Recently, I found myself staring at a painting of Henry VIII—or, more accurately, staring at his kingly crotch in said painting—and I started to wonder, “What the heck was the deal with codpieces, anyway?”
And really, haven’t we all wondered that at one time or another? The codpiece is strangely compelling. In fact, tour guides in the Tower of London have reported that the codpiece of Henry’s ceremonial armor on display there was often knocked off when women rub it for good fortune. So in the spirit of codpiece curiosity, I set about finding out the origins of these ancient package protectors.
The short version goes like this: In the 15th century, the long tunics and breeches that were the fashion gave way to fitted vests with short-skirted additions called doublets. Since men needed to cover their newly exposed legs, they began to wear individual stockings (which were called hoses). These extended from the waist to the foot and were tied by laces to the doublet. The undershirt (or the chemise) was tucked into the tops of the hose on each side, covering the genitals and buttocks.
With time, fashions changed, hems rose, and the chemise also got shorter. Inevitably, the buttocks and genitals were exposed. This problem was solved by attaching a large triangular section in between the two hose, which covered up the buttocks. A flap was added to the front, tied to each hose at the sides. The flap could be opened during the day to take a leak. Hello! Birth of the codpiece!
Around the turn of the 16th century, the soft fabric flap developed into a protruding, padded, and decorated penis sheath that often matched the rest of one’s garments. These outcroppings could be decorated with metallic thread, tufted with satin, topped with bows, or trimmed with braids and puffs. They became pretty, personal palaces for penises.
These codpieces were hollow, made of several layers of cloth or leather, often stuffed with straw, hay, or horsehair, and made in different shapes. The roomy space inside them protected the genitals from friction and the occasional bump from all the things hanging from a man’s belt, including swords, daggers, and hard purses.
But wait! There is also a theory out there that says the development of the codpiece can be linked to the syphilis epidemic of the 16th century.
The “Great Pox,” as the disease was called, spread quickly through Europe. The symptoms included sores on the penis, putrid discharge, and painful swollen groins, which of course led to difficulty in walking and urinating.
An ointment made of mercury and animal grease was then the most common treatment for syphilis. In view of such symptoms and remedies, the codpiece provided a large, protected chamber that a) held layers of bandages in place, b) kept the greasy unguents from staining the luscious fabrics that clothes were made of, and c) acted as camouflage, as all men would wear it and nobody would know who had the syph and who didn’t, unless one was subjected to a “small arms” inspection.
And yes, of course, codpieces were a big feature in armor. To find out more, I spoke to Dirk Breiding, assistant curator of arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We met at the arms-and-armor hall of the Met in front of a famous codpiece they have on display. It is attached to the armor of Ferdinand I. It dates to 1549.
Vice: Hi Dirk. So the codpiece is an accessory that draws attention, isn’t it?
Dirk Breiding: True, but what fashion accessory doesn’t draw attention? Fashions come and go. Some are whimsical, some are ridiculous, some are outrageous. I wonder what future generations will think about sagging your pants so that your rear end hangs out so you can hardly walk. And I’m not judging it. If they like it, that’s fine. But every generation has its funny thing. Think of big hair in the 80s, or rolling the sleeves up on your jacket like on Miami Vice.
But it’s funny to think of medieval times as a generation.
You are right. The codpiece lasted about two, almost three, generations, so it’s a longer thing.
And it spanned an age group that seems to be pretty wide. Kids wore it, older men wore it…
They all wore it, probably from about eight years old onward.
They were made of fabric before they were incorporated into armor, right?
By 1510, they started making them in metal, and then there was an evolution in which they changed shape. They become a little more prominent and less cuplike. When I was writing about codpieces for our website, I remember thinking for a long time about how I would describe the look. I came up with the term “cashewlike.”
I’ve also seen them described as a “French curve.”
There is somebody out there with a very wacky theory that it is a crescent and thus a reference to the Ottomans. But why would they use Ottoman iconography? To me it’s more like a horn of plenty. Or it simply is what it is—an erect penis, which has always been a sign of male virility, strength, and health.
Were they made to measure?
Made to measure to anatomy? I don’t know. Made to measure to dreams and ideas? Probably. There is a theory that, since Henry VIII had problems producing an heir, he had himself portrayed in these big codpieces and had his armor made with even bigger codpieces. I guess he used them to impress people.
What do you think of the syphilis-epidemic theory?
The medical writers all say that it’s really hard to prove but just as difficult to disprove. The one thing I would wonder, though—since the codpiece is such an obvious sign of virility, and syphilis must have affected that part of your life—is: Would you really want to draw attention to that part of your body if you were syphilitic?
To me, the codpiece appears more like a fashion thing that develops slowly, over almost a generation, and then they really have fun with it, like with most fashion accessories, and that process goes on for 60 or 70 years. In the final decades of the 16th century, it quickly disappears. It vanishes from armor before it does from costume, and I think that has to do with the fact that, in armor, it was actually very impractical.
I was going to ask you about this. Would one really go to war with these things on?
No! They would protect that area, obviously, but you can do that much better with mail, which is very flexible but still offers pretty good defense. And with mail you can sit on a saddle, whereas sitting astride a horse while wearing a codpiece must be unbelievably painful.
How easy would it be to remove it to go to the bathroom?
They usually have a hole at the top, with a spring latch, and you could remove them very quickly. It’s not that difficult. But if you’re in battle, that is probably the least of your worries.
Actually, they’ve done research at West Point, and most soldiers who are under the stress of battle see their metabolism completely shut down. They don’t need to go to the bathroom. They need to save their lives.
Interesting. I’d imagine the opposite! So what would a wearer of armor have under the codpiece?
Undergarments are one of the secrets of history because you hardly ever see them.
Who wore codpieces? I’ve read that it was soldiers who passed it up to nobility as syphilis spread.
I think it was the other way around. If you go back to the original sources of the time and you look at the images, you can see that it develops like almost all fashion things—with the highest levels of society. They wear it and everybody else wants to look like them, so they copy it. The soldiers seem to play their part by disseminating it. With all the wars going on, they were constantly on campaign, and they would carry fashions very quickly from one area of Europe, or the world, to another.
And what’s this I’ve read about codpieces being stuffed with various things?
They were stuffed! You know, there are famous accounts of civilian codpieces being used as pockets. There is a famous painting in Madrid from about 1510—I think it’s by Carpaccio—that shows a young knight in armor, and he has letters in his codpiece. They didn’t have pockets in those days, so the codpiece was a place where one could store things.
Yeah, with easy access!
Exactly. The French writer Rabelais mentioned something about this. He wrote about people who would keep oranges in their codpieces, only to remove them in front of a lady.
Which would you say are the most famous codpieces?
Emperor Ferdinand II. That one is in Vienna. There were many Medicis with codpieces. I mean, everybody had codpieces!
Henry VIII, of course.
Yes, the famous Holbein portrait, and his armor in the Tower of London. There is one armor that is very famous because the codpiece is so big. Everybody laughs at it. They do the same here at the Met too! Sometimes I think it’s out of shyness or because they don’t quite understand.
It’s interesting to me that the codpiece seems to have only continued in modern times through bands like Mötley Crüe and Gwar.
True. But one of the things that I am reminded of is that very few people nowadays in Europe wear Speedos, but they all used to. When I was a little boy, that is what everybody wore at the beach. Maybe I’ve lived too long in England and America, but now when I see a Speedo on a guy, I laugh just as much as my American friends.
So people laugh at this codpiece?
If you stand here and watch the crowds, two out of three people will laugh and point.
We are meant to have fun with the human form, so why not? I don’t see any reason why we should disguise it or deny it.