Throughout European history the figure of the prostitute has been one against which the respectable wife was measured. In many ways prostitutes, especially those who managed to obtain the status of courtesan, had much greater freedom than the respectable women of their day; without the need to safeguard their virginity, or the honour of their husbands, they had much greater freedom to move around and to interact within their cities, not to mention their independence of both finance and sexuality. On the other hand, prostitutes also had to contend with much greater censure and prejudice. In the world of classical Athens, the common Dikteriades prostitutes were the unfortunate property of the state; the exploited roman slaves were exactly that. As Christianity took hold of Europe, the emphasis turned to the control to the eradication of sin, namely that of youthful male lust. The prostitute may have been a necessary measure, but she was continually reviled for her inherently disruptive, and therefore sinful, status. The appearance of the courtesan counted, also, as a social barometer, similar to the treatment of the common streetwalker; the more relaxed were social mores, and therefore the less censure there was towards prostitution. When there was less condemnation, at least enforced, the limits of prostitution widened to allow the practice of courtesans, well-educated, independent women, the ultimate threat to patriarchal authority.
The origins of institutionalized prostitution in the west are very much rooted in the ancient Greek system, specifically the Attic city, Athens. The establishment of state run brothels was largely attributed to Solon “quick to asses the enormous profits made by both commercial and religious whores, began to organize the business himself, with the result that official, state-run brothels sprang up all over Athens”1. The women in these brothels were, of course, slaves, unable to protests their status as objects of pleasure for the upper classes of Athenian men. Their place in the sexual scheme of Athenian life was as undesirable as that of the restricted wife, in the Hetairae-Pornê dichotomy, they fulfil the far debased role of commoditised gratification, embodied by the agora, where they plied their trade. On the other hand, the Hetairae were meant to embody the Symposium, a space meant to be a refined space of all male learning and companionship.
In direct opposition to these unfortunate women, collectively classed as Pornê, were the Hetairae, inventers of the high-class courtesan. Hetairae were prostitutes, like the Pornê, though the title “deals with specific women, often named and individually characterized, emphasising the control they exercise over men and their appetites” 2. The Hetaira was elevated in the esteem of the men they served due to their ‘golden natures’, the first instance in literature of the “hooker with a heart of Gold” trope3. The essential difference seems to come, not from their essential status as objects “for both Hetaira and Pornê can be slave or free, both can have a “pimp” or “Pander” or be “self -employed””4, but from the difference between a ‘gift’ and a ‘commodity’. Hetairae relied on the ‘gifts’ of their patrons, using them to become, not only independent, but luxuriously so, enough to own their own slaves. “Hetairae were intelligent, witty, articulate and educated: the only women in Athenian society allowed to manage their own affairs, stroll though the streets anywhere, at any time”5. Though the Hetairae were much coveted aspects of Athenian society, they did countermand the exact reason that Solon had expended so much on the establishment of his official brothels: democracy in all things, especially access to women. The beauty of the Pornê in all her forms, from dikteriades to dancing girls, was that she was available for the enjoyment of any man in possession of two Obols, a paltry sum.
As the society of classical Athens gave way to that of the Roman Empire, the function of the prostitute changed as well, her role became much more independent. Though prostitution itself was not a state-run enterprise, the maintenance of a thriving sex trade was integral to the function of Roman society. Due to this need, prostitutes were registered with the authorities; this class of women became known as the meretrices, who functioned as a societal safety valve6, protecting the structure of the ‘proper’ marriage, and the status of the roman wife, who was herself no longer bound by the strictures of Athenian society. Indeed, when the first emperor Augustine, sought to limit women’s roles to that of motherhood only, many preferred to have themselves registered as prostitutes, than be so confined, taking on the mantle as something much closer to the role of courtesan the common prostitutes who could have equally worked out of a brothel or a tavern, might be slaves or poor freewomen. The romans were among the first to introduce clothing differences in order to distinguish prostitutes from proper Roman matrons, it seems that the prostitutes themselves embraced the practice, flaunting dyed re or yellow hair to showcase their status7. Many of these prostitutes were slaves, under the control of the masters who had purchased them: the owners of the brothels they worked in. as the nature of the prostitute herself changed, the locations she worked from also changed.
The place that Rome’s sex trade flourished the most however, was in it’s port cities, in which the imbalance between the transitory and rotating groups of men interacted with the stationary classes of women. Prostitution became such a staple of these cities that the prostitutes themselves got to be part of the everyday workings of civic life: “traditions including the Floralia, a six-day festival originally intended to celebrate the bloom of spring flowers, likewise acquired a direct association with prostitution”8. There are, however, differences between the culture of prostitution in Rome, where it was directly influenced by the previous Athenian culture, and the maritime cities, in which prostitutes held no such lofty titles, as the courtesans did. The differences were great enough that the tavern culture (Tabernarii), which grew around the sailors, merchants and other men working in the maritime trading industry, gained a reputation for being unsavoury, a corrupting influence on the more patrician members of society. “Sailors and Criminals were regularly associated with tabernarii and caupones and commonly listed among the followings of Greek and Roman courtesans”9. The fear fomented by these associations was justified, in the patrician point of view, by the fact that “Eastern Mediterranean slave women tended to staff bars and brothels along the coast of Italy and to share important cultural affinities (origins, language, religion) with similarly eastern merchants, sailors, and pirates”10. Given their low company kept, prostitutes in Italy gained a mercenary reputation, resorting to forcibly procuring clients and sinking to such depths as to steal from those very clients. Needless to