Five centuries ago, the codpiece was an obligatory part of a man's dress, which both covered and drew attention to that part of the body that could not be mentioned in society. The story of the rise and fall of the most extravagant element of a man's suit.

A rare modern lover of painting did not pay attention to him. In the paintings of Parmigianino or Brueghel the Elder, he takes on such extravagant forms that you don’t immediately realize what is actually depicted. It is even more difficult to understand the historical context in which such an unusual element of the men's wardrobe could appear. Victoria Miller from the University of Cambridge decided to figure out how and where the codpiece came from, what mark it left in literature and painting, and why it disappeared so quickly under new fashion trends. Since Miller's dissertation is currently available only in the form of a retelling of her report on the university website, the authors of the N + 1 project decided to simply translate it.

Although the codpiece was in vogue for a short time, it has left a significant mark in the visual arts, literature, and, more recently, in television melodrama. Victoria Miller, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, focused on this pretentious male accessory and came up with new ideas about the rise and fall of this symbol of masculinity.

In the Elizabethan play "Wily Beguiled" (loosely translated as "Insidious Beguiled"), a character named Will Cricket boasts that women find him attractive because he has "a pleasant face, a good beard, a pretty body and an intoxicating codpiece". A lot of interesting things have been said about the codpiece, not least thanks to the TV show “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel. Explaining the deliberate reduction of Thomas Cromwell's codpiece in the production, actor Mark Rylance referred to the fact that contemporary audiences, especially in America, "may not know what it's all about down there."

Five centuries ago, the codpiece was an obligatory part of a man's dress, which both covered and drew attention to that part of the body that could not be mentioned in society. In the 1580s, Michel de Montaigne wrote that the codpiece is “an empty and useless model of that member of the body that does not even have a decent name, but which, nevertheless, we flaunt in public.”

At a conference [held at the University of Cambridge] on April 30, Victoria Miller, a PhD student in the Department of History, offered a new perspective on the popularity of this male accessory, separately examining its references in European literature and its appearance in historical portraits and engravings.

Miller's dissertation examines the militaristic influence on civilian male dress in 16th-century Italy and Germany, and the codpiece is a major component of her research. At a conference on history and gender, she offered a new explanation for its surprisingly rapid decline in the last quarter of a century, when it turned into a pitiful semblance of its former form and by 1600 did not disappear at all.

Fashion can be described in terms of ups and downs, and shifts of focus from one part of the body to another. The historical consensus on the origin of the codpiece is that it was intended to fill a niche and, at least initially, to protect male modesty. This was the beginning of the history of the codpiece as a separate fashion accessory (in English - codpiese; "cod" is both cod, pod and slang for the scrotum).

In the 15th century, men's clothing consisted of a double-breasted doublet or tunic (worn over the upper body), trousers, mantle or cloak. Trousers (plundry) consisted of two separate woolen or linen trousers, each of which was attached to a double-breasted doublet. As the doublet became shorter, the length of the mantle also shortened, gradually protruding parts of the gentleman's body became visible under his clothes.

“It is not surprising that such frankness was not to everyone's taste. The moralists were quick to condemn her,” says Miller. In his 1429 sermon, Bernard of Siena denounced parents who dressed their sons in "a doublet that only goes up to the navel [and] stockings with a little piece in front and one behind, so that they show a lot of flesh to sodomites." In 1463 in England, the Parliament of Edward IV made it obligatory for men to cover "their innermost limbs and bottoms".

Pictorial and literary evidence shows that the first codpieces were made from a triangular piece of cloth called a "braye". The lower corner of the triangle was attached to the pants, and the remaining corners were attached to the doublet. This triangular handkerchief was replaced with an insert design to hold what Montaigne called "our secret pieces".

Masculinity was very strong in 16th century Europe - along with the concepts of chivalry, honor and "romanticism". Codpieces were very quickly and in the most vulgar way adapted to demonstrate masculinity. The most elaborate versions of their design were the most graphic in this sense - the portraits show how the codpiece reached epic (almost priapic) proportions in the mid-16th century. They did not spare money for decorating the codpieces: they were made from expensive silk fabrics, decorated with jewelry or embroidery. Even boys were ordered to wear them.

