Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Codpiece evolution: From function to fantasy

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

“Pretty personal palaces for penises”
– Zaria Gorvett, in Smithsonian

A codpiece (from Middle English cod, meaning bag or scrotum) was a triangular piece of cloth covering the male genitals, held in place by buttons or ties that attached to the man’s hosiery. In fourteenth-century Europe, men’s hose consisted of two separate legs, sometimes worn over linen drawers. Later, the hose were joined in the back, becoming one piece, but still had an opening in the front. The chest, abdomen, and lower legs were clothed in a doublet, basically a short dress. When style dictated that the doublet became short, the genitals would be exposed, hence the need for the codpiece.

Sometimes the codpiece was a different color than the hose to which it was attached. To demonstrate wealth or status, codpieces were made of silk, velvet, or satin. Sometimes they were jeweled or decorated in gold. Some suits of armor had metal codpieces. To demonstrate virility, codpieces, instead of concealing the genitals, called attention to them instead. Codpieces became shaped like erect members, padded, and made of leather or reinforced with rigid material, becoming “prosthetic genitalia.” This excess reached a peak by the 1540s, and they were no longer used fifty years later.

An unusual idea has been offered by Reed, although the timing may be off. By 1494, syphilis, a new and destructive disease, was in Europe. Sufferers had enlarged inguinal lymph nodes and genital discharges of blood and pus. The penis was wrapped in “bulky woolen wads and woven cloth bandages.” All this was impossible to conceal, and voluminous codpieces were needed. Reed thinks that what was originally a medical necessity became a fashion.

A fairly regular codpiece in Summer.
Drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1568. Via Wikimedia. 
A larger codpiece in the Portrait of Antonio Navagero.
Oil on canvas by Giovanni Battista Moroni, 1565. Via Wikimedia. 


  1. Zaria Gorvett. “How the codpiece flopped.” Smithsonian, February 4, 2024.
  2. “Codpiece.” Wikipedia.
  3. Con Reed. “The codpiece: Social fashion or medical need?” Internal Medicine Journal, 34, 2004.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Spring 2024



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