There are certainly references to chastity belts in Medieval literature and there are even extant examples of the devices, but were they ever really used? And if they weren’t, how did the myth come to be?
What Was the Chastity Belt?
The surviving information and sources we have all describe the chastity belt in the same way – a metal device which locked around a woman’s genitalia to prevent any sexual activity. There are variations in style. Some belts are said to have had leather straps at the waist, others are described as having a further deterrent to any men who may have tried to bypass the belt in the form of spikes pointing away from the woman’s body (and towards any would-be suitor).
Medieval chastity belt for women. ( Adwo / Adobe)
E.J Dingwall concludes that they were probably invented in Italy around 1400 AD, but he clarifies that they were used very rarely and the evidence for their continued use into the Renaissance period is realistically only in the sixteenth century versions of bodice-ripper novels.
Truth and Fiction
Although there is some evidence of chastity belts from the 1400s, some historians have argued the earliest references to chastity belts were purely metaphorical, particularly as wearing a metal belt tightly around the waist would cut the wearer and, in a time before stainless steel the metal, would not take long to start to rust, likely leading to an infection which could very quickly have turned deadly. The less painful – but frankly still torturous looking devices with leather or velvet straps or linings would have needed to be cleaned frequently and regular removal of the belt would surely have defied the point.
Chasity belts on exhibit at the Criminal Museum Rothenburg ob der Tauber. (Slick-o0bot / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The British Museum assert their belief that the vast majority of chastity belts held in museum collections were made in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as “curiosities for the prurient, or as jokes for the tasteless.” This is an opinion shared by the Haáz Rezsö Museum who recently dedicated an entire exhibition to debunking the myth of the Medieval chastity belt. Their consensus is that the chastity belt was very much like the iron maiden – purely designed to titillate an audience who were excited by the idea of torture devices and the backwards beliefs of their ancestors.
Most of the oldest images of chastity belts are cartoons which parody the chastity belt, making it clear to the reader the belt is nothing more than a fool’s errand. They are a joke at the expense of the departing husband.
A caricature on the ultimate ineffectualness of chastity belts. (Handcuffed / Public Domain )
One late sixteenth century woodcarving goes as far as to draw the husband with donkey’s ears. Carved around the same time as A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written the donkey ears, like Bottom’s donkey head in the play, would have been universally understood to mean ‘this guy is a fool’. It can therefore be surmised that even if chastity belts were available, they were not considered an effective way of keeping your lover loyal.
The Nail in the Coffin?
The oldest surviving depiction of a chastity belt is the Bellifortis sketch from 1405. It is a depiction by the German military engineer Konrad Kyeser. It is a fairly utilitarian sketch and unlike the sixteenth century parodies this one doesn’t feature any comically oblivious husbands. This could be the proof needed to say that they really were a thing, if not for one thing.
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The Bellifortis sketch 1405. (Ghakko / Public Domain )
Kyeser’s writing was not always completely serious. In fact, the very book the sketch is in featured several other jokes and references which were not intended to be taken seriously. Taken in context it is likely this sketch was just another gag to amuse the reader.
Looking at the evidence we have it starts to become clearer that the chastity belt as we imagine it probably didn’t exist. The historical sources we do have would have been interpreted the same way as Robin Hood: Men in Tights is today. Almost every ‘original’ chastity belt held by a museum has now been debunked as an eighteenth or nineteenth century fake, with no evidence it was ever used for its purported intentions.
But one thing does remain after real Medieval chastity belts have been debunked – the joke. The mediums have changed over the years from woodcut, to artifact, and finally the silver screen, but it seems the idea of a lock and key being an effective way to keep your partner loyal was as funny six hundred years ago as it is today.
A 16th-century German satirical colored woodcut whose general theme is the uselessness of chastity belts in ensuring the faithfulness of beautiful young wives married to old ugly husbands