The History Of The Chastity Belt Explained

You probably learned what a chastity belt was before you thought too much about it: Metal medieval underwear to preserve a maiden's, uh, virtue? That sounds like the sort of thing those sexist weirdos of yore would think up! Except — come to think of it — how did the locked-up women go to the toilet? And what if someone lost the key? What if the women gained or lost weight? Would a determined man go through the trouble of making a new chastity belt for his wife every time she ate too many turkey legs at Medieval Times (which was then, of course, just called Times)?

Eventually, you'll probably figure it out: They were never really used in everyday life, except in jest. That's the widespread conclusion of historians, including in the book "The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process" by University of Arizona professor Albrecht Classen. The whole thing is just a "typical male sexual inferiority complex, translated into a joke," Classen told HowStuffWorks. In fact, the first known mention of a chastity belt, in the 15th century manuscript "Bellifortis," also includes a description of a propulsive device powered by farts.

Metaphor, or crass joke?

The chastity belts depicted in medieval literature weren't always intended as jokes, according to Classen. Sometimes they were metaphors for piety, likewhen one tract advised virgins to "hold the helmet of salvation on your front, the word of truth in the mouth ... true love of God and your neighbor in the chest, the girdle of chastity in the body" (via Atlas Obscura). But more often, it seems, it was depicted in comical fashion — for instance, with a husband leaving for a trip with his wife secured in a chastity belt, and her lover in the shadows holding a duplicate key.

The British Museum has a chastity belt in its collection, which it has determined is a forgery from the 18th or 19th centuries. The museum says that, though there is some evidence for the usage of chastity belts beginning in the 14th century, this evidence "is largely anecdotal or in burlesque fiction." Most of the "medieval" belts in existence today are, like the museum's chastity belt, Victorian forgeries intended as "curiosities for the prurient, or as jokes for the tasteless."