The curious history of the codpiece

I generally steer away from racier topics, schizophrenic quasi-prude that I am.   On the one hand, the romantic (Or is it elitist snob?) in me can’t get enough "Murder She Wrote", "Rumpole the Bailey", and "Brideshead Revisited", but I’m probably better known among friends for switching on David Chappelle or, history’s funniest movie ever, "Booty Call" (to which I’m not going to provide a link, beta).  In fact, "Booty Call" was, to poor Shabana’s horror, the first movie I rented after we got married five years ago.  It’s a movie I can watch all day and all night.  As I can the "Jamie Foxx Show", as well.  His comedic talents seem to know no bounds.  But I digress.  Sure, it’s raunchy and highly un-Islamic fare, but, lord, it’s has the touch of genius.   

All this is a roundabout way of saying that I reserve the right to  include the occasional titillating tidbit that I find amusing and/or edifying in these ethereal pages, prudish Muslim sensibilities or no.  (As the hadith says, La haya fi din.  "There is no shame in [discussion of matters of] religion.")   

Anyway, I was reading a quite innocent webpage and came across a word I remembered faintly from English literature class but couldn’t quite place: The "codpiece".   So I googled it and discovered a  bounty of interesting and titillating information that I think is worth sharing.

It is an article of clothing worn by men in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries to ostensibly to cover their genitals (this was a time before underwear and apparently the hemlines of men’s tunic kept rising during that era; that’s a fad I’m grateful has been left in the past) but which became highly increasingly exaggerated, erotically stylized and sometimes even imbued with political significance. 

You’ve probably seen this curious item in old paintings depicting scenes from English history or literature and not given it any thought because of how accustomed we are today to the sight of men’s legs or the fact you can’t tell how revealing these curious items were by looking at the old paintings.

There’s a lot of entertaining stuff (e.g., the author speculates that the Spaniards in Columbus’ day choose a vertical style to celebrate the dynamism and virility of Spain in the Age of Discovery), but you might be wondering why I’m sharing it.

Here’s the fascinating thing. Note this intriguing observation:

Of course, all of this was an affront to the Church that considered that the body was sinful and should be covered. When the Black Death hit Europe in 1347, the Church was quick to declare that this was, in fact, divine punishment for the sinful clothes men were wearing. However, terrible that the Plague was, it did not put a stop to the fashion and afterward coats continued to grow shorter and things became ever more fanciful.

What a refreshing notion.  The Black Death was the result of the male sin and decadence!   It wasn’t because of that old standby explanation, women running around out of control, but rather men who weren’t covering themselves properly.

That has to be the first time I’ve ever heard of any religious establishment singling out men for immodest dress and viewing calamities as divine judgment for male vice and immorality.  And not any old calamity, but the Black Death, one of the words natural disasters of history.

It’s also quite striking to consider that a style that was basically little different from a penis gourd [Warning for the squeamish: Illustrates the idea with National Geographic-style pics of scantily clad tribesmen.] you’d associate with pagan "natives" could become the rage centuries ago in Christian Europe and across class lines (i.e., this wasn’t just something uncouth peasants did). 

I’m no historian of Islamic history and realize that Muslim societies have known their share what a moralist would deem vice and deviance (see for example, "Pederasty in the Islamic World" in Wikipedia), but I doubt you could find comparably libertine social trends in the Muslim world then.   Is this an example of how early the process of secularization began to develop within the bosom of Christendom? 

Speaking of penis gourds, this fascinating report from 2000 in Salon explains how this rude accent piece has become a symbol of political resistance in Irian Jaya, the province of Indonesia annexed by Jakarta in 1969 and which still has a separatist movement.

Let’s all get down on our knees right now and pray that this trend doesn’t catch on among rebels elsewhere.  The world has enough problems without Basques, Kurds, Baluchis, Palestinians, Irishmen, Kashmiris, West Saharans, Uyghurs, Dinkas and so on running around naked. 

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