Chastity Belts: An “Academically Approved” Forum for Talking About Sex

So says Proffessor Albrecht Classen of the University of Arizona, author of “The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process”. The estimable Prof. Classen gave a paper for the Centre for Medieval Studies here, by the same title as his book. Many new and interesting things were learnt by all, I’m sure. For example, did you know:

* That before Classen, only five major studies of the medieval chastity belt had been written? The earliest was published in the 1880s, and the last in the 1990s. They all rely more-or-less on each other, are very difficult to get hold of due to the shady associations of the topic, and one of them was self-published and only two copies survive. It is also Classen’s opinion that none of them did very thorough artefact research- as well as not considering the possibility that the items in castles and museums might not be as old as their owners claim, apparently none of these five authors felt obliged to give useful details like item numbers and locations to back up their studies.

* There are no manuscript or literary examples of chastity belts before 1405? The aforementioned five books all cite various literary examples, which Classen carefully went through and demonstrated to be gross misinterpretations of a trope which associated belts with either a) prowess and heroics or b) love and romance, and sometimes both. See, for example, our dear friend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Apparently Gawain’s girdle is cited by all these five books as an example of a chastity belt! Excuse me while I die of hilarity now.)

* Belts, chaste or otherwise, didn’t come into fashion until around 1170? Before that, you had no idea where your top ended and your bottom began!

* The first known image of a chastity belt was drawn by a siege weapons designer? It appears, in 1405, in a manuscript called the Bellifortis, written by Kyeser von Eichstadt, accompanied by a rhyme about the dirty habits of Florentines, who supposedly invented the things. This is interesting, because everywhere else, although later, blames the Paduans. At any rate, this first example seems to have been a joke, a way of picking on the Florentines by mocking their sexual practices. As anyone who’s spent any time on a school bus knows, insults directed at by group A regarding the sexual practices of group B can be very inventive, often refer to anatomically impossible practices, and almost certainly do not give hard evidence of what group B get up to of a weekend.

The Bellifortis manuscript image

* Oh, and it would be actually impossible to survive more than a few days in one of these things? The hygeine issues alone would’ve been a disaster. This one below seems to provide more ample exit holes than some of the ones Classen showed us- making up for with spikiness for its lack of coverage. (Interestingly, only two of the examples Classen showed, this one and one from a German museum, thought to put spikes on the back door, so to speak. Regardless of spikes, they were all invariably far too small to use without serious waste disposal problems.)

Copyright- The Medieval Torture Museum, San Gimignano, Italy

* Chastity belts in art and literature really took off in the late 15th and 16th centuries? Everyone seemed to find them enormously fascinating, except for the English and the Spanish. There are, apparently, no references to chastity belts at all in England or Spain during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Classen then moved into talking about the 19th century, when fascination with chastity belts was quite the thing. He showed us a few pictures of belts actually used on young boys, and talked about the appeal in the 19th century of chastity belts as a popular and “approved” way to talk about sex and sexuality in an academic environment. If, as Classen seems to have found, chastity belts weren’t actually used in the middle ages, when what becomes very interesting is the way that the early modern and modern periods have constructed and reconstructed the past to create this image of the barbaric, torturous middle ages, this ultimate symbol of the violent medieval patriarchy, out of a few very late medieval references which are probably facetious.

Speaking of modern reconstructions of the past, this brings us to our final ‘did you know’ for the night:

Did you know that…

A room full of medievalists can sit there very solemnly nodding away and not sniggering even once, while being shown slides of images from online S&M catalogues? Because apparently we can. I’m not sure if that’s evidence of the superior maturity of SRS ACADEMICS, or just evidence that they’ve learnt not to snigger at people’s papers by now.

All in the name of investigating modern responses to and reconstructions of the past, of course…


Oh, and Prof.  Classen told us a fabulous story about Dietrick von Something, an incompetent knight, and his cross-dressing wife. I’ve put in an inter-library loan for his book ‘Erotic Tales of Medieval Germany’, and when I get it, I promise a rousing retelling. It has love! Marriage! Adventures! Adultery! Seducation! Homoerotics! Cross-dressing! Magic Belts! Everything you want in a story, really.


11 Responses to “Chastity Belts: An “Academically Approved” Forum for Talking About Sex”

  1. april Says:

    Dietrich Von der Glezze, i think. Can read it in Albrecht’s book on Medieval German Erotic literature (can’t remember the title exactly).

    I love the fact that the other non-military sketch in Kyeser’s book was of a man farting his way across a river.

    Also, did you notice that some of the later chastity belts had the holes WAY too far apart?
    And I found the ones with little love-heart shaped holes the most disturbing.
    Ah, the sexy topics always get us ranting, don’t they?

  2. april Says:

    oh, you already mentioned the book. my bad

  3. highlyeccentric Says:

    When I get hold of the book, I shall scan the relevant tale for your entertainment ;).

    I found the ones with little love-heart shaped holes the most disturbing

    It’s sadistic! “Love, love love HAHAH YOU CAN’T”. Bwahaha.

  4. Chris Says:

    This was great.

    Someone needs to invent whatever the opposite of a chastity belt would be. Promiscuity suspenders, or somesuch.

  5. highlyeccentric Says:

    Well, the belt in Dietrich von der Grazze is a Belt of Morally Suspect Sexual Encounters….

  6. B. Hawk Says:

    Dr. Classen is great. He gave a lecture at UConn last semester, about much of the same things–chastity belts, their improbable existence, and sexuality (popular and ecclesiastical) in the Middle Ages generally. He’s an extremely approachable scholar, and has a lot to say about a good many topics (an extremely intelligent and widely read man!). I’m glad to see these pictures, actually, because when he was at UConn he didn’t show any except a very humorous flow-chart diagram about the appropriate times to have sex.

  7. highlyeccentric Says:

    Awww, pity. You missed out on all the S&M equipment pictures :P.

    I ended up too exhausted to go out to dinner after the talk, and I think I’m sorry, Dr Classen seemed to be a very cool sort of person.

  8. goblinpaladin Says:

    What I want to know is what did they keep swords on until 1170?

  9. highlyeccentric Says:

    Swordbelts, presumably. But that’s different to fashion belts. Alternatively, they slung them on a bandolier?

  10. Joe Marfice Says:

    A fascinating claim (about belts being unfashionable pre-1170, not the chastity belts, which are clearly fanciful)… but pretty quickly disproved:

    … unless you define “fashionable” as “OK, *lots* of people wore them, but not kings & queens.” Oops…

    Be careful about believing what you read… Those who complain about Wikipedia’s accuracy are missing the “beam in their own eyes”, all too often.

    • Joe Marfice Says:

      On reread, that sounded like I was calling /you/ out for one of those “beams” – sorry. My point was just that blatantly incorrect opinions masquerade as “historical facts” all too often, even in academic literature.

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