay could have been due to a genital abnormality (phimosis), a strict religious upbringing, a difficult childhood and the immaturity of the spouses, factors that may have inhibited sexuality. In this paper we try to determine whether Louis XVI overcame his sexual problems following an operation (circumcision) or as a result of a spontaneous cure.
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Louis Auguste, Dauphin of France, and Marie Antoinette, an Austrian archduchess, were married on 16 May 1770: two adolescents of about the same age [15-16 years]. Louis, easily overcome by depression, had some bad luck: he couldn’t consummate his marriage. It wasn’t until 19 December 1778, when the queen gave birth to a daughter, that the nasty rumours were put to rest and the royal couple’s fertility was confirmed. What happened -- or rather, what did not happen -- during the eight years of unfruitful marriage?
CHRONICLE of the ROYAL MARRIAGE
During the wedding festivities the dauphin stuffed himself to the gills. “Don’t overburden your stomach tonight,” warned Louis XV. The dauphin replied: “Why not? I always sleep better after a good supper.” A curious response for a young husband! After the meal, the couple, in the presence of the princes, was led to the wedding chamber. Louis XV whispered a few dirty jokes in his grandson’s ear. With the audience gone and the door closed, the young couple spent the night in the same bed. But nothing came of it: Louis’ wedding night was a sleepless one, or so it was presumed by the Duchess of Northumberland, who observed that on the following day “the dauphin yawned very frequently, even though everyone said he had slept very well.” Louis XV learned that his grandson had left the conjugal bed very early the next morning to go hunting. The latter made the following entry for his wedding night in his journal: “Nothing.” From the next evening onwards, Louis slept in his own apartment.  From time to time he went to Marie Antoinette’s chambers and tried ineptly to have sexual relations with her -- an exhausting enterprise which ended in pitiable failure. Did the inhibited Louis ply his wife with clumsy caresses that halted in midstream for lack of encouragement from his partner?
For her part, Marie Antoinette, little more than a child, scarcely possessed the feminine charms needed to thaw a frigid husband. Her aunts advised her to respond to the provocative gestures of her husband and even initiate them herself. But Marie Antoinette was treated very coldly by her husband even a month and a half after her arrival at Versailles. The Spanish ambassador, Count Fuentes, wrote that he had been assured by both the Austrian ambassador, Count Mercy-Argenteau, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Duke of Choiseul, that the royal marriage had not been consummated and that this was due not to some physical obstacle but to a kind of moral frigidity which the dauphin’s private tutor was trying to mitigate; of this they were certain. 
On 8 August Marie Antoinette urged her husband to confide in her. Louis assured her that he knew what was involved in marriage, but that he had imposed upon himself a temporary code of conduct, the term of which had expired, and that at Compiègne he would live with her in the greatest intimacy. But at Compiègne nothing changed. The dauphin continued “pausing for reflection” and the weeks passed in the same fashion. The king resigned himself to having to intervene, but the dauphin requested still more time to “overcome his fear.” Alarmed, Maria Theresa consulted VAN SWIETEN, chief physician to the Viennese court, asking him if some drug might not prove effective, but the latter responded evasively. Once again, she advised her daughter: “Caress, cuddle, but too much haste will ruin everything.” How could the dauphine treat her husband with tenderness when almost every evening he came to her chambers and promptly fell into a deep sleep, exhausted by the hunt? 
At Choisy on 16 July 1770, the dauphin fell ill with a severe cold accompanied by a cough so violent that the doctors feared tuberculosis. On the 18th, Louis was bled by the king’s chief physician, LA MARTINIERE. Louis XV took advantage of the opportunity to ask this excellent anatomist -- known for his candour -- to determine if his grandson had any “natural defect” that might prevent the consummation of marriage. The idea that the dauphin might suffer from phimosis was not new. The previous year, Louis XV had asked his grandson Don Ferdinand -- another member of the family late to discharge his conjugal duties -- if he had not had to undergo a minor, quite common operation which his cousin (the dauphin) might also require. La Martinière examined the dauphin and put the king fully at rest. La Martinière’s consultation, notwithstanding its result, seems to buttress the contention that Louis’ problem was impotence. 
On 23 January 1771, new confidences by Louis to his wife: he confided in her that for the first time he was beginning to feel a certain fondness for her, and that on their wedding night he had intended to consummate their marriage, but that he was held back by a pang of fear that had grown inside him ever since; that he perceived nevertheless that friendship and trust were gaining the upper hand and that he had resolved to obtain for himself the joy of being intimate with her. 
