A codpiece (from the Middle English cod, meaning scrotum) was an important article of men’s clothing for about two hundred years from 1400 to 1600 and were was still worn in Shakespeare’s time (1564 -1616).
The codpiece did not just appear overnight:; it evolved. In the late Middle Ages, when the rising hemlines of tunics, coupled with a lack of underwear led to exposure of wobbly bits. The parson in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales decries the “scantnesse of clothing that covere nat the shameful members of man.”
This sort of behaviour prompted the Ecclesiastical Court to set a fine of twenty shillings for any man (not protected by his rank) who wore a doublet “Not long enough when he stands upright to cove his privities and his buttocks”.
The fines and accompanying sermons apparently did not work, so the Church ordered people to wear some kind of garment in front to cover the genitals, and this, rather ironically, gave birth to the codpiece. For what was intended to be a thing of modesty turned out to be an homage to gentleman’s bits.
It has also been suggested that the cod evolved from a kind of wallet worn by peasants in the days before trouser pockets. Men in the Middle Ages generally carried their money or valuables in little purse sacks hanging from their belt. “Cutpurse” preceded “pickpocket” as a criminal vocation. After a few centuries of putting up with cutpurses, some clever peasant decided to store his valuables in a pouch snugly secured in front of his genitals. It quickly became apparent the more stored in there, the bigger the bulge.
The wonderfully bonkers, Victorian, sex-obsessive Havelock Ellis, in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex, concluded that the upper classes, perhaps envious of the bulge, eventually adopted and refined the style, creating an elegant fashion accessory, often of silk with ribbons, gold and jewels.
“This accessory to male attire was often indelicately prominent” sniffs G.B. Harrison in his introduction to The Works of Shakespeare (1968). “It was made in various forms such as bow of silk, a flap tied to the hose with laces, a small padded sausage shaped cushion ornamented with pins, or a small bag used as a pocket”.
Grace Vicary, in her Visual Art as Social Data – The Renaissance Codpiece (1989), explains that codpiece fashion acted as a barometer of European national spirit. The Italians favoured a very large conspicuous unit with little interference from hose or doublet. The French preferred elegance to style, favouring gold buckles and pendants. The Germans exaggerated theirs into a giant heavily padded thing resembling a loaf of bread whilst the English chose a “Big Ben” skyward pointing model but tucked it in a gap in their breeches.
She then points out that It is perfectly possible to date and place with considerable accuracy unnamed portraits of this period just by studying the details of the codpiece.
Not surprisingly, these walking sundials were not popular everywhere. The Turks, who did not wear codpieces, thought of them as “dishonest.” The 17th century traveller Robert Withers wrote in his Grand Signior’s Seeraglio (1625) that “If a band of Turks find any Christian man, especially a man of war, in a place where they may overcome him, they cut off his codpiece.”
The gloriously smutty Rabelais (1494 – 1553) enjoyed poking fun at codpieces. He refers to a book titled On the Dignity of Codpieces as a forward to Gargantua (1534). This is without doubt the King Kong of cods.
For his codpiece was used nineteen and a half yards of white broad cloth. Shaped like a flying buttress, it was joyously fastened by two golden buckles connecting two enamelled clasps; in each of which was mounted a great emerald the size of an orange. Because the emerald has a certain uplifting and nurturing power for the male member.
The out thrusting front of his cod piece was two yards long, panelled and laced like his breeches, with blue damask puffing out as mentioned above. And, if you had seen the beautiful embroidery and exquisite goldsmith work, embellished with rich diamonds, glorious rubies, turquoises, emeralds and Persian pearls … May God strike me down if it wasn’t a delight to look upon. I will tell you more in the book I have written On the Dignity of Codpieces. And on those hypocritical codpieces of fops and dandies, which are full of nothing but wind, to the great annoyance of the female sex
The codpiece gradually began to die out and by 1630 had all but disappeared with the emergence of an “attached fall-front or broad fall”, which, according to Frederick Croonberg’s Blue Book of Mens Tailoring (1907), was the predecessor to the modern day fly