I have decided to take a look at something which to the modern eye can be difficult to judge if it´s a fashion statement designed to emphasise the “manhood” so to speak, or if it´s a protection to ward off a swift kick to the groin but which in fact is neither: the codpiece.
It has been assumed that the word cod originates from the Middle English word for scrotum, but new findings, both in relation to the language itself and to this particular part of men´s clothing gives at hand that the explanation is far simpler than that.
“Cod” means in fact cod as in the scale clad, swimming creature that is also described as a “fish” and belonging to the family Gadidae. For those who want to show off by referring to it in Latin, the most common cod in the codpiece – once it had reached the upper classes – was the Atlantic cod, which in that case should be referred to as Gadus Morhua.
The question that surely will appear already at the beginning of this text – maybe for several reasons – is “Why?”
And the answer is a bit blurred here, as there seem to be several reason to have a cod sticking out of your groin. It seems that in the very earliest of medieval times, this was by no means a rich and wealthy as it would later come to be. Instead it was a cover up to hide the very common poach fishing. Sneaking home from ponds and rivers – where the fishermen of course would not find Atlantic cod, but I´ll return to that – there was always the obvious risk of running in to a game keeper who would have no intention of letting the poachers keep their catch.
It isn´t quite clear how this solution to the problem came about, but historians believe it started with someone simply sticking a fish in his pocket. Anyhow, some clever person came up with the idea of sewing a kind of poach to the front of the trousers and as it soon turned out, this was the perfect solution.
The larger the codpiece, the less likely the chance of a game keeper volunteering to check out the validity of the claim of a caught poacher that he was on his way home to his wife and that he for every visible reason was in a kind of hurry.
This worked quite well for a few centuries, until some nobleman whose name has not survived to posterity discovered this and realised that it could be used to either flaunt or exaggerate what you had been given.
For a few decades the upper classes decided that they wanted to keep up the tradition of keeping a cod in the pouch – and *this* is where the actual name emerge, the rich and wealthy didn´t have to go to the creek or pond to catch some scrawny looking fish, they could actually afford to buy proper cod and stuff it into their pants.
It would soon become obvious that fish did not keep well in clothing. As the male members of the upper classes didn´t have any reason to unload the contents of their pouches on the dinner table, it happened that they carried it around far too long, with a hideous stench about them as a result.
The most famous wearer of the codpiece, Henry VIII, would on occasion to continue the fish tradition, as he found that the smell of a relatively fresh fish could cover up the smell from his severely infected legs, a remedy that for a while was somewhat of a comfort to him.
In time the codpiece would be made out of other materials than cloth, and elaborate creations in metal would appear, and as it grew as a fashion statement, it´s original function was forgotten, until now. But fashion come and fashion go, and towards the end on the 16th century, the codpiece began to slowly fade out among the fashion savvy.
But fashion, as everything else, goes in cycles, and the codpiece can once again be seen in certain subcultures and among heavy metal groups. The fish seems to have permanently discarded among these groups however.
Jeff Sixwhotsitdorf, without codpiece. And cod.
The story of practical clothing – Professor A. Trout, Md.A and Pd.Q
Cultural Anthropology – Grace Q. Vicary
Poaching in the early Middle Ages – Dr. Fisch Sauze
A box of fish fingers.