Prostitution in the Middle Ages

 

In the Europe of the Middle Ages, there was the paradox of universal tolerance on the one hand and conviction regarding prostitution on the other. Although technically a sin (because it revolves around the act of fornication), prostitution was recognized by the Church and other sectors as a ‘necessary evil’. It was accepted as the fact that young men sought sex regardless of their options, therefore prostitution served to protect respectable women from seduction and even rape. In 1358, the Great Council of Venice declared that prostitution is “absolutely indispensable for the world”. Even though it was accepted as a lesser evil, the Church did not hesitate to declare prostitution a “morally wrong practice”, even though St. Augustine proclaimed that “if prostitution of society is expelled, everything is disrupted by passions.”

Many canonists urged prostitutes to reform, either through marriage or by becoming nuns. In fact, there were many monasteries explicitly created for the prostitutes who wanted to leave the profession. Prostitution in the Middle Ages was primarily an urban institution. Especially in Italy, efforts were made by municipal governments to expel prostitutes from cities, but in vain. The demand was simply too great, since not only single men sought their services, but also married men and many members of the clergy. Many cities tried to solve the problem by banishing prostitutes to specific areas, which eventually became marginal sectors associated with the poor and undesirable.

Another virtually universal restriction suffered by prostitutes was the clothing they were allowed to wear. In order to put them on the margins of the ‘decent woman’ and avoid confusion, the Church required them to adopt some distinctive clothing, which the government of each city selected. For example, in Milan, the garment that distinguished them was a black cloak, while in Florence they wore gloves and bells on their hats. Many cities decided to get rid of the situation and created laws that regulated brothels, charging a percentage of their income.

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