Medieval Chastity belts were an early urban myth
Thanks, Victorians

Chastity belts are a story that’s been told for hundreds of years.

Medieval men going off to the crusades (for years at a time) would fasten an metal underwear to their wives with a large padlock.

This would ensure the fidelity and chastity of said wives until the husband would return.

Only problem is, chastity belts were likely a myth that was revived by the (kinky or puritanical – take your pick) Victorians.

Chastity Belt and Siege Machines

The 1405 Bellifortis illustration. KONRAD KYESER/WIKIMEDIA

The first ever image of a chastity belt comes from a 1405 drawing in a work called Bellifortis.

(Appropriately, it’s a treatise on siege machines.)

The “female chastity device” is accompanied by this text (translated):

These are hard iron breeches of Florentine women which are closed at the front.

He goes on to state in an equally ironic tone,

Padlocks unto the four-legged creatures, breeches unto the women of Florence, A joke binds this lovely series together, I recommend them to the noble and obedient youth.

Worth noting that this picture is an afterword in a book on engineering that also features fart jokes!

Academics began to question the authenticity of the devices when they could find no mention of chastity belts (beyond allegorical) in any serious historical context.

In 1996, Felicity Riddy, a representative of Medieval Studies at York University said:

“There is no medieval evidence, from Chaucer or anyone else. It all points to an early urban myth brought back to life by the Victorians”.

The British Museum admits to having a fake one. On their website, the chastity belt is accompanied by the note:

”It is probable that the great majority of examples now existing were made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as curiosities for the prurient, or as jokes for the tasteless.”

A chastity belt from Musée de Cluny’s collection was once thought to belong to Catherine de Medici until a metal test  in the 90s showed it was from the early 19th-century.

As for our notion of Chastity belts, Professor Albrecht Classen points out that “a woman would not even survive the consequent hygienic and health problems after several days”.

Ancient Rome

The belts first originated in Ancient Rome where brides would wear white tunics and a corded belt to signify her chastity, which would be tied in a Herculanean knot that her husband would later untie.

Interestingly, men also men also wore a knotted belt.

Military men, too, would wear similar knotted belts and the idea prevailed in the early and high middle ages that it symbolize modesty and chastity.

It’s likely that references to chastity belts were allegorical. A lady told to keep her chastity belt or girdle around the body knew the advice wasn’t meant literally.

Medieval People in on the joke

Around the 16th century, we see more satirical illustrations, engravings, and woodcuts featuring the chastity belt.

A typical German print from the late 1500s, now at The British Museum, portrays a nubile young woman bidding her husband (who seems to have donkey-ears) farewell.

She hands him a key to the chastity belt around her waist, her only item of clothing.

In the shadows waits another man with a second key!

Medieval people seem to have been in on the joke. Victorians, not so much.

As with the Iron Maiden, they fictionalized and faked the chastity belt for museums in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Why? To show how brutal and dark the middle ages were compared to their own enlightened, modern era.

Meanwhile, Victorian treatments for masturbation included chastity belts

“or toothed urethral rings that would prick the penis if it became erect, metal strap-on-and-lock sheaths to cover the penis or vulva, or electric alarms that promised to put an end to wet dreams.”

There are more chastity belts around now than there ever were in the middle ages.

(See: local adult shop.)

Paradoxically, they exist to stimulate sex,  not to prevent it.

 

 

For more on this subject, check out the wonderful book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process by Albrecht Classen.

 

Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.