Sex working in the middle ages

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The Saintly Sinners

The formation of Christianity as a state religion in Western Europe was the beginning of nearly two millennia of denigrating sex work and sex workers. The anti-sexual pleasure and misogynous creed of early Christianity forced upon it a dichotomous response to prostitution at best.  On the one hand condemnation; on the other the principle of the ‘necessary evil’ to explain the ‘natural’ lust of men and the ‘evil incarnate’ of women.  One of the Church’s founding fathers and the creator of the concept of Original Sin, St Augustine, expressed this in his writings that clearly divided women into madonnas and whores:

            ‘’What is more base, empty of worth, and full of vileness than harlots?  Let them be with matrons and you will produce contamination and worth’’   

‘’Take away harlots from society and you will have tainted everything with lust’’

There was another credence in Christian ideology that was given particular attention during the early Church period: redemption for the sinner.  Taking its cue from the Magdalene, the Church was therefore prepared to forgive its prostitutes provided they gave up their profession and sought God’s grace.  In fact, the penitential whore became the Church’s classic redemption and its perfect vehicle for a female object lesson.  Not surprisingly, throughout the 4th to 6th centuries a string of prostitutes found a way out of their sinful life doomed to eternal damnation by seeking Church forgiveness, and some even became saints posthumously due to their extreme latter-day holiness.  Their names are now legend in the list of Christian saints: St Mary the Harlot, Pelagia, Afra, Thais, Digna, Eunomia, Eutopia, to name but a few.  Mary worked in an Alexandria brothel for 17 years from the age of 12 before one of her clients introduced her to the words of Jesus, and thereafter she sought penance in solitude for 47 years in the desert living on nothing more than water and just three loaves of bread.  Pelagia was a notable courtesan in Antioch until she was converted to Christianity by Bishop Nonnus and traveled to Jerusalem with him disguised as a monk and dwelt there for the rest of her life as a ‘eunuch’.  Thais sought penance by being walled up in a convent cell for three years fed through a hole with bread and water and only released when her room was filled with her excrement.  Sts. Afra, Digna, Eunomia. Eutopia and Theodota were all martyred for their newly-adopted Christian beliefs.  From carnality to canonisation, these women served to underwrite the Christian messages of redemption, proving once again the virtues of salvation and demonstrating that the greater the sinner the greater the holiness.  Continuing in the tradition of Mary Magdalene, they also inspired a number of institutions for redeemed whores throughout the Middle Ages, such as the Metanoia, a house for ex-prostitutes founded by the Byzantine empress Theodora, herself a one-time harlot, the Magdalenes, or ‘White Ladies’, an order of redeemed whores founded by Pope Gregory IX in the 13th century, and the Soul House of Vienna, established in 1384 but closed in 1480 when it was discovered that its inmates had relapsed into old ways in order to raise funds to support the convert.

High Church and Low Life in the High Middle Ages

Prior to the 14th century prostitution in Europe was transient, unorganised and practiced by women who at other times worked in the fields alongside their menfolk and sometime-clients in serfdom.  Others were tavern maids and townswomen with other duties, or, as we have seen, nuns the rest of the time.  These women did not approach sex work in any professional category, but used commercial sex as one of a number of survival strategies.  Some, however, adopted sex work as a full-time occupation for certain prolonged periods.  A popular form of prostitution was that which serviced male pilgrims stopping overnight in a town or tavern en route to a holy site.  With an increase in warfare between powerful and ambitious lords of the manor, warlords and budding nation-states, another type of prostitution emerged: the camp-follower, women who traveled with the roving armies to service the men in their leisure hours.  During the Crusades the phenomenon of the military whore reached its peak with thousands of women abandoning their domestic duties in Europe to follow the Christian armies to the Holy Lands.  One 12th century Arab observer, Imad ad-Din, wrote of one occasion:

‘’There arrived by ship 300 lovely Frankish women full of youth and beauty, assembled from beyond the sea and offering themselves for sin.  They were expatriates come to help expatriates, ready to cheer the fallen and sustained in turn to give support and assistance, and they glowed with ardour for carnal intercourse.  They were all licentious harlots, proud and scornful, foul-fleshed and sinful, appearing proudly in public, ardent and inflamed, tinted and painted, desirable and appetising, exquisite and graceful, making love and selling themselves for gold.’’

