The chastity belt: thick, iron underwear fastened with a sturdy padlock, impenetrable without a key. But what about chafing? Peeing? That time of the month? (Yes, women had alternatives before tampons, but still). The whole thing sounds like one of those grotesque, painful devices used for punishment. Were chastity belts ever really used?
For centuries, the chastity belt was a myth used to tease insecure husbands and joke about lustful women – that is until the Victorians grabbed hold of the concept. Were chastity belts real? It turns out those famously showcased in museums were Victorian forgeries – which isn't surprising, considering the Victorian obsession with copulation.
The true history of chastity belts is rife with physical intimacy, anxiety, and misogyny.
The myth of the chastity belt claims that it dates back to the 1100s, when anxious Crusaders "locked up" their wives before they rode off to the Holy Lands. Women’s sexual appetites were legendary, and no husband could expect his wife to remain faithful for years, so the knights felt they only had one choice – a sturdy, iron chastity belt.
There’s only one problem: chastity belts never existed in the medieval period. So why does the myth of the medieval chastity belt have such a strong hold on our imagination? The blame belongs to the Victorians, whose sexual perversions turned the mythical chastity belt into a reality.
In 1405, Konrad Kyeser wrote Bellifortis, a book about military technology, catapults, and interrogation devices. He also snuck in a drawing of a chastity belt. The chastity belt might seem out of place – but Kyeser’s book also included fart jokes, a fanciful elevator, and invisibility devices.
Plus, Kyeser introduced the chastity belt as a joke for noble youth. In the 1400s, chastity belts weren't real – they were jokes.
One of the favorite past-times of folks in the Renaissance was laughing about the ignorance of the medieval period. After all, Petrarch, who helped spark the Renaissance, came up with the term “dark ages” to describe everything before his birth.
As historian Sarah Bond argues, “The truth about chastity belts is that they are largely a fiction constructed in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods in order to conjure a more ‘barbaric’ middle age that had come previously.”
Let’s set aside the physical impossibility of a metal belt intended to block intercourse but allow urination, defecation, and menstruation. Instead, let's focus on the inherent health risks posed by such a contraption. As the Semmelweis Museum points out, a metal chastity belt would doubtlessly cause “deep and gradually more and more infected cuticular wounds within a few days, vaginal or anal infections, serious sepsis, and eventually death.”
Images of chastity belts evoked the male fear of cuckoldry – that their unfaithful wives would make them into mockeries instead of manly men.