Codpieces And Syphilis In The Middle Ages


However there is a theory that codpieces also protected men suffering from syphilis, and the codpiece can be linked with the syphilis epidemic of the 16th century.

Some museums and art galleries speculate that the codpiece was both a statement of virility and an advertisement of the available services for any interested females. The portrait of Henry VIII by Holbein certainly might indicate this conclusion. Holbein’s portrayal of the lusty King shows the epitome of the aggressive male stud; his broad shoulders with his arms posed commandingly, and his groin thrust forward with the codpiece prominently in view. Some scholars propose that the codpiece might have disguised the underlying diseased penis.

Renaissance Fashions

The Renaissance world looked to Italy for new fashion concepts. In the late fifteenth century there was a trend toward longer individual hose and shorter doublets. The new fashion leaned away long tunics and breeches to closely fitted vests, short doublets and hose to reveal the shapely men’s legs. Henry VIII was admired by many across Europe for the curves of his legs particularly his calves.

Since there was one hose for each leg, they were tied around the waist leaving the unprotected gonads open to public view–thus the codpiece came into use. A range of men and boys from age 8 years and upward wore the codpiece.

At its earliest appearance in manly fashion, the codpiece was simply a flap of fabric. In the late 1590s, it evolved into a more stylish protruding penis sheath that might be padded. The owners like to decorate their pieces with metallic thread, satin tufts, bows and other trimmings.

In addition to serving as a private, protected penis space, the owners might use them as pockets to carry around what ever small objects which might be useful. They were protective devices as well, keeping swords, daggers and hard purses hanging from the belt to inadvertently bang into the testicles.

Today the codpiece is still in use on occasion by scientists and researchers in the lab. Renamed, the lead-lined gonad protector is useful protection from x-rays and other radiation.


The codpiece carried over into the design of armor both for ceremonial and sports jousting as well as warfare. The warrior’s armor was measured for its intended wearer, and the codpiece was prominently placed. By the end of the 16th century, the codpiece fell out of fashion.

While Edward III, the king of England from 1327-1377, was fighting the Hundred Years War, he thought that strength and prowess correlated with his male endowment. He ordered a huge codpiece for his armor both as a way to enhance his crown jewels and intimidate the enemy. In addition he ordered the nobility fighting with him to do the same thing. One wonders if the fighting knights and nobles could take time to check out their opponents in the heat of battle.

Tour leaders at the British Tower of London, where Henry VIII’s armor is on display, like to tell stories about how a metallic clatter often interrupts their presentations. Some women just cannot resist stroking the metal codpiece for luck and inadvertently knock the thing off and it rattles to the floor.


This sexually transmitted disease (STD) also known as “The Great Pox” spread through out Europe as an epidemic in the 16th century. Supposedly it first appeared in 1495 on the continent. However recent archaeological research at Pompeii challenges that claim. It shows evidence of congenital syphilis in some of the children who died there. Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE and destroyed two Roman towns, Pompeii and Herculaneum, in Italy.

Syphilis spread quickly much in the same way AIDS spreads today. The symptoms were sores on the penis, putrid pus discharges, and painful swelling in the groin. Walking and urination were difficult.

The treatment consisted of an ointment made from mercury and animal grease. The patients wrapped fabric coated in the ointment and wore it at all times. The codpiece came into use as an excellent way to look fashionable, yet protect the wrapped penis.

Henry VIII

Academics debate over whether or not Henry VIII died of syphilis. Gradually over 35 years as king, he evolved into a hideously obese, angry old man. He weight about 392 pounds at death, with a 54 inch waist, and had a terrible disease which made him stink from pus oozing from leg ulcers on both legs. The irony is that his manly legs became disfigured as he grew older. Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, described them as “the worst legs in the world.”

It appears that he exhibited symptoms of insanity. However he suffered a brutal jousting accident when he went into combat with his visor open and was struck by the eye and his head took a bad blow. He was unconscious for some time. Some historians argue that this was the beginning of his mood swings and possible insanity. Just a few days before his death, he lost his speech and finally a uremic coma took his life.

The burial of such a huge corpse was a difficult undertaking. Carpenters built a coffin large enough to hold the body, but it could not contain the king’s almost 400 pound weight. When they were trying to load it into a wagon, the story goes, the coffin split in half.

Some scholars argue that since none of his children (Mary Tudor-Bloody Mary, Henry Fitzroy-the duke of Richmond, Elizabeth I- Virgin Queen, and Edward VI exhibited any form of congenital syphilis, and no extant records show that his doctors prescribed the mercury ointment for him. Therefore it might be unlikely that he died from the disease. Perhaps an autopsy may someday be performed that will address the question.