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The codpiece: social fashion or medical need?

henry8The codpiece: social fashion or medical need?

By C.S. Reed

Internal Medicine Journal, Vol34 (2004)

Introduction: The male dress style of the higher classes of European society was revolutionised in the early years of the Renaissance. The codpiece was introduced into the male tunic. The codpiece had proportions that were at times grotesque, and so extreme that the question of the purpose of its use arises. Art gallery guides speculate that the codpiece represented a statement of the virility of the individual and could be looked on as a sex promotion object. This is clearly the impression gained from, for example Holbein’s portrayal of Henry VIII, arms akimbo, broad shouldered, groin thrust forward, the very epitome of a lusty male. The codpiece, however, may have been a disguise for underlying disease.

Italy was the leader in many concepts of the new fashions in the Renaissance. For men, there was a change from the narrow-waisted vertical line to the more horizontal. Among the wealthier, the trend in the very late fifteenth century appears to be towards longer hose and shorter doublets leading to a space in which the male genitals may have been exposed if not covered. In Italy, assuming that paintings of the time accurately reflect the dress of the day, artists included the display of the codpiece as a dramatic element of male costume. In Italy, the codpiece was called a sacco and in France, a braguette.

The common peasant was accustomed to wearing breeches, which were tied around the waist and are often illustrated as showing a gap in the anterior or genital area. The area appears to have been covered by a cloth garment. As early as 1460, Towneley described ‘a kodpese like a pockett’. Germanic soldiers, or the Landknecht, clearly show codpieces around 1530. The Swiss had the plunderhose, or devil’s pants, which were similar in appearance to the Germanic codpiece. Further examples of the codpieces amongst everyday peasants can be found in the sixteenth century and possibly has persisted, with a little more refinement, in the flap of the trousers of the Bavarian lederhosen. In many suits of armour the codpieces are visible, whether this was needed for protection, for outward display, or to disguise underlying disease is open to conjecture. In the suit of armour of King Henry VIII displayed in the Tower of London, the codpiece is extremely prominent.

London, the codpiece is extremely prominent. In England, in 1555, Eden, commented, ‘The men enclose their privic members in a gourde cutte after the fashion of a codde-piece’. Reginald Scot, in 1564, wrote ‘He made the young man untrusse his codpice point’. Shakespeare had references to codpieces, and even as late as 1648, Herrick, made an amusing comment about the codpiece still in use then among some men: ‘If the servants search, they may descry, in his wide codpiece, dinner being done, two napkins cramm’d up, and a silver spoone’.

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