It is interesting that protective codpieces have successfully outlived their decorative counterparts and have survived to this day. The other day, Nutshell successfully tested the latest armored version. Made of composite carbon fiber, the device withstood a direct hit from a 5.6 mm rifle, and it was worn at that moment by the director of the manufacturing company. Despite the impressive security, the new codpiece looks very modest compared to analogues from the 16th century.

Miller writes: “Ideas of masculinity were deeply intertwined with notions of military power. The protective codpiece was part of the costume of the German and Swiss mercenaries. On the battlefield, the armored codpiece was both protective and reassuring. In a satirical text by François Rabelais, one of the characters says that the male genitals need protection as reliable (“belles et fortes braguettes naturelles”), which nature has provided seeds and nuts.

Not many codpieces have come down to us. Rare "survivors" include metal versions designed to be worn with armor (the codpiece of Henry VIII can be seen in the Tower of London) and ornate woolen and velvet codpieces by Svante Stensson Sture (who was governor of Estonia during the Livonian War) and his two sons in Uppsala Cathedral.

Costume historians have long believed that the codpiece fell into disuse due to the fashion for femininity that began to spread at the French and English courts. Open round pleated collars and breeches shifted the focus to the face and hips. “From the portraits of Nicholas Hillard and other artists, it becomes clear that fashion took a different direction in the late 16th century and early 17th century,” says Miller.

But fashion is more complex and subtle than we think. After a thorough study of historical sources, Miller discovered a third, previously unnoticed stage in the evolution of the codpiece. During the last quarter of the 16th century, the codpiece shifted lower, decreased in size, and was then finally supplanted by the emergence of a new trend known as the "pod belly".

“It was a special doublet in which careful padding allowed for a rounded, tapering silhouette, reminiscent of an overripe pea pod ready to burst at any moment,” she says.

“Both parts of the costume competed for the same anatomical “real estate” - the codpiece had to make room to accommodate the pod doublet. Newer, much more modest versions of the codpieces were often hidden under the waves of the pants on each side. Even in the northern countries, where codpieces were most decorated, this late version was relatively hidden.

Miller's research suggests that the "pod" was no less a masculine symbol than the codpiece. They are often found together and compared in previous modern texts. “The pod was a powerful sexual symbol associated with the male genitalia. Moreover, the pea field was a convenient place for sexual pleasures, and the phrase "peel the peas" was used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. In the play "The Naughty Child" written by Thomas Indeland in 1570, the hero, not having heard the interlocutor, indignantly exclaims "... with my madame laye in the peeas?" (which is phonetically close to "laye in peace" - "rest in peace").

“An examination of the design of handkerchiefs in The Fayre Mayde of the Exchange (1607) by Thomas Heywood by historian Juana Green shows that the pod motif was not just a symbol of male power, but could also represent a symbol of engagement, marriage and fertility. Interestingly, both styles carry a strong sexual connotation. But it is no less interesting to study their differences from each other - and how differently they were "read" by contemporaries.

Extravagant pod doublets have become, like codpieces, an object of ridicule. In a 1580 poem, the Cambridge scholar Gebria Harvey disparages "fat-bellied pod doublets". In the same years, the moralist George Stubbs wrote: “what can be attractive in these doublets, which protrude beyond the stomach no less, and perhaps more, than male codpieces.”

About 30 years later, Robert Hayman wrote in his poetry Two Dirty Fashions:

Of all fond fashion, that were worne by Men. These two (I hope) will ne’r be worne againe:

Great Codpist Doublets, and great Codpist britch, At seuerall times worne both by meane and rich. These two had been, had they been worn together, Like two Fooles, pointing, mocking each the other.

*** (Of all men have worn/ These two will never (hopefully) be worn again/ Huge pod doublets and oversized codpieces/ Worn time and time again by villains and the rich/ These two when together/ Reminds me of two fools ridiculing each other).

There are many examples in the historical literature of how reverently men defend their masculinity - especially when it comes to size. In the 15th century manuscript Detti Piacevoli, for example, there is the following joke: “A lady was asked what size penises women prefer - small, medium or large. She replied that the average ones were the best. When the reason was clarified with her, the answer was “Because there are no big ones.”

Fashion is always a way of communication. “We use clothes to create an outer image of the image of how we see ourselves. The clothes we wear are filled with complex cultural messages,” says Miller.“For me, the most interesting thing about men's fashion in the 16th century was how it reflected everything that seemed important to men at that time - their preoccupation with property, masculinity, military and sexual power.”

Author: Victoria Miller