The idea of the chastity belt was popularized during the Crusades when men would leave their wives for years to fight in wars.
The chastity belt has appeared in everything from medieval texts to movies like Robin Hood: Men In Tights. But, what’s myth and what’s fact when it comes to these infamous and widely misunderstood devices?
What Was The Chastity Belt?
According to various texts and legends, the chastity belt is a metal device that locks around a person’s genital area to prevent sexual intercourse and masturbation.
The design of the chastity belt was said to have varied by region, though they all had the same basic design. The belts were supposedly often made of metal, though some had leather straps to attach around the waist. Though they were referred to as “belts,” they resemble something closer to a pair of metal underwear, with small holes for waste excretion.
Some of the belts had holes lined with sharp points that jutted out away from the woman’s body as a means to further deter any men who might get near. Other belts were less torturous looking, though likely still extremely uncomfortable.
One belt, on display at the Musée de Cluny in Paris and said to have belonged to Catherine de Medici, is of the former variety, a simple velvet hoop with a small iron plate attached to the front. Another, said to have been worn by Anne of Austria, is a hinged pair of plates attached by a metal waistband.
Some of the chastity belts were reportedly even padded to avoid cutting or scratching the woman wearing it. Unfortunately, the pads were easy to soil and had to be changed often. As the belt had to be removed in order to change out the padding, the point of the belt was then negated. Additionally, the belts were not meant to inspire comfort, but thoughts of one’s husband away at war the chaste life one was supposed to be leading in his absence.
Myth Vs. Reality
References to chastity belts have been found in texts dating from as early as the first century, but according to Medieval historian Albrecht Classen, the existence of these items may be little more than a myth.
The earliest descriptions of chastity belts are mostly found in religious texts. However, there are actually very few indications that women should literally wear a metal belt to prevent sex – most seem to indicate that the idea was used more as a metaphor than in actual practice.
This idea of the chastity belt is thought to date back to medieval times when men would lock up their wives or daughters to ensure their virginity and fidelity. The texts suggest that the belts were used during the Crusades when men would leave their wives to fight in wars. While they were gone, their wives would be outfitted with a chastity belt to prevent temptation and preserve their faithfulness until their husbands returned with the key.
The first drawing of a belt was depicted in a book called Bellifortis, written in 1405 by a German military engineer named Konrad Kyeser.
However, historians have noted that Kyeser’s writing was often comical, and the book included several jokes and references to things that were not meant to be taken literally. With this in mind, it’s possible that the drawing of the belt was another one of his wisecracks placed throughout the book.
It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that references and depictions of chastity belts became commonplace. Even then, the references don’t show the actual usage of the belts.
An Age-Old Myth
Instead, they seem to be comical references to the specific male fear that their wives would cheat on them with other, younger men. While this may have been a common worry, there is little proof that men actually forced their wives to lock up their bodies to assuage their fears.
However, there is no denying that chastity belts were made at some point since there are many of them on display across the world. But the chastity belts we see in museums may very well be forgeries, reproductions, or, at the very least, created much later than tradition says.
Rather than being implemented in the middle ages, they were more likely created in the late eighteenth or nineteenth century. According to Classon, these devices were most likely created as jokes, never intended to be taken seriously and never actually used.
While chastity and fidelity have been widely valued virtues throughout history, women’s bodies were most likely not kept under lock and key at any point in time. While the belief that women should remain chaste is not a myth, the idea that chastity belts were employed to physically lock them up probably is.