The Chastity Belt - English Translation

Original French Article
Translated by: Sirius

97-Oct-27: This is a second translation, corrected to resolve the original authors concerns. There may be some punctuation errors that were a result of my converting the document from Word to HTML

The Chastity Belt

This object called the chastity belt is undeniably associated in popular imagination with the Middle Ages. This, in fact, does not seem to be true. The chastity belt ought, with more justification, to be associated with the period called the Renaissance. I therefore invite you to read these few notes to better understand this subject

The chastity belt in the medieval period

The allusion to a belt placed on the naked body of a woman is found in the poems of Guigemar de Marie de France, a 12th century poetess. A girl tied a knot in the hem of her boy-friend's shirt, and the latter knotted a belt about his beauty's waist as symbols of their oath of fidelity and they gave each other the right to love whomsoever was capable of getting past the belt or the shirt without cutting or tearing these items. Each is certain that nobody besides themselves would be able to do this without the aid of scissors or a knife and it is in this way that they would recognize each other. We therefore have, in this story, the element on which has been built a belief in a belt preventing sexual relations, even though it does not seem to be anything of the sort. This allusion, lacking in much detail, and which seems to be nothing but a symbol of a promise of fidelity between the two lovers, is used to prove the existence of the chastity belt, (truly preventing sexual relations), in the 12th century. As this story has given birth to a link between the chastity belt and the Crusades, Marie de France's story ought to be from a century where there had been such overseas expeditions.

After that, it is Guillaume de Machaut in the 14th century who gives a similar example of a symbolic chastity belt in his "Book of See and Tell". Then, finally, in a manuscript dated 1405 dealing with military equipment, written by Keyser von Eichstad le Bellifortis, we see an illustration of a metal belt that would effectively prevent all sexual relations. But rather it seems that this device was worn by the women of Florence in Italy as a means of discouraging a possible attacker in war or on a journey. The title of the illustration goes like this: "Florentinarium hoc bracile dominarium, ferreum et durum, ab antea sic reservatum." Being very liberally translated: "breeches of hard Florentine iron that are closed." [Translator: I prefer: "The Ladies of the Florentine lords are thus protected at the front by hard iron bands."]

The medieval chastity belt: a symbolic term

The medieval historian R'gine Pernoud asserts that the medieval chastity belt is merely symbolic. We know that the religious monks and monastics made three vows on their entry: obedience, poverty and chastity. This last [was] symbolized by the fabric belt worn by the novice over his clothes. Even today, in a priest's robes, this belt represents chastity and purity. In the middle ages, the sexual secretions were thought to be produced by the kidneys. This belief therefore caused the religious never to sleep on the back and to wear a belt over their night-shirt. This cord had two functions: to restrict the manufacture of semen and to hold the shirt onto the body. We must keep in mind the various literary references to the metaphor of the chastity belt symbolizing pureness and chastity (we will come back to this later). Thus this symbolic belt had, through the passage of time, inspired people to fabricate the reality. It is also interesting to note the works of the historians Felicity Riddy and James Brundage which contest the existence and use of this belt in the middle ages.

The Chastity Belt and the Renaissance

Pierre de Bourdeilles abb'e de Brant'me (1540-1614) in his book entitled "Les Vies des Dames Galantes", [The Lives of Stylish Ladies], gives us the history of the arrival of these chastity belts in France. He explains that, at the time of King Henry (probably Henri II, king from 1547 to 1559) there was a merchant who brought some of these belts to the fair at Saint-Germain. Several jealous husbands bought them and their wives had duplicate keys made. But, very quickly, all the honest men had the unsold belts thrown away and threatened the maker with death if he returned with his belts. It is nevertheless difficult to know if Brant'me was speaking the truth throughout, because the nature of this work is somewhat centered on scandal with a sexual flavor.

Rabelais seems also to make a mention in his work of 1532 entitled Horrible and Appalling Doings and Feats of the very renowned Pantagruel. Again it would seem that the use of this belt is a part of the horrible doings of Pantagruel.

We also have the female skeleton found by A. M. Pachinger, which wore a metal belt between the thighs, with the undeniable effect of preventing sexual relations. This woman had been interred around the end of the 16th or the beginning of the 17th century.

Chastity Belts in the Museums

The museums which possess metal chastity belts with locks and all the rest are of two kinds. The first, well known and recognized by historians, such as the mus'e Cluny in France, or the British Museum and the Royal Armouries in England, have taken those that they possess out of their show-cases because they were fakes manufactured in the 19th century as curiosities for the libidinous. The other museums that continue to show them, such as the one called de l'Inquisition at Carcassonne, are often museums whose character is less historically orientated than playing to the spectacular.