On 21 March, Louis finally slept with his wife. Night after night, he returned to sleep in his wife’s bed. According to the “Journal” of the historiographer Jacob Nicolas MOREAU, Louis may have consummated his marriage on 26 March 1771. In reality, the attempt was only partly successful since the penetration was incomplete, as suggested by MERCY in his despatch of 17 April. The latter, in his report of 23 January 1772, mentions medicinal baths which could have been prescribed for the dauphin, followed by “a very minor operation deemed necessary to remove the obstacles preventing the prince from consummating his marriage.” As for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Duke of AIGUILLON, he suggested to the Count of MARMORA that the dauphin could not fulfil his conjugal obligations owing to a “lack of erection.” 
On 28 October 1772, the king summoned the two young spouses to his chambers and demanded a full account of their progress along the path to conjugal intimacy. “The young prince declared that he had attempted to consummate his marriage but feelings of pain always prevented him from doing so, and he was uncertain whether the pain was caused by a physical abnormality or some other factor.” According to MERCY, Louis XV may have decided to examine his grandson himself two days later. And he found that “the very small obstacle which exists is an extremely common condition in adolescents and does not require an operation. He inspired a sense of security in the dauphin who promised to carry out his marital obligations.”  The king, fearing that the dauphin might suffer from some defect that was not readily apparent, pressed him to consult his own physician, Joseph de LASSONE. The dauphin did so with good grace.
LASSONE, aware of the importance of his mission, embarked on an interrogation followed by a detailed examination. He concluded that everything would work out, since his royal patient seemed very much aware of his duty and was unaffected by any abnormality that would prevent the consummation of his marriage. A happy Antoinette eagerly brought the good tidings to her mother, adding that her husband’s “nonchalance and laziness never deserted him except during the hunt.”  But word soon spread that the dauphin had a small anatomical defect, the nature of which was known in surprising detail. It was said he had a “general phimosis which until recently was of no concern to anyone, but that at certain moments it caused pain so sharp that he had to curb his impulses.” Unfortunately, the dauphin would not hear of having an operation, at least for the moment. It took him another three years to come to a decision !
With the death of Louis XV in 1774, his grandson and his wife became king and queen of France. Now that they reigned over Europe’s “most beautiful kingdom,” the need for progeny became imperative. After four years of marriage their union was still infertile. Louis XVI doesn’t seem to have made many efforts to overcome his problems. At any rate, he didn’t go about it with much haste. Here’s what Count Aranda had to say on the subject in a letter dated 5 August 1774:
“Some say the frenum is so short that the prepuce does not retract upon entry, causing His Majesty much pain and forcing him to curtail the movements necessary to complete the act. Others think a tight prepuce prevents the head of the penis from being exposed, making it impossible for His Majesty to have full erections. If it’s a matter of a short frenum, this condition is found in many individuals, causing problems when they first become sexually active; but since most people have a stronger sex drive than His Majesty (a reflection of his temperament or inexperience), they manage -- with practice, a groan of pain and some good will -- to tear the frenum completely, or sufficiently to keep using it, so that gradually intercourse becomes normal. But when the patient is timid, the surgeon makes a small incision, doing away with the obstacle. If the problem is a tight prepuce, one could resort to an operation which at the king’s age is more painful and severe, requiring a kind of circumcision, because if the rough edges of the lips of the incision are not made smooth, intercourse could be impossible.” 
Toward the end of 1774, it was said that young Louis was finally going to confide in a doctor. Even a date was cited: 17 December. Yet the year ended with no payoff. Antoinette tried not to lose hope; while waiting, she continued her habit of “disappearing” and incurring the reproaches of her friends. Naturally, everyone knew about the king’s impotence. It was talked about openly at the Court as well as in the city. Poems of a more or less disrespectful nature made the rounds of Paris.  Once again Louis XVI realized that he had to yield to common sense. Again people talked of an intervention during the winter. The queen, for her part, did not seem very optimistic. “I strongly doubt,” she said to her mother, “that the king has resolved to go through with the operation. Unfortunately, the doctors are confusing him. My doctor thinks the operation is not necessary, but could be very useful. The king’s doctor, who is an old fogy, says there many drawbacks to having the operation and an equal number of drawbacks in not having it ... we are in the midst of an epidemic of satirical songs ... the need for the operation is the main thing used against the king. I haven’t been spared either: I’ve been accused of having a taste for both women and men ...”  The queen was accused in effect of having special tastes because of her close ties to the Princess of LAMBALLE and Mme de Polignac.  Was Marie Antoinette a lesbian? It is very difficult to give a definitive answer, because there is no compelling evidence. Until there is proof to the contrary, we will think the queen’s friendship with the above ladies was platonic. As for male lovers, her relationship with the handsome Duke of Coigny was absolutely platonic. 
On 15 January 1776, Louis XVI consulted a well-known surgeon at l’Hôtel-Dieu, Jacques-Louis MOREAU. Afterwards Marie Antoinette wrote her mother: “He said pretty much the same thing as the others, that the operation was not necessary and that all would be well without it ...” .
