Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Battle and the Bulge

April 29th, 2010 · 5 Comments

Did the codpiece come into vogue because a bunch of Italian counts were trying to conceal their fights against syphilis? An Australian doctor makes the case:

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. The development of the codpiece worn by powerful and prominent leaders would not only solve the problem but also start a new fashion trend for the Court followers.

The author also notes that, at least in Italian paintings of the Renaissance, codpieces were almost always shown as colored red. The coloration, he argues, was no accident—the most common ointment used in treatment combined mercuric oxide, sulphide, and cinnabar, creating a scarlet solution. Red codpieces were thus apt to conceal any drippage.

Codpieces of more recent vintage can be seen here. (Entirely safe for work,we assure you.) Our favorite? Tough to beat the one donned by Larry Blackmon.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • scottstev

    I remember in history class that the vogue for wigs and makeup in the 18th century courts was also a result of trying to conceal syphilis infections. I file this under the “too good to verify with good sources” section of history. Like much apocrypha, it makes intuitive sense.

    Here’s the obligatory Wikipedia list of famous victims, the most sad being Franz Schubert

  • scottstev

    The fact that this subject fascinates me is testimony to my dirty mind and adolescent sense of humor but you have to love this passage in the article, which is a classic case of projection.

    The Italians and Neapolians called syphilis the Mal
    Françoise, the English called it the French Pox, and the
    French called it the Mal de Naples. The Flemish named
    it the Spanish Pox and similar derogatory names were
    used in other countries if political mileage was to be
    made.

  • Brian Moore

    Thanks, now I can never again look at Renaissance paintings without hearing the words “syphilitic drippings.” And I have you to blame!

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: That list is quite the all-star team of intellectual and artistic giants. If only penicillin had been discovered a few decades earlier, the world might’ve been treated to a whole lot more Gaugin paintings and Joplin music.

    @Brian Moore: Sorry, man.

  • Jordan

    That reminds me of a great couple of scenes from the first season of Blackadder. He’s getting dressed for what he presumes to be a fancy dress party. When his servant asks what codpiece he would like, he replies “The Black Russian! That always puts the fear of god into the clergy.”

    It then turns out that the event is his elevation to Archbishop of Canterbury. The enormous black wang is then “hidden” by covering it with a bishop’s cap.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdjK1gPtl2Y (NSFW)

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