The Church, it seems, was never far from harlotry.  One 12th century public French cleric known as Henri the Monk encouraged the men of his congregation not to pay harlots for their services but to convert them, and then marry them.  Other members of the Church, however, were more enterprising.  The Bishop of Winchester rented rooms to sex workers in Southwark under the approving eye of England’s King Henry II, a situation which continued for four centuries.  The nuns of Stratford were so encouraged by this means of acquiring church revenue that they opened a brothel in 1337 to financially support their convent.  In Toulouse a brothel referred to as ‘’the Grand Abbey’’ became a major source of revenue for the town’s university for 200 years.  Queen Joanna I of Naples opened a brothel next door to the Pope’s residence in Avignon and gave the management of it to the nunnery on the other side.  Pope Julius II early in the 16th century was so inspired by this achievement that he established a similar brothel in Rome.  One problem facing the canonical lawyers of the day was the Church’s dilemma of extracting tax from a prostitute without receiving ‘’the wages of sin’’.  That wise and holy intellectual of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, offered a solution:

‘’The harlot must be required to pay the tithe from her earnings, but the Church might not accept payment until she reformed.’’

The Canonists slipped out of this paradox by leaving the responsibility for collecting taxes from sex workers to town and municipal authorities acting on behalf of the Church. In general, churchmen treated prostitutes as social pariahs, and one French king, the pious Louis IX, who was canonised after death, even passed a law in 1254 forbidding prostitution in his country.  Under this royal decree any sex workers found in France were flogged and driven beyond its borders.  His royal subjects were, however, reluctant to enforce such a law and prostitution simply continued to flourish underground.  Finally, good King Louis was forced to admit defeat and after less than two years reluctantly repealed the law.  French whores emerged once more into the light of day.  Thomas Aquinas appears to have been more enlightened on the subject than either clerics or kings of his day.  Despite his thoroughly Christian response to harlotry, on the question of payment he demonstrates a surprisingly postmodern approach:

‘’Prostitutes should be counted amongst the wage-earners.  In effect, they hire out their bodies and provide labour...If they repent, they may keep the profits from prostitution for charitable purposes.  But if they prostitute themselves for pleasure and hire out their bodies so that they may gain enjoyment then this is not work and the wage is as shameful as the act.’’

Aquinas echoed the old ‘necessary evil’ viewpoint and with this rationale probably prevented the introduction of the kind of prohibitory laws which failed in France across Medieval Europe for many centuries to come.

‘’Rid society of prostitutes and licentiousness will run riot throughout.  Prostitutes in a city are like a sewer in a palace.  If you get rid of the sewer, the whole place becomes filthy and foul.’’

Regulated Sex Work in the Late Middle Ages

With the growth of towns across Europe from the 14th century, space in these budding communities became a premium, with the consequence that popularly-recognised social outcasts such as vagrants, gypsies, Jews and, of course, prostitutes found themselves being squeezed into specified town-quarters, ghettos or even to town outskirts.  The centuries-old loose structure of the laissez-faire sex industry was coming to an end in favour of official regulation.  In England, the stews (brothels) in Sandwich were confined to one section of the town, or, in other words, a red-light district was formed, whilst in London all prostitutes were ordered beyond the city walls.  In France, Avignon was the first Medieval town to organise a municipal red-light district in 1234, followed by Montpellier in 1285, and in Paris an attempt was made to confine bawdy houses and street prostitution to certain streets only.  However, as in the earlier attempt at prohibition, this form of regulation also failed due to officials turning a ‘blind eye’ to streetwalkers who persistently solicited in ‘respectable’ streets while wealthier patrons of the sex industry welcomed the establishment of high class bordellos close to their homes.  In Italy, Rome continued to be a whore’s heaven with bordellos and elaborate venues of assignation in rented premises on Church properties, but in Venice a law was passed in 1446 forbidding prostitutes to eat, drink or sleep in taverns, while in Naples where sex workers were more organised than elsewhere in Europe, their own court founded to keep their business honest was taken over by corrupt town officials who used it for pimping by casting prostitutes into prison on any pretext until they paid imaginary fines with which to line the city fathers’ pockets.  Early in the 15th century the authorities in Lisbon agreed to erect a state bordello and then taxed the prostitutes who worked in it to pay for the expense of its building.  In Spain, a brothel quarter was established in Valencia but a wall was raised around it with armed guards stationed at the only gate to make sure its inhabitants remained there, and in Seville a well-run brothel was the first to regulate the sexual health of its inmates and thus managed to minimise the spread of syphilis when a European-wide epidemic of this disease beginning towards the end of the 15th century made most other brothels hotbeds of contagion.

In Late Medieval Europe regulation by the public display of specific articles of clothing or colour codes was also enforced in many towns.  The idea behind this was the supposed protection of unsuspecting men being enticed into payment by the connivance of cunning whores, but in reality it was a stigmata, the mark of shame that enabled ‘respectable’ citizens to identify a sex worker at a glance.  In Leipzig prostitutes were forced to wear a yellow cap with blue trimmings in public, in Vienna a yellow kerchief had to be pinned at the shoulder, in Augsburg they had to wear a green sash, and in Zurich and Berne a red cap, in Bergamo a yellow one, in Parma a white one, in Milan a black one, and so on.  Across Italy the law allowed any citizen to strip a prostitute naked in the street if she was ‘improperly’ dressed according to the regulation codes.  In France punishment for failing to observe local regulations meant the Claviger or Beadle marching the first-time offender through the streets at the beat of a drum with a red knot hanging from her dress.  For the recidivist it was far worse, for she was publicly flogged and barred from sex working in a municipal brothel or on the streets.

