I went to see the rock group Jethro Tull perform on several occasions when I was a lot younger. The front man, Ian Anderson, would stand on one leg playing the flute, which was fairly impressive, but what really drew the eye was the glittering codpiece he wore while doing so.
The next time I encountered a codpiece was many years later amongst the dressing up clothes at Stirling Castle. This was on a whole different level to Anderson’s which seemed remarkably discrete by comparison. Indeed, to my 21st century eyes, it was so immodestly large and protruding I was embarrassed to be caught staring at it, and moved swiftly on.
When I came to write my first novel I debated whether my characters should don them or not and wondered if they were indeed commonly worn by the men of Scotland in 1546. I decided to delve, metaphorically, into the codpiece further.
Cod, in this instance, has nothing to do with fish but was the slang for scrotum. Codpieces began as something quite practical to fill the space between tunic and hose and preserve men’s modesty. But as the fashion in doublets became shorter, greater covering was required and the codpiece became a fashion statement of itself, and a sign of virility in the early 1500s.
Often they were decorated with tassels, bows or jewels. Some were large enough to store coins, a handkerchief or even a handy snack. The increased padding provided protection from swords, lances and other implements of war. Here’s King Henry VIII’s armour, with protective appendage
But the era of the cod piece was also the period when the pox was rife throughout Europe. Treating syphilis involved a range of herbs, sticky unguents and decoctions. Containing it all within a large codpiece helped protect clothing from stains, as well as keeping the poultice in place.
By late 16th century the cod piece had had its day and was replaced by the well padded stomach, known as a peascod belly; the codpiece beneath gradually shrinking in size.
As for why Ian Anderson sported one I suspect it was a piece of flamboyant fun that fitted with the overall romance of the clothes of the 1970s. And his was modest by comparison with the ‘packages’ some other rock stars were creating.
And did I have my male characters sport codpieces… they have gone unmentioned so far, but in book 3 one does pop up.
Grace Vicary, Visual Art as Social Data: The Renaissance Codpiece