Some codpieces were empty – while others were used to store potpourri. Sometime around 1536, Hans Holbein the Younger was finessing Henry VIII’s crotch. With a fine brush in his hand and a palette of water colour paints beside him, the master artist took pains to give his client’s ornately decorated bulge its due prominence.

       In the resulting sketch – a full-size preparatory drawing for a mural that once covered an entire wall at Whitehall Palace in London – the king is, it’s often said, majestic and virile. Henry VIII’s feet are planted firmly apart, with both hands resting suggestively below his waist, clutching objects that seem to direct the viewer towards his ludicrously proportioned genitals. According to a contemporary account, the final painting left viewers feeling “abashed and annihilated“.

       For a brief moment in the Renaissance, in between the invention of the microscope, printing press, and pencils – along with other technologies that uphold modern society – upper class men were rather preoccupied with erecting another innovation: the codpiece.

       These “pretty personal palaces for penises“, as one writer has called them, consisted of pockets of fabric worn over the crotch and padded out to form a bizarre array of evocative shapes: spirals, orbs, and upwards-curling sausages. Some even had faces on them. This was a rare opportunity for men to give their nether regions a dash of flair, and many opted for confections of sumptuous fabrics, such as silk, velvet, and satin, embellished with jewels, gold, and – the ultimate show of macho fecundity – cute little bows.

       But what were codpieces for? And why did they disappear?

       Initially, codpieces were made of steel, and added to armour to help protect knights’ fertility on the battlefield. But soon they presented a neat solution for an awkward everyday problem.

       Until the late 15thCentury, it was common for men to wear a long tunic or doublet – essentially, a dress – with hose (tights) on their legs. Then the fashion changed. Doublets gradually inched their way upwards over the years, becoming so short that they no longer covered the crotch. This was particularly dangerous, because the hose men wore at the time came individually, like socks, leaving open spaces that were somewhat… revealing. 

       “So basically, you would put one leg in one hose, and then tie it to your doublet. And then you do the same with the other leg,” says Victoria Bartels, a professor of early modern Italy at Syracuse University in New York. With the trendy new cropped versions, “it kind of left an area that needed to be covered,” she says.  

     The problem was highlighted in a particularly graphic description in the medieval poem The Canterbury Tales. “Alas, some of them show the bulge of their shape, and the horrible swollen members, that it seems like the malady of hernia,” complains a character known as “the person” in the story’s prologue.

       The gaps led to a moral panic, with priests worrying that the new style would prove irresistible to “sodomites”, and lead to the corruption of young men.

      The first codpieces were limp triangles of fabric that were tucked in to cover the openings between each hose. But it didn’t take long for men to take full advantage of these new garments, and start padding them.

       Within a couple of decades, these loose flaps had morphed into phallic objects of monstrous proportions. Early modern wannabe lotharios would pack their codpieces with horsehair, fabric and straw, sometimes stashing useful items away inside such as handkerchiefs and money – Bartels has even has encountered accounts of their use for storing potpourri. From the streets of Florence, where they were known as sacco, to Paris, where they were called braguettes, young men swaggered around with their prosthetic genitalia, drawing the eye downwards wherever they went. What had begun as a modesty device was now being used to the opposite effect.   

       Henry VIII, whose reproductive woes led him to invent a new branch of Christianity, notoriously used the figurative associations of the codpiece to maximum effect. The mural at Whitehall Palace was destroyed in a fire, but the original drawing survived, and others were encouraged to copy it. Consequently, the king’s ornamental crotch lives on in tens of paintings to this day, reassuring those who view it that he is more than capable of producing an heir.  

       Even 200 years after his death, admirers could visit Henry VIII’s statue and marvel at his fecundity, at the Tower of London. A painted wooden effigy there came with flowing fabric robes and a secret mechanism that revealed a swinging codpiece. “If you press a spot on the floor with your feet, you will see something surprising with regard to this figure, but I will not say more,” wrote one visitor, according to the book Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art. Women would stick pins into it in the hope that it would help them to have children.

       Today, very few codpieces survive. Those that remain include the metallic bulges in armouries, a set of wool and velvet ones that belonged to a Swedish count and his sons, and a drawerful at the Museum of London – initially classified as shoulder pads by a starchy Victorian curator, according to the historian Lucy Worsley. Other than that, we can only glimpse the priapic grandeur of this lost garment though paintings and sculptures from the era.

       However, though authentic renaissance codpieces are now rare, public enthusiasm for them hasn’t disappeared completely. In the 1970s and 80s, rock bands such as Jethro Tull and Kiss began aweing their audiences with leopard-print, leather, metallic studded, and demon-faced versions – the latter even had their own codpiece-seamstress until they disbanded last year.   

       Codpieces have also been making a comeback in high fashion – part of a trend for so-called “Tudor power dressing” – and on historical television series including Wolf Hall. There’s just one problem: modern producers can’t bring themselves to make them big enough.

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