The arrival in France of the queen’s brother, Joseph II, in 1777, provoked a crisis that was not without benefits. Louis XVI didn’t seem embarrassed by the inquiry launched by his brother-in-law. To the contrary, he willingly confided in him, describing his physical condition in detail and requesting advice. To believe some rumours, the Austrian insisted on an immediate intervention and even offered to hold the patient during the operation. Unfortunately, LASSONE’s secret report, invoked to support these assertions, was never published in full. Joseph wrote to the Grand Duke of Tuscany: “In the end, it’s not a weakness of the body or spirit; it’s simply that he hasn’t had his ‘let there be light’ moment yet, his technique is still in the process of formation ... In his marriage bed, he has strong erections, he inserts his member, remains there for perhaps two minutes without moving, withdraws without ejaculating, and while still erect, bids good night. It’s incomprehensible. He sometimes has nocturnal emissions but always while lying motionless. He’s satisfied, saying he does it only out of a sense of duty but has no desire for it. Ah, if only I could have been present once, I would have set him straight! He should be whipped until he discharges in anger like a donkey. My sister does not have the temperament for this and together they make an utterly inept couple.”
Joseph II left Versailles on 30 May and two months later Louis XVI confessed to his aunts: “I delight in the pleasure, and I regret that I wasn’t aware of it for so long!” The Austrian ambassador confirmed this “most interesting event,” adding that it took place on 18 August: “The king went to see his wife just as she was finishing her bath; the spouses were together for about an hour and one-quarter; the king demanded a commitment from the queen that what had happened between them remain a secret. The only exception was to be the primary physician, LASSONE, who, informed by the king of all the circumstances, did not hesitate to affirm that the marriage had been consummated.”  On 30 August, Antoinette too confirmed the happy event, telling her mother: “I’m experiencing the most fundamental pleasure ... it has been eight days since our marriage was consummated. The act was repeated and yesterday it was more complete than the first time ... I don’t think I’m pregnant yet but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened at any moment.”  The enigmatic expression “most fundamental pleasure” could signify that Antoinette had discovered orgasm.
Most historians believe that the royal marriage was not consummated until 1777, either after Louis finally agreed to an operation or after long-dormant passions at last came to life. Let us discuss his inhibitions and his physiological difficulties. Louis and Antoinette were married too early and were not attracted to each other. The dauphine, who lacked self-understanding (the sexual education of princesses was extremely limited), found herself at the age of 15 in the arms of a man she didn’t know. The wedding night was a fiasco, as were subsequent attempts at intimacy. Both had received the same prudish, austere upbringing. It is probable that the king had a low sex drive. Immature, maladroit -- undoubtedly hindered by an anatomical defect -- he didn’t know how to arouse his wife’s passions. Easily discouraged, inhibited by a strict upbringing, he showed little enthusiasm for the art of love. And his wife, who derived no pleasure from her husband’s amorous enterprises, had no strong desire to encourage them. Dining on the fruit of the hunt, the dauphin gained weight; there may be an element of mystery here: he could have suffered from diabetes which initially had a positive effect in that it transformed a delicate child into a heavy-set young man.
Louis XVI avoided both reputable and disreputable women, never receiving them in his apartments. This disaffection with women cannot be put down to the overly-famous phimosis, since it is agreed that even after being liberated by an operation, he remained the only king in the long history of the Capetian dynasty never to have a mistress or a favourite!
Two things should be considered. Firstly, the strange relation with his own body : Louis XVI must have viewed his body as a traitor and must have been deeply troubled by it. Secondly, it is probable that he took refuge in silence. At the physiological level, Louis, according to some sources, could have had the skin of the penis very slightly joined to the scrotum, which would make intercourse with a woman impossible even supposing normal erections.  Either he didn’t become aware of this hindrance until very late, or as alleged by those who attribute to him a naivety he didn’t have -- he didn’t notice it until after marriage. The truth -- hypothetically -- lies somewhere in between.
On 14 November 1772 MERCY  confirms first of all that Louis was not at all impotent. But what is the mysterious condition, “extremely common in adolescents,” that eluded the expert eye of La MARTINIERE? If it existed, it must have been a malformation of the frenum of the prepuce, too short to allow exposure of the glans -- a hindrance likely to disappear in the bonfire of the first sexual relations. But the “painful sensations” experienced by the dauphin could have been aggravated by the tightness and dryness of his partner. In that case, the latter could have suffered equally.
A few points, however, remain obscure as to the precise diagnosis of Louis XVI’s ailment, specifically the effects it had on his overall behaviour and the exact nature of the intervention which finally allowed him to discover his own sexuality, a sexuality that may not have been white-hot, but at least seemed to lie within normal limits.
