When chastity belts are mentioned, we often connect them to what is considered to be the time of their origin: the Medieval times, when knights going off to the Crusades would lock up their wives so they could be sure they’ll remain pure for years until they return. There have been many chastity belt artifacts said to originate from the Medieval era, but is it really true? Were chastity belts used in the Medieval times?
The idea itself seems to align with our perception of Medieval Europe: dark times when women were oppressed and when any sexual intercourse whose purpose wasn’t conception was forbidden. But, according to Sarah E. Bond’s blog post “Unlocking the Dark Ages: A Short History of Chastity Belts”, chastity belts were invented later, and 18th and 19th century historians aimed to present them as real, precisely to make their era seem enlightened and progressive compared to the Medieval times.
Albrecht Classen, in his book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) explains that a chastity belt was first mentioned and described in 1405 (a long time after the last Crusade), in a treatise on siege machines, Bellifortis, written by a German engineer Konrad Kyesen.
In a book about battering rams, crossbows, and instruments of torture, Kyesen drew the “female chastity device”, accompanied by this description: “These are hard iron breeches of Florentine women which are closed at the front. Padlocks unto the four-legged creatures, breeches unto the women of Florence, A joke binds this lovely series together, I recommend them to the noble and obedient youth.”
Today it’s considered that Kyesen’s writing was in jest, but the idea seems to have stuck. Other mentions of chastity belts through history were mostly symbolic in nature, such as the tunica recta of Roman brides, along with a corded belt tied in a Herculean knot that their husbands were supposed to untie.
This, however, doesn’t come close to the usual depiction of chastity belts as made of metal or leather, with a lock, that they were supposedly using in the Medieval times. And one can’t help but wonder how would women be able to safely use it, when it would most certainly cause wounds that would become more serious and infected in a matter of days. Additionally, such belts have never been mentioned in any serious historical context, such as penitentiary texts, which is why academics started doubting their authenticity.
Many chastity belts on display in various museums and art collections have since been proved to be fake, most created in the early 19th century, but supposedly from the 14th, 15th, and 16th century. In 1996, the British Museum removed a “medieval chastity belt” from its exhibition as it was proved to date from the 19th century.
This is the time when chastity belts had their heyday: the Victorian era. Not that surprising, considering the fact that they considered masturbation to be a health hazard – which reveals the chastity belt’s intended purpose: to prevent masturbation.
Also, during the Industrial era, they were also worn by women in order to protect them from rape in their workplace, as most of their male coworkers weren’t exactly gentlemen. These chastity belts often had some sort of padding that was changed regularly, in order to improve comfort and decrease the health risk, but they still weren’t suitable for long term wear.
Chastity devices still are alive and well today, mostly used for BDSM sex, or, as in a case of one Italian woman who lost the key to her chastity belt and was forced to ask firefighters to help her with the lock, to prevent the temptation of a sexual relationship.However, we can now conclude that there is no believable evidence that chastity belts have originated from the Medieval era, so the next time you hear that old myth about crusaders and their wives, know it for what it really is: just a myth.