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Chastity belts and birthing girdles

Chastity belts and birthing girdles

By Lesley Smith

Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, Vol.33:4 (2007)

A sketch of a chastity belt from an early 15th century manuscript of "Bellifortis" - perhaps included as a joke.
A sketch of a chastity belt from an early 15th century manuscript of “Bellifortis” – perhaps included as a joke.

Introduction: Chastity belts have been the subject of schoolroom and music hall humour for as long as most of us can remember. But did they really exist and for the purpose suggested?

My research started in 2004 with the purchase of a steel chastity belt. Made of solid steel with sharp spikes on the groin area, padlock plus key and with decorative toilet arrangements, my chastity belt is everything one could wish for in imagined medieval chastity.

The very appearance of this object raises eyebrows and causes much hilarity in my lectures, even in the most scholarly medical circles. I also remember having some explaining to do to security personnel at East Midlands Airport a few years ago, on my way to speak at an international sexual health conference in Edinburgh. Laughter is an appropriate response because I have reason to believe that chastity belts in this form are just a joke: a bawdy joke that seems mostly Victorian or Edwardian in origin as, indeed, is my chastity belt, which was manufactured no earlier than 1900.

One medieval writer, Geoffrey Chaucer, must take some of the responsibility, as he refers to a “chastity belt” in The Miller’s Tale. Many of the stories told on the road to Canterbury are full of bawdy humour and adultery. A chastity belt fits in wonderfully well amongst the lust and marital strife. Chaucer is an author rarely found on school curricula nowadays, but in the Victorian era his books were a key element in studying the English language, so it is hardly surprising that the chastity belt seems to have entered the music hall around about that time.

Click here to read this article from the British Medical Journal

Readers should also check out the 2007 book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process, by Albrecht Classen. You can hear him talk about the topic here.

See also Unlocking the Dark Ages: A Short History of Chastity Belts, by Sarah E. Bond

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