If you were a well-to-do gentleman in 15th or 16th century Europe, your closet might well have sported an exuberant codpiece or two. But were they just a foppish whim, or could there have been an underlying necessity behind the codpiece phenomenon? This question caught the attention of Dr. Con Scott Reed, of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, who presented a paper for the Internal Medicine Journal, Volume 34, Issue 12, pages 684–686, December 2004.
“The codpiece had proportions that were at times grotesque, and so extreme that the question of the purpose of its use arises. Art gallery guides speculate that the codpiece represented a statement of the virility of the individual and could be looked on as a sex promotion object.”
But the author presents an alternative theory which might explain their apparent abundance (and size).
“The codpiece, however, may have been a disguise for underlying disease.”
The prime candidate being syphilis, which was rampant in Europe at the time.
“The treatment of the disease was for the most part empirical with multiple agents applied locally, which along with the bulky dressings would give large frontal bulges, impossible to hide. The problem would present the tailors with a challenge that appears to have been met by them featuring the mass with the codpiece, while also appearing to advertise the wearer’s virility.”
A full copy of the paper may be found here: ‘The codpiece: social fashion or medical need?’
• In those days, the medical establishment’s preferred remedy for syphilis was treatment with mercury – the intense and long-lasting toxicity of which made it a category-one iatrogenic blunder.
• The painting, featuring as an example in the paper, is Ritratto di Guidobaldo della Rovere, Duke of Urbino (Agnolo Bronzino, 1532).
BONUS: A high resolution rendition of an artist’s impression of Henry VIII, prominently featuring the Royal Codpiece.