In A Nutshell
The popular tales surrounding chastity belts are rather romantic, if not sad. Unfortunately, they’re all rather untrue. Chastity belts didn’t come about as a device Crusaders gave their wives and lovers to keep them modest when they went off fighting for years at a time. Instead, they were popularly—and voluntarily—used first by parents to stop masturbating children, then by female factory workers during the Industrial Revolution to discourage rape.
The Whole Bushel
We’ve all heard the stories. The valiant knight, leaving his lady behind as he goes off to fight for the freedom of the Holy Land, gives her a chastity belt. It’s supposed to keep her modest and loyal, and prevent any unsavory types from taking advantage of the poor woman who’s been left on her own.
Unfortunately, none of that is true.
When historians began taking a closer look at the mythos of the chastity belt, they found that it’s one of a number of historic artifacts that have been the victim of popular misconception.
The idea of a chastity belt seems to have started out as just that—an idea. The first written records of a chastity belt are in poems from the Renaissance period, in which poets appeal to their lovers to wear a chastity belt. There hasn’t been any evidence to suggest that these earliest mentions have been in anything but the metaphorical sense. Designs for such a device have been found in manuscripts from the 16th century, but it’s never been found that any were actually constructed.
Real chastity belts were a product of the 19th century, and contrary to the romantic myth of women being presented with them as a token of love and fidelity, most chastity belts were bought by women themselves. This was the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a time when women were leaving the house and going to work in factories and offices. There were also no sexual harassment laws, and many women saw chastity belts as their only protection from the harassment of other employees or bosses.
The other use of the chastity belt was not for grown women, but for children of both genders. Nineteenth-century medical journals from both the United States and Great Britain discuss the virtues of using a chastity belt for adolescent girls and boys whose nighttime activities would potentially begin to cause them health problems. It was thought that masturbation would lead to mental and physical illnesses, and these medical journals suggested the use of chastity belts to prevent masturbation from becoming a chronic problem.
It’s undeniable that the idea of the chastity belt seems so clearly to be a medieval construction. Ideas of marital fidelity and a knight protecting his lady even in his absence seem completely plausible. The trouble was that it was so plausible that many historian and laypeople alike started to take it for granted. Recently, it’s been found that many examples of the chastity belt that were supposed to come from medieval Europe are in fact 19th-century reproductions of a product that didn’t even exist.
Several of what were thought to be the oldest chastity belts found—one supposedly belonging to Catherine de Medici and another rumored to have been used by Francesco de Carrara II as a torture device—have since fallen suspect in their authenticity.
And before anyone points out how many medieval chastity belts are on display in museums around the world, it’s worth noting that national museums in Paris and Nuremberg and The British Museum have all either removed displays or changed dates to be more accurate.