A little article on the history of the codpiece…

… I wrote for a newspaper this week.  Hope you enjoy!

arrmour-codpiece‘There is no hidden codpiece memo.’

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.’

17 thoughts on “A little article on the history of the codpiece…

  1. Alan King

    Lucy, thank you for putting others’ minds at rest!

  2. Dave Witzke

    The original ‘fanny’ pack?

  3. Peter jones

    Awesome piece, (ok, slight pun intended), I love hearing the origin of phrases. Family jewels is one I didn’t know.

  4. Glyn Jones

    Hi Lucy, another great little piece. Enjoying all your TV and articles, looks about the correct size. keep on educating me

  5. Gill Chesney-Green

    Interesting article…and amusing, too. I presume ‘cod’ also came to mean fake…as we have phrases such as ‘cod Latin’ for something that isn’t real. By the way was that a Freudian slip when you mentioned carrying around a picture of King Henry IIIV in our hands rather than our heads? 😉

  6. Bob Bear

    “The codpiece, of course, forms part of the picture of Henry VIII that we all carry round in our hands.”

    Wonderful freudian slip Lucy!
    Wishful thinking?

  7. Hunter S. Jones

    LOL! Shoulder pads.

  8. Geoff Hallett

    What is your view of the purchase of Henry’s hat he threw into the air. Were you involved?

  9. Nancy Lea

    Don’t know if you ever read Cornelia Otis Skinner’s wonderful memoir “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” about a first visit to Europe with her parents and her “BFF” Being of an era when sex was shrouded in mystery for young girls, they “struggle” with trying to figure it all out until a visit to the Cluny Museum where, on one side of the room is exhibited a chastity belt and a codpiece on the other. She describes both of them as looking at the things, then going “OH!!!!!!” repeatedly as they run from one side of the room to the other and “get it.” (Very funny book altogether and worth a read!!)

  10. Nick van V.

    That’s the long and short of it on codpieces, I suppose…

  11. Frances Doyle

    an amusing and enjoyable article

  12. Jean Thompson

    Thanks for the history of codpieces. I saw the Henry VIII suit of armor in White Tower in 2013. While I laughed at Henry’s codpiece being so large (didn’t believe it accurately represented his family jewels), what really impressed me was the difference in sizes of his armor from when he was young and when he had gotten to be an obese old man.

  13. Glen Parry

    Very amusing and illuminating.

    One question springs to mind though. Did Henry VIII ever put his cod piece to the, unmentioned, use demonstrated by The Black Adder? Surely, even a King needs somewhere to hang his hat?

  14. Judy Robertson

    Thanks to you and your fascinating television shows, this American is less baffled.

  15. James Ross

    Unless I have missed it we have yet to see your history of cod pieces. But then, this is conservative Minnesota USA so there is he question of whether our public television leadership would know what a cod piece is?

  16. Xenobio

    I wonder why nobody invented pantyhose for men!

  17. David Galbraith

    I’m not any kind of an expert on Middle English but I’m intrigued as to the use of the word cod. Have we assumed that cod means bag or scrotum simply because of its use within codpiece? Are they any examples of its usage, in context, which predate the fashion?

    The reason I ask is this: the late 13th century short doublet which began the exposure problem was called a “court piece”. It strikes me as an amazing coincidence. I have long wondered if much later generations wryly used an evolved take on court piece to ostentatiously cover the area which the court piece had itself exposed.

    I’ve not spent a great deal of my life in the contemplation of the codpiece, or courtspiece, but this has vexed me for an hour or so more than it should.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *