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Probably everyone knows what chastity belts are - those devices that look like iron underpants with a lock. Well, the story goes that the chastity belt was invented in the middle ages by some paranoid Crusader who didn't want to leave his wife 'fully functional' at home while he was busy butchering people in the Holy Land. Naturally, all his Crusader pals thought this was a good idea, and had chastity belts manufactured for all their mistresses, daughters and wives (in that order, most probably).
Myths and Facts
Chasity Belts are from medieval times...
As plausible as it might sound, the chastity belt is not however a medieval invention - the romantic stories outlined in the paragraph above are nothing but a product of the over-active 19th Century imagination. There are, in fact, no genuine chastity belts dating from medieval times: all known 'medieval' chastity belts have been produced in the first half of the 19th Century. These fake-medieval chastity belts are too heavy and the workmanship is too crude, even for medieval standards. The oldest design for a chastity belt that can be taken seriously dates from the 16th Century - but it's just a design, with no real working models believed to have ever been constructed. The concept of a chastity belt itself is a lot older, but it was usually used in poems in a metaphorical sense. According to Dr Eric John Dingwall, who wrote a deeper study on the subject in 1931, 'the chastity belt probably made its first appearance in ordinary use among the Italians of the period of the Renaissance or perhaps somewhat later.'
Most of the 'medieval' chastity belts on display in museums have been tested to confirm their actual age. As a result, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg (Nürnberg), the Musée Cluny (officially known as Musée National du Moyen Âge, or the Middle Age Museum) in Paris and The British Museum in London have all either removed the chastity belts from their medieval displays or corrected the date.
Men used them to control their women...
Despite the common misconception, the use of the chastity belt was not usually imposed by men on women in order to force them to be faithful. If we use medieval poetry as a reliable source, we discover that the use of chastity belts was often in consensus between both parties. The use of the chastity belt in these poems is a metaphor for a pledge of fidelity. No locks or iron parts are ever mentioned - these metaphoric 'chastity belts' are usually made of cloth. Real chastity belts became available later, and the majority of chastity belts were bought in the 19th Century, in England, by women. Often they would use the apparatus to avoid the consequences of sexual harassment in the workplace. Furthermore, the chastity belt was not imposed on people to avoid sexual intercourse. Medical reports describe the prescription of chastity belts (or similar devices, which might have no resemblance at all with a chastity belt1) to prevent youngsters (of both sexes) from masturbating (alternative link), which in the 19th Century was thought to be both physically and morally harmful.
Summary and Conclusion
Looking at chastity belts from a safe distance, and with this analysis in mind, it ends up losing its rough, yet kind of romantic, historic touch. It also defuses the notion that the average medieval Joe would force his lover to use this apparatus - even though some men might have sympathised with the idea. So, in conclusion, chastity belts and their usage are rather recent phenomena, and in the vast majority of the cases, women were not forced to use it. In the 19th Century it was mostly used to avoid sexual advances of horny employers, and today it can sometimes used by people (in dominant/submissive and sado-masochistic relationships) as a sexual toy.