The Medieval Chastity Belt

Many people have expressed skepticism about the authenticity of the existence of chastity belts in the Middle Ages. The standard older reference on this subject is The Girdle of Chastity by Eric John Dingwall.  Some passages from the book are included below; after reading the whole book, one gets the idea that --

  1. The general idea of chastity devices was floating around at least since the twelfth century.
  2. The first reasonably solid evidence of the probable existence of chastity belts is in Italy towards the end of the fourteenth century or the beginning of the fifteenth.
  3. The first real detailed descriptions of more or less workable and practical chastity belt designs are from the sixteenth century, and most of the evidence for the use of chastity belts refers to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The passages below are some of those in which the authenticity of a reference to chastity belts can be evaluated without extended philological or bibliographical researches, and which are relevant to the medieval period or the first part of the sixteenth century, or to the question of the authentic physical existence of chastity belts.

The short Old French poem will be cryptic to all except a few specialists, but anyone with a reasonably competent reading knowledge of modern French should be able to figure out the Brantôme quote (Brantôme's "temps du roy Henry" presumably refers to the reign of Henri II of France, in the middle of the sixteenth century).

A Medico-Historical Study

Dr. Eric John Dingwall


There has been considerable discussion as to the date when the girdle of chastity first appeared in Europe.  There can be little doubt that the idea of such a device, at least in a somewhat modified form, was current at least as early as the second half of the twelfth century.  In the Guigemar Epic, which exhibits strong traces of Oriental influences, Marie de France (fl. 1180) narrates an incident which suggests knowledge of such contrivances.  She tells how one day Guigemar was taking leave of his lady and how she told him that if he were killed she herself would no longer desire life.  She begs for his shirt as a pledge of fidelity and exacts his promise to plight his troth only to her who could undo it.  Thereupon she ties a knot in it and arranges it in such a way that it could only be undone by a stranger by means of cutting or tearing the linen.  Then in his turn the knight Guigemar takes a girdle knotted in a peculiar fashion, and ties it around the naked body of his lady, and then she swears only to love him who is able to open it without any force being applied.  As the poem puts it:

Par une cainture autresi,
Dunt à sa car nuë l'a çaint
Parmi les flans aukes l'estraint
Qui la bucle porrat ovrir,
Sans dépescer è sans crasir,
Il li prie que celi aint
Puis l'a baisié; à-taunt remaint.[1]
[1] Marie de France, Poésies (2 vols., Paris, 1819-20), Guigemar, 569, vol. i pp. 90-1.  Cf. A. Schultz, Das höfische Leben zur Zeit der Minnesänger (2 vols., Leipzig, 1879-80), vol. i, p. 595.

This handing over of a pledge of fidelity in the shape of a belt worn around the nude body is certainly suggestive of a girdle of chastity; and, in spite of the vehement denials of certain authorities, another passage in the Livre du Voir-Dit of the fourteenth century poet Guillaume de Machaut can, it seems to me, be construed in this sense. [...]

It is true that it appears that so far no specimens of undoubtedly early date have been discovered.  Few, if any, go back to a time anterior to the sixteenth century, and many of those on exhibition are, in my opinion at least, not to be considered as genuine.  Apart from actual specimens, however, we possess another source of information, namely representations in early MSS.  One of these occurs in Konrad Kyeser von Eichstadt's military encyclopaedia, the Bellifortis.[2]  Kyeser was born, according to his own account, of a noble Frankish family in 1366.  He wrote his experiences of the military art in a handsome book containing one hundred and forty leaves and a great number of illustrations.  The MS., dated 1405, is now in the library of the University of Göttingen, and a girdle of chastity is therein figured and described.  The drawing shows a complicated piece of apparatus, and it is described as "Florentinarium hoc bracile dominarium, ferreum et durum, ab antea sic reseratum".  It would thus seem that it was made of iron and could be locked, being used on the Florentine women for reasons which are easy to divine.[3]  From its appearance the girdle is both clumsy and heavy and has little in common with the later models which served the same purpose [...]

[2] See Verzeichniss der Handschriften im preussischen Staate. Hanover (3 vols., Berlin, 1893-4), Philos. 63, vol. i, p. 164.  The girdle is in the tenth book.

[3] See A. Schultz, Deutsches Leben im XIV und XV Jahrhundert (2 vols., Prag, etc., 1892), vol. i, p. 283.  Cf. F. M. Feldhaus, op. cit., 564-565.

Pierre de Bourdeilles, Abbé de Brantôme, who flourished in the middle of the sixteenth century and died early in the seventeenth, was a writer of wit and brilliance, who did not fail to observe and describe the follies of his age.  In his Les Vies des Dames galantes he gives us a long series of anecdotes concerning the sexual manners and customs of the times, relating incidents filled with such intimate details that the work has unfortunately received a reputation for lubricity that it scarcely deserves.  Much of the material is valuable when considering the social fabric of the period as it is seen reflected in the lives of certain restricted classes, and the psychological details of amorous activity prove that Brantôme himself had a profound appreciation of the technique of ars amandi.