High Class Prostitutes in the Renaissance Period

In the 15th century the brothel attained a stage of development that led to the coming of the grand maison that would reach its apogee in the 18th and 19th centuries.  These corresponded with the rise of the bourgeois class with its upper class tastes and were a far cry from the squat, dreary and cramped conditions of the municipal brothels of the Late Medieval regulation period.  A typical maison of the era was a lavishly decorated two or three-storey house that included plush carpeting, rich draperies, expensive full-length mirrors, ornate cornices and in-door plants.  It offered a reception hall where guests were received by  the madam of the house, a restaurant and wine bar.  Whatsmore, instead of sex workers having to share cells as in the municipal brothel, in the maison each had her own room in which she serviced customers, slept and kept her few belongings.  The maison replaced the need for aristocrats to stage orgies in their own homes and hire prostitutes for the pleasure of their invited guests.  Whilst it did not supercede the municipal brothel which continued to cater to a lower-class clientele, it did reduce the need for many sex workers to search for clients by frequenting boisterous taverns, risking the wrath of churchwardens by entering cathedrals and strolling dangerous streets and watersides.

In Northern Italy during the Renaissance a new breed of courtesan emerged.  This too was in response to the rise of the merchant bourgeoisie of Venice, Florence, Milan and other important trading cities.  The phenomenon of the haute-classe prostitute or courtesan had been known in Europe since Classical Grecian times, but in the High Middle Ages they existed under the pseudonym of a nobleman’s mistress.  But the 15th century Italian courtesan, or cortegiane, was an independent sex worker with a coterie of selected exclusive clientele.  Moreover, the emancipated cortegianes were among the wealthiest, best self-educated and most graceful of northern Italy’s young women.  Urbane and cultured they were said to have perfected the art of love-making, and their custom of dyeing their hair blond to stand out from their more mundane sisters and ‘respectable’ wives is thought to have established the male obsession for blondes, or what Boccaccio referred to as the ‘cult of the blond’.  Unlike the more numerous faceless common prostitutes of the streets and brothels, many individual cortegianes are well-known to history.  Tullia d’Aragona, the daughter of a cardinal, was a renowned poet with the patronage of the powerful Cosimo de Medici.  Veronica Franco, who spoke several languages and was an accomplished musician, charged as much as five crowns (the equivalent of six months of a servant’s wages) for a single kiss.  She was a close friend of the painter Tintoretto and included among her clients no less a personage than King Henri III of France.  Imperia Cognata, a favourite model of Raphael, once charged a wealthy German client 100 crowns for her company for just one night.  Cognata died young -no more than 31 years of age- of suspicious circumstances, according to some historians, but of suicide according to others.  There seems little doubt that the fabulous cortegianes were the most highly-regarded women of their time and brought a brief dignity and even respectability to the profession of the sex worker with its often undeserved tawdry reputation.  One visitor to Venice, the English traveler and sexual observer-cum-adventurer, Thomas Coryat, remarked of the cortegiane, rather romantically, thus:

‘’So infinite are the allurements of these amorous calypsoes that the fame of them hath drawn many to Venice from some of the remotest parts of Christendom...shee will endeavour to enchaunt thee partly with her melodious notes that she warbles out upon her lute and partly with that heart-tempting of her voice.  Also, thou wilt find the Venetian cortezan a good rhetorician and a most elegant discourser...and to the end shee may minister unto thee the stronger temptations to come to her lure, shee will shew thee her chamber of recreation, where thou shalt see all manner of pleasing objects.’’

Another more humble observer offers more practical advice in this French ditty:

‘’Leave the courtesans alone,

If you don’t want to lose all you’ve got.

They’re prostitutes like the rest,

But they cost more, for you know what.’’


Sex workers were able to flourish throughout the Middle Ages freely with little more of a bother than a seedy reputation.  But as the Middle Ages came to a close they found their operations increasingly more restricted by officialdom’s attempts at regulating the sex industry.  Only the Italian cortegiane maintained the total liberty accorded prostitution throughout most millennia preceding Christianity.  But the cortegiane represented a last glorious splendour of the ‘oldest profession’, for the signs of a darker period were already looming as the Reformation gained momentum, in which sex work would plummet to its lowest ebb and its most alienating relation with society-at-large, a situation in which sex workers worldwide have found themselves through to this day.

Roberta Perkins

Copyright © Roberta Perkins, Sydney, NSW 2000.


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Burford, E. J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels, c100-1675 Peter Owen, London, 1976.

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