Iron chastity belt, possibly 16th century


This bizarre contraption is an iron chastity belt, fastened at the side with a padlock. It was supposedly used to safeguard a woman’s virginity, or to let a man control when she had sex by keeping her under lock and key. The belt has holes at the front and back to allow the woman to urinate, menstruate and defecate, though it’s hard to imagine how this might have worked in practice.

Shakespeare and chastity

This belt is tentatively dated from around the 16th century, and it raises many questions about female sexuality, consent and power relations between men and women in Shakespeare’s time. Plays like Measure for Measure place great symbolic emphasis on women’s ‘sacred chastity’ (5.1.405; 2.4.185), but they also seem to prompt debate about the strength of human ‘appetite’ (2.4.176) and how far to control it. With this in mind, it is tempting to believe that belts like this could have been in use when Shakespeare was writing.

A 19th-century myth?

There are a number of similar objects in museums in Europe and the United States, but it’s very hard to date them accurately. Many scholars question whether such gadgets were actually made in the 16th century. They argue that they are probably fakes made in the 19th century, as part of a Victorian myth about the sexual morality of people in previous ages.

Full title:
Iron chastity belt on its side with padlock
Possibly 16th century
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© Wellcome Library, London

Held by
Wellcome Library, London
Museum No A641274

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