Regarding the first point, all the “evidence,” if such it can be called since we have no documents originating with the physicians themselves, points in the direction of phimosis.  Given the rather withdrawn character of the dauphin, his strict, prudish upbringing, and his youth and inexperience, it is hardly surprising that this impairment went unnoticed. On the other hand, it seems surprising in light of the fondness he felt for his wife that he was not motivated to seek the assistance of physicians in becoming a “man like the others,” one who could fulfil his marital obligations. He did nothing about it. There is universal agreement that Louis did not seem bothered by his condition and showed no signs of a “complex.” He disregarded gibes and snide remarks, even laughed at them himself! How can this indifference be explained?
All the descriptions we have of the dauphin, at the time of his marriage and during the years that followed it, evoke a boy heavy in body and spirit, slow of movement and speech, much given to sleep.  Is this not the perfect picture of a young man with late puberty syndrome (adiposogenital dystrophy)? In this way, in concert with the anatomical peculiarity under discussion or perhaps subsequent to it, a kind of apathy caused by a dulling of glandular functions turned this adolescent into a perfectly calm individual. That was the way nature made him, and if the lancet had been used at an early age, allowing normal anatomical development and an earlier awakening of his virility, things would undoubtedly have been different. But the years went by [without an intervention]. Louis manifestly refused to take heroic measures to end a stupid situation. Why? Fear of pain, fear of an unsatisfactory outcome, fear of death were all invoked in turn. (This was a simple operation for La VERDE, but an operation that on the one hand was rather dangerous, like any intervention done at a time when no one had any notion of hygiene, while on the other hand very brief, but always quite painful, since it was done without anesthesia!).
Yet in the course of his life Louis XVI gave enough proof of physical and moral courage. Would it not be simpler to think that, in light of the assurances given by certain doctors, the king sincerely believed that things would take care of themselves without intervention and that in such circumstances, there was no point in hurrying to make a decision? This possibility was presented as probable by some distinguished surgeons. In his “Manual of Surgical Operations,” published in 1760, the celebrated Pierre DIONIS, considered an authority in the field, came out solidly against the practice of circumcision to treat phimosis, a condition which in his view, generally resolved spontaneously. That was also the advice of MOREAU, surgeon of l’Hôtel-Dieu, called to consultation in 1776, who said that His Majesty would in all likelihood require no intervention if he simply bore with it. 
Nevertheless, according to rumours circulating at the time, which no one questioned, extreme measures were taken at the insistence of Joseph II. Was the guidance of his brother-in-law of benefit to Louis XVI? Did he prepare himself -- as generations of historians have maintained -- for a cut so hypothetical that it left no mark in any document of the era? In truth we have no text giving precise details, either on the date of the operation, or its exact nature, or the identity of the surgeon who assumed responsibility. We must rely therefore on guesswork and we are obliged to suppose that nothing more was involved than a simple cut of the lancet, enough to remove the restraint, and that the wound healed without complications of infection, since the king never altered his lifestyle and never took time off.
A single clue suggests that Dr. LASSONE was able to operate on the king. On 12 September 1872 [sic: the correct date is 12 September 1786 - DH: see Ref. 13] he read a paper at a meeting of the Royal Medical Society, called a “Concise manual of treatment of venereal disease in the country.” The author describes phimosis and recommends that it be reduced by “making small transverse incisions with a lancet, to loosen the fibres of the prepuce which form a noose around the corona, strangling it ...” He then describes the operating procedure in detail and concludes: “the loosening accomplished, the patient is allowed to rest, and baume samaritain [an ointment made of wine and olive oil - DH] is injected between the glans and prepuce to heal the small cuts that had to be made.” Did LASSONE perform an intervention of this kind on Louis XVI? Even if he did, this operation never made Louis into an impetuous lover, but the desired result was obtained, to the delight of the parties involved and the relief of an entire nation. The only regret the couple could possibly have had was that it took so long to attain their goal!
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[13. Translator's note: Instruction sommaire sur le traitement des Maladies Vénériennes dans les campagnes. Lue dans la Séance tenue au Louvre par la Société Royale de Médecine le 12 Septembre 1786. Rédigée et publiée par ordre du Gouvernement. Valenciennes, De l' Imprimerie de J. B. Henry, Imprimeur du Roi, 1787. Book available at Antiquebook, France. ]
NOTEOriginally published as “Le phimosis de Louis XVI (1754-1793) aurait-il été à l’origine de ses difficultés sexuelles et de sa fécondité retardée?”, in Progres en Urologie, Vol. 12, 2002, pp. 132-137
Original in French available as pdf download here.
I am most grateful to Dennis Harrison, of Vancouver, Canada, for his excellent translation.