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Codpiece, a cover up for syphilis

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One of the most "manly" fashion trends during the late medieval and renaissance age was the codpiece. One of the most prolific examples of this was the portrait of King Henry VIII. In his painting, he is shown with shoulders slightly back, and groin area thrust forward with an enormous codpiece prominently forward as the centerpiece of the painting.

Where did this fashion trend come from? The trend in the early renaissance age turned from breeches and long doublets to shorter doublets and hose. The hose was a single leg, and then each leg was tied around the waist, leaving the genital area exposed. This area was first covered with a simple piece of cloth. Over time, however, it became a sign of prosperity and virility among the nobles, as the commoners were still wearing breeches for the most part. Used for pockets in some cases, it most probably began with other uses in mind.

In armor, the codpiece predates a simple fashion statement and was used as a piece of armor. It was Edward III while fighting in the Hundred Years War that first turned the armor version into a symbol. He, like most men, thought that the size of his male member was in direct correlation with power and strength. He supposedly had his armor modified to include an extremely over sized codpiece, and ordered the nobility fighting with him to do the same.

The advent of the codpiece as a fashion statement correlates directly with the beginning of an outbreak of syphilis. Italy, one of the fore-bringers of fashion to the whole of Europe at the time, had just embarked on the famous Columbus voyages to the Americas. It is highly debated that Columbus's crew may have brought back syphilis after engaging in relations. Either way, syphilis was running rampant in Italy in 1495, three years after the "1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue", though reports also say it was described in In the fifteenth century, the new disease appeared but Saxony in 1493 and Sprengle outlines that the disease existed in 1493 at Auvergne.

At the Siege of Naples in 1495, French King Charles VIII and his army reported the disease to have spread throughout his army as well.

In a pre-penicillin age, the treatment of the disease was to first pack the genitals in cotton bandages soaked in an mixture of animal fats to soak up the puss and blood that flowed from the penis. This was a very challenging condition for tailors to work with. But, as armor had already been made with a large codpiece, the tailors took to that design and began using the need for more room for bandages to make a statement of power.

The courts soon followed in this fashion statement even if they did not have the spreading disease.

The other treatment of syphilis before penicillin was to inject mercury into the penis. A very misguided medical quote from the day states "One night with a Venus, six months with Mercury."

As we know today, mercury poisoning is a very real and deadly truth. Many people died due to the "cure" of the STD.

So, the next time you are picking out your Ren Faire attire, remember this article before choosing a large codpiece.




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