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Medieval Chastity Belts Are a Myth

People probably chuckled just as much then about the idea as they do today

A satirical 16th-century print showing a chastity belt (Heinrich Wirrich/British Museum (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons))
smithsonian.com

A German print from the late 1500s, now at The British Museum, depicts a young, mostly naked woman bidding her husband farewell. As she does so, she hands him a key, to the a locked belt around her waist, her only bit of clothing. In the shadows lurks another man with a second key, the man leaving has the donkey-ears of a cuckold and is visually compared to a fool in the corner attempting to keep fleas in a basket, a doomed attempt for sure. You are likely familiar with the concept of the chastity belt — a piece of hardware that literally locked up a wife or daughter's netherregions, used in the middle ages. The problem is that they never actually existed. 

As Sarah Laskow writes for Atlas Obscura, men likely did not gird their women with metal contraptions designed to keep them faithful. But if chastity belts were never common, how did the myth come to be? Laskow explains:

What could account for the persistence of that story? "Male fear," according to [Albrecht Classen, a German Studies profess of at the University of Arizona]. "There’s always a lover in the background who already has the duplicate key, he says. 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.

Classen details the story in his book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process. The few devices that make an appearance in museums were constructed more recently than the Middle Ages from whence they claim to come hail. The British Museum has one such fake chastity belt. On their website, the piece is accompanied by the note that "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."

Laskow explains that textual references to chastity belts may have originally been serious, but were allegorical. Ladies told to keep their chastity belt or girdle around the body knew the advice wasn’t meant literally.

While the medieval version most certainly did not exist as a serious thing, modern chastity belts are real — though most are confined to the realm of fetish play, where male chastity belt wearers can also get in on the fun. Oh and there’s also a band based in Walla Walla, Washington that goes by the name Chastity Belt

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