In the course of his narrative, Brantôme tells the story of the introduction of the girdles of chastity into France.  He says: "Du temps du roy Henry, il y eut un certain quinquailleur (dealer in metal goods) qui apporta une douzaine de certains engins à la foire de Sainct-Germain pour brider le cas des femmes, qui estoyent faits de fer et ceinturoyent comme une ceinture, et venoyent à prendre par le bas et se fermer en clef; si subtilement faits, qu'il n'estoit pas possible que la femme, en estant bridée une fois, s'en pust jamais prévaloir pour ce doux plaisir, n'ayant que quelques petits trous menus pour servir à pisser.  On dit qu'il eut quelque cinq ou six maris jaloux fascheux, qui en acheptèrent (bought) et en bridèrent leurs femmes de telle façon qu'elles purent bien dire: `Adieu, bon temps.'  Si en y eut-il une qui s'advisa de s'accoster d'un serrurier fort subtil en son art, à qui ayant monstré ledit engin, et le sien et tout, son mary estant allé dehors aux champs, il y applicqua si bien son esprit qu'il forgea une fausse clef, que la dame l'ouvroit et le fermoit à toute heure et quand elle vouloit.  Le mary n'y trouva jamais rien à dire.  Et se donna son saoul de ce bon plaisir, en dèpit du fat jaloux cocu de mary, pensant vivre tousjours en franchise de cocuage.  Mais ce meschant serrurier qui fit la fausse clef, gasta tout; et se fit mieux, à ce qu'on dit, car ce fut le premier qui en tasta et le fit cornard: aussi n'avoit-il danger, car Vénus, qui fut la plus belle femme et putain du monde, avoit Vulcain, forgeron et serrurier, pour mary, lequel estoit un fort vilain, salle, boiteux, et très-laid.

"On dit bien plus: qu'il y eut beaucoup de gallants honnestes gentilshommes de la cour qui menacèrent de telle facon le quinquaillier que, s'il se mesloit jamais de porter telles ravauderies (stupid nonsense), qu'on le tueroit, et qu'il n'y retournast plus et jettast tous les autres qui estoyent restez dans le retrait (down the drain); ce qu'il fit; et depuis onc n'en fut parlé.  Dont il fut bien sage, car c'estoit assez pour faire perdre la moitie du monde, a faute de ne le peupler, par tels brindements, serrures et fermoirs de nature, abominables et détestables ennemis de la multiplication humaine."[4]

[4] P. de Bourdeilles, Abbé de Brantôme, OEuvres complètes (11 vols., Paris, 1864-82), vol. ix, pp. 133-4.

How far this account can be called historical we have no means of knowing.  It is always difficult to say if Brantôme's stories are true, although it is probable that the majority of them are founded on something better than the mere invention of the author.  There does not seem any inherent impossibility in the story, and, apart from Brantôme's sly remarks on the population problem, the tale is straightforward and may be founded on fact.  However that may be, we possess other evidence that girdles of chastity were known in France early in the seventeenth century and had been probably introduced before that date. [...]

From the brief historical survey that I have attempted above, it will be seen that there is a direct historical sequence in the fundamental idea which underlies the use of the girdle of chastity.  It was observed that there is some reason to suppose that the device of passing a ring or rings through the labia majora had been known for a considerable time in the East, and it was suggested that the idea entered Europe through the influence of returning crusaders, who both modified and improved it. [...]  In conclusion, we discussed the discovery by Mr. A. M. Pachinger of a girdle which was actually in position around the skeleton of a woman who had been interred, it was thought, in the late sixteenth or seventeenth century.  This fact suggests strongly that these chastity belts were once worn by women, and that the theory that the existing specimens were of the nature of erotic mystifications could not be accepted.


[Consists of reports of rather sad legal and/or medical cases from the 18th to 20th centuries, in which men cobbled together home-made improvised would-be chastity belt contraptions, and confined their wives and mistresses in them.  Nothing to do with the middle ages, except that it throws a light on the mentality which originally led to the invention and of use the chastity belt, and which didn't die out along with cuckoldry jokes.]


From a consideration of the preceding chapters it will be clearly seen what a field for wit and satire the use of the girdle of chastity offered to the writers of romance and poetry, legend and facetiæ.  From the fifteenth to the twentieth century, writers have now and then chosen to use this subject either as their central theme or at least as an item in the general course of their narrative.

Since the chastity belt probably made its first appearance in ordinary use among the Italians of the period of the Renaissance or perhaps somewhat later, we may well begin our brief survey with an Italian author, Girolamo Morlini, who flourished in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. [...]


...even if the evidence furnished by these passages [Marie de France and Guillaume de Machaut] be rejected, then the appearance of the invention in Italy can be put with certainty in the later years of the fourteenth century, or, at the latest, the early years of the fifteenth.  Moreover, we saw that Italian culture was one which would have readily have absorbed the idea of the forcible restraint of the married woman, and it was noted how, as the years went by, the girdle spread to other parts of Europe. [...]

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