… so goes the headline at this Atlas Obscura article on that very subject. The article leads off:
In his 1969 book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), David R. Reuben described it as an “armored bikini” with a “screen in front to allow urination and an inch of iron between the vagina and temptation.” “The whole business was fastened with a large padlock,” he wrote. With this device, medieval men going off to medieval wars could be assured that their wives would not have sex with anyone else where they were far, far away, for years at a time.
Yes, it sounds simultaneously ridiculous, barbarous and extremely unhygienic, but…medieval men, you know? It was a different time.
This, at least, has been the story that’s been told for hundreds of years. It’s simple, shocking, and, on some level, fun, in that it portrays past people as exceeding backwards and us, by extension, as enlightened and just better. It’s also, mostly likely, very wrong.
So that old joke about Lancelot and Guinevere? It remains a joke, apparently.
When one considers the evidence for medieval chastity belts, as Classen did in his book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-making Process, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that there’s not much of it. First of all, there aren’t actually all that many pictures of or accounts of using chastity belts, and even fewer physical specimens. And the few book-length works on the topic rely heavily on each other and all cite the same few examples.
So, pretty much like Bigfoot or Alien Technology writers – they all pretty much cite each other.
“You have a bunch of literary representation, but very few historical references to a man trying to put a chastity belt on his wife,” says Classen. And, any literary reference to a chastity belt is likely either allegorical or satirical.
References in European texts to chastity belts go back centuries, well into the first millennium A.D. But until the 1100s, those references are all couched in theology, as metaphors for the idea of fidelity and purity. For example: One Latin source admonishes the “honest virgin” to “hold the helmet of salvation on your front, the word of truth in the mouth…true love of God and your neighbor in the chest, the girdle of chastity in the body….” Possibly virgins who took this advice went around wearing metal helmets and keeping some physical manifestation of the word “truth” in their cheek, like a wad of tobacco, in additional to strapping on metal underwear. Or, possibly, none of this is meant to be taken literally.
It’s interesting that today, chastity belts/devices are most assuredly not a path toward purity, but are used as sex toys, and (at least for men) seem to enhance, rather than restrict, their sexual thoughts.
But wait – how did people back in those days take the depictions of chastity belts?
In other words, even in the 1500s, no one took the idea of locked-up metal underwear very seriously as an effective anti-sex device. When chastity belts were depicted, it was in the Renaissance equivalent of Robin Hood: Men in Tights—and the audiences for those pieces of art probably thought the idea of a metal chastity belt just as giggle-worthy as late 20th century teenagers did.
The authors make an entirely relevant point:
Why has the myth of the chastity belt endured? It’s hard to disprove an idea once it’s firmly lodged in people’s minds. As a result, the same scant information has managed to convince generations that medieval men locked up their wives’ nether regions. Even the practical difficulties of such a device—as one historian wrote, “How could such a mechanism have been designed to permit the normal activities of urination, evacuation, menstruation, and hygiene, yet prevent both anal and vaginal penetration?”—have not dissuaded people from believing in chastity belts.
Certainly a good portion of the conversations on many chastity boards – and especially on our own The Chastity Forums – are involved with creating or modifying a device for long term wear that will allow users to take care of basic hygiene and comfort.
But the article ends with the suggestion that the authors may have been around this or similar blogs:
But for many people, it’s simply a fantasy about sex. Even if chastity belts used to enforce medieval fidelity were not real, modern-day chastity belts, sold as fetish objects, definitely, definitely are.
Not specifically medieval, but at least chastity related…