When I was a child, a book brought home by my mother caused great sensation among the family. It was the delicious Eve in Nightgown, by Mexican author Marco Aurelio Almazan, an acid commentator of everything for everybody who, in that particular book reviewed in a very funny manner his relationship with women. One of the chapters which I remember best was titled “The Chastity Belt”, I think, and narrated the measures taken by a medieval knight before he departed for the crusades, to avoid being cheated by his wife. As far as my memory can be faithful, the brave soldier kicked Moorish butt trusting that the iron device would keep marauders off and protect his wife’s virtues until he returned home. But chastity belts were no exactly for that purpose.
The problem was that, when he arrived back to his castle after a long and bumpy journey, he realized he had lost the key to the gates of Paradise. Faced with frustration before the metallic riddle that he himself had installed on his wife, she decided to intervene: Honey, don’t worry, there is a guard on the Western Wall who can open it in less than a minute…
A fallen myth
That is the idea which stayed in my mind for years, that the chastity belts were an invention of those medieval knights who followed the call to rescue Holly Land from the infidels and, so that their wives would not be likewise, utilized those contraptions of complex locks. That is also the idea in the heads of those whom I have asked and of others whom I don’t know, but have written about the matter: it was an invention of the Crusaders to stop unfaithfulness.
But a few months ago, while I was immersed on a reading about Saladin, I thought again of the chastity belts and I got full of curiosity to know who had concocted such an inoperative appliance. My surprise could not be greater. Apparently, never, no single knight installed the infamous security system in his wife’s crotch, probably because they didn’t even know the apparatus existed.
In any case, even if the belts actually worked and really prevented extramarital prances, judging by their design and materials, the unfortunate wearers would end up dying of some infected ulcer. All this assuming that any woman would have accepted it as a proof of love and fidelity to her husband. I just don’t buy it.
Not as old
The first documented reference to the chastity belt appears in the XV century, that is, 100 years after the last crusade. In 1405, Konrad Kyeser published a book on military technology where he illustrates catapults, crossbows, rams, torture devices and, nobody knows why, he includes a design for a chastity belt, the first of which we have news. The drawing is footnoted with comments that more than technical seem sarcastic: “These are the iron knickers locked in the front worn by Florentine women.”
Locks in four-legged creatures, knickers in women from Florence. A joke linking this beautiful series; recommended to the noble and obedient youth.” It is very difficult to decipher the true meaning of these words but, according to historians and experts in the matter, it is a simple insinuation to the fact that the ladies of that city did not easily accept the approaches of soldiers. Still, there is no reliable proof that chastity belts existed at the time.
Now, the Palace of the Doge in Venice exhibits a chastity belt supposedly worn by the wife of Francesco di Carrara II, but historians doubt it is legitimate and the museum has not allowed experts to do tests on it. In recent years, other institutions have withdrawn from their display cabinets other examples that have been indeed tested, but the results of which give dates much more recent than those originally considered. Then, when did chastity belts actually appeared?
Chastity belts, not against coitus
Even thought they were mentioned in tales and poetry of the Renaissance, the first chastity belts appeared in the first half of the XIX century and not precisely to stop intercourse between two people. The two objectives in the minds of those who promoted them were, to avoid masturbation and to protect women from rape when they began to work, especially in factories, where neither the bosses nor the rest of male employees were real gentlemen.
It is in no way odd, considering that the Victorian Era stands out because of its prudishness. In addition, from the beginning of the XIX century and until the first decades of the XX, Western medicine judged masturbation as a health hazard. In the case of women who wore them as protection, it is not certain that the chastity belt actually performed its function, but at least made the feel safer. Anyway, because of how uncomfortable they were, they could not be worn for long periods of time, even when the models of the era were padded for extra comfort.
Some may berate me for destroying one of the most entertaining myths of the Middle Ages, it was a disappointment for this author. But history is what it is and it is our duty to separate legend from truth as much as we can. Still, I believe that the image of the knight fighting with the picklocks to find their way through their damsel’s pubis, will remain in my mind forever. There are things that are better not to erase, even if they are just fantasy.