A little article on the history of the codpiece…
… I wrote for a newspaper this week. Hope you enjoy!
So says Colin Callendar, executive producer of the upcoming BBC Two drama series Wolf Hall, denying claims that the size of his stars’ codpieces were reduced beyond the point of historical accuracy to avoid offending or baffling an American audience.
Actor Damian Lewis did indeed describe the black velvet codpiece that came with his costume as Henry VIII as a ‘little dinky one.’ But it was Mark Rylance, playing Thomas Cromwell himself, who provided a possible reason why, claiming that ‘modern audiences, perhaps more in America’ might ‘not know exactly what’s going on down there.’
So what exactly is this controversial garment? The codpiece is buttoned, or tied with strings, to a man’s breeches. It takes its name from the word ‘cod’, middle English for both ‘bag’ and ‘scrotum’, and arose because medieval men wore hose – essentially, very long socks – beneath their doublets, and nothing else in the way of underwear.
When the fourteenth-century fashion for very short doublets emerged, the codpiece was invented to cover up the gap at the top of those hose. If you believe ‘the Parson’ in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, it was a much-needed innovation. He disliked the short doublets of his day because ‘Alas! Some of them show the very boss of their penis and the horrible pushed-out testicles that look like the malady of hernia’.
Originally just a triangle of cloth, the codpiece became more substantial and more decorative as time went on, until its decline in the late sixteenth century.
The codpiece, of course, forms part of the picture of Henry VIII that we all carry round in our heads. In the portraits after Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry’s enormous codpiece emphasizes his virility, and hence his capacity for providing England with heirs to the throne. It forms the very centerpiece of Holbein’s drawing (‘The Whitehall Cartoon’) that gives us Henry’s definitive image.
None of Henry’s fabric codpieces survive, but the suit of his 1540 armour displayed at the Tower of London also has an enormous codpiece in metal, and its size suggests that Holbein was not exaggerating. Female visitors to the Tower used to stick pins into its lining in the hope that this would increase their own fertility.
Codpieces also functioned a useful little purse for storing precious items like coins, or jewels, and tradition claims this as the origin of the expression ‘a man’s family jewels.’
They are garments that tend to arouse wonder and disbelief in post-Tudor viewers, so much so that the Museum of London has a whole drawer of codpieces that were catalogued, by a bashful Victorian curator, as ‘shoulder pads’.
But none of them were quite as big as the one worn by Rowan Atkinson as Edmund Blackadder, in his first, late-medieval, incarnation. For his installation as Archbishop of Canterbury, Blackadder decides to wear his best and biggest codpiece.
‘Let’s go for the Black Russian,’ he tells Lord Percy. ‘It always terrifies the clergy.’