This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the newly acquired Santo Domingo collection.
Most people picture a chastity belt as a device that looks like iron underwear (complete with a lock) that was meant to keep a woman from having sexual relations. Legend has it that this device was invented during the Crusades to ensure a wife’s fidelity while her husband was away. While the concept of the chastity belt is indeed quite old it is in a more metaphorical sense as a pledge of fidelity rather than an object. No evidence of medieval chastity belts exist and it isn’t until the 15th-century that we can find something that even vaguely resembles one in Konrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis, which is a codex of weapons, armour and other military items. Bellifortis depicts a type of armour that could concievably be a chastity belt but the tone of Kyeser’s text indicates irony for such a device: “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.”
The French text La ceinture de chasteté : son histoire, son emploi, autrefois et aujourd’hui : avec de nombreuses gravures hors texte, dessins et photographies d’après nature published in 1905 describes the history of chastity belts when the myth of the medieval chastity belt still persisted. Included in the volume are photographic postcards of two chastity belts that were displayed in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, also known as the National Museum of the Middle Ages.
One of the Musée de Cluny’s chastity belts was long considered to belong to Catherine de Medici until a test of the metal in the 1990s showed it was from the early 19th-century. It is true however, that chastity belts as actual objects became more widespread in America and England by 19th-century. However they were typically used willingly by women to prevent rape and sexual harrassment in the workplace since industrialization had placed more women in factories and offices.
Eric John Dingwall is one of the primary historians that is responsible for the myth of medieval chastity belts with his 1931 publication The Girdle of Chastity which can be found in Countway’s collection at the Harvard Medical School, though we can hardly fault him when fake chastity belts were held up as authentic in respected museums.
La ceinture de chasteté : son histoire, son emploi, autrefois et aujourd’hui : avec de nombreuses gravures hors texte, dessins et photographies d’après nature /Dr. Caufeynon [pseud.]Paris,P. de Poorter, 1905.
Thanks to Alison Harris, Santo Domingo Project Manager for contributing this post.