We are easily able to account for the continual lack of solid references or information about the majority of the items that they present. The belt in the museum in Carcassonne seems to date from the 16th century, according to the illustration beside it -- thus it is from the Renaissance and not from the Middle Ages. We can be certain that the two belts possessed by the Mus'e national du moyen 'ge en France (Cluny) were very well known in the 19th century. But this museum does not show them for two reasons. The first is that, according to their historians, chastity belts were only being used (and then only exceptionally) between the 16th and the middle of the 18th century and did not exist in the Middle Ages. Therefore these belts do not fall into the chronological period covered by the museum. Secondly, their two examples that are recognized as dating one from the 16th century then from the 17-18th centuries and the other from the 17th century are in fact fakes made in the 19th century.

The Chastity Belt: its use then and now

If one relies on those who believe in its existence with more seriousness and less insincerity, we are left with an object less maniacal than useful. In effect, this belt provided protection for women from rape rather than in a situation of emergency at the taking of a siege (in war) or on a journey. The woman would have provided it for herself for her own safety and she would not have worn this excellent dissuasive measure for more than a short period of time. We do not deny the possibility of the existence of paranoid husbands or fathers who might have used it in an abusive and disrespectful manner that would certainly have injured the woman and might have caused infections. It is nevertheless possible to find, in the 19th and 20th century medical or legal cases that dealt with men who had made belts to restrain their wives or mistresses.

From the Internet one finds a quick account of the importance of the chastity belt in the area of fantasy and modern sexuality. There are more than 600 sites that cover the subject, in a manner more libidinous than historic. They are sold for men and for women, there are accounts of what is done with them, how it feels to wear them, how to make them, there is advice on purchase, a multitude of photos and this is just from a glance. The belt seems sometimes to be used for self-protection, but more often as an object of domination or of sexual pleasure. They are more often attributed to the Middle Ages than to the Renaissance because that is more exotic. The association with the Crusades and the knights is more romantic and exciting than that of the Renaissance where one finds little of interest to give it a context. Thus it is noticeable that the advertisements for the belts push the idea of a traditional model as used in the Middle Ages. And others would still say that despite the fact that there is overwhelming proof of use in the Renaissance, it is certain, (but without proof), that they date from the Middle Ages.

The chastity belt, (always handled in a context having a link with the Middle Ages) is a subject abundantly used by film-makers, strip-cartoonists, novelists, journalists, columnists, etc. In the minds of people today, like that of the Romantics, the chastity belt is indispensable for maintaining a mystical and sexual interest in the Middle Ages. But how has it happened that this belt is attributed to the Middle Ages when only fakes predate the Renaissance?

The Chastity Belt: Why the association with the Middle Ages?

This is easily explained. In the minds of people, (and in the schools), the Middle Ages are obscure and oppressive whilst the Renaissance is the advent of openness and tolerance. Therefore, if one follows this pattern, themes like witch-hunts and the chastity belt would clearly be associated with the Middle Ages and not with the Renaissance. By contrast, whenever one sees a painting or a sculpture that offers a perspective or a procedure which appears perfect (according to our criteria), even though this work dates from the 13th or 14th century, it is said to foretell the Renaissance. If it is ugly it is Medieval; if it is beautiful it is of the Renaissance. However, the great witch-hunts and the chastity belt are more often found in the 16th and 17th centuries than in feudal times.

In conclusion on the subject

Human imagination is without limit. One could, in fact, ask whether it is possible to date who was the first to have the idea to belt a woman to prevent all sexual relations. Or again which woman had the idea of protecting herself from rape in this way. It is noticeable that the chastity belt in its true context of the 16th and 17th centuries is the same period in which female status was reduced.

One could also ask if our descendants of the 2600s on seeing the archives of the Internet and its chastity belts would ask themselves what an enormous percentage of the 20th century population wore them. We are therefore able to do the same thing with the use of the chastity belt in past centuries. We are often shown that the knights of the Middle Ages (again this period...) put their wives into chastity belts and they remained thus prisoners for months or years. And those listening will guffaw: Yuck! What a dreadful time that was! And then say that someone has put on a girdle for chastity, that that is perhaps nothing but a metaphor to explain that one is in a state of abstinence. Also being enclosed by a chastity belt enables one to say that one disclaims purity and virginity, (recall the symbolism of the religious and poetical metaphor). We also have a song in the codex de Montpellier, in which we hear a young nun telling us that she suffers the emotions of love beneath her belt. A simple metaphor for speaking discreetly of her sex. This is what the poetry is about, and it is probably about this that Marie de France speaks in her song of Guigemar in the 12th century. There remains the skeleton of the woman provided with a belt, (the only one ever found in that state) and dating from the 16th or 17th century, which provides no doubt.

The chastity belt was therefore mostly used in the 16th and 17th centuries, (and then only exceptionally: it was never the custom), mostly as a protection against rape and unfortunately by a few jealous husbands. Today it serves as a sex toy and it is often used by novelists and film-makers as an element of interest. People latch onto forbidden things, sexual, unnatural and against the established morality. The belt also haunts the popular mind which associates the exotic with the knights. But this object remains mysterious and associated with a medieval period that never saw it.

[ More chastity links and stories ]

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