In both my books about historical sex, Sinner’s Grand Tour and Napoleon’s Privates, the legend of the medieval chastity belt cropped up regularly. Examples of these sinister devices are displayed all over Europe, often in hokey “Torture Museums” for wide-eyed tourists. But what’s the truth behind the stories? I began to dig a little, and found that, as usual, the real story was more complicated (and interesting) than the myth…
DESPERATE CRUSADER WIVES: Who wore the chastity belt?
Long-distance relationships have always been problematic. Tradition holds that it was the first Crusaders who devised chastity belts to keep their wives faithful while they were on campaign in the Holy Land in 1196. But as with so many things, the Middle Ages get a bad rap: These sadistic fashion accessories were actually invented in Renaissance Italy some two centuries afterwards. Today, the oldest authentic chastity belts date from the 1500s; other versions once thought to date from the crusader era have been discredited as nineteenth-century copies made for Victorian collectors as “erotic” curios. What’s more, while there are still quite a few fiendish-looking examples of “iron knickers” (as the English called them) on display today in the museums of Europe, there are as yet no first-hand reports from any women who were forced to wear them.
Studying the authentic belts, scholars have charted how their design evolved over time. The simplest had a leather-padded metal band around the waist and an “eagle’s beak” of metal or ivory that cupped over the vagina. Soon, Italian husbands realized that this left their wives vulnerable to “the methods of coitus which were said to have been introduced into Italy from the East,” (in the discreet words of learned chastity belt specialist E.J. Dingwall). A new model offered a metal band that could be locked between a woman’s legs, leaving only a small opening for both anus and vagina. The style-conscious Italian artists beautified the belts with heart-shaped orifices, golden inlay, elaborate scrollwork and tasteful images of Adam and Eve. One at the Museum of Kalmar in Sweden has a naked woman grabbing a fox’s bushy tail as he passes between her legs (“Stop, little fox! I have caught you. You have often been through there!”)
The obvious discomfort and impracticality of wearing these torturous items has led some historians to insist they were never really used. But the consensus today is that they probably were worn by some unfortunate women, in rare cases and for short periods of time. (Specific references are thin on the ground and late in date, but in France in 1750, a Nîmes lawyer prosecuted one Pierre Berlhe for deflowering a young lady and then locking her in a belt. A female skeleton from the 1700s was exhumed in a small Austrian cemetery and found to have a rusted belt locked around the hips. And as late as 1892, Parisians were shocked by the sensational case of a man named Hufferte who tied his wife to a bed in a belt). Obviously, there were some serious hygiene issues. As the author Elizabeth Abbot sums it up with excessive clarity in the History of Celibacy: “the interior of the belt must soon have been fetid, soiled, and caked with errant excrement. Sleeping must have been nightmarishly difficult, as the belt pressed down into the flesh. Washing the enclosed areas was impossible, for the sharp metal teeth at each womanly aperture would be as lethal to fingers holding a cloth as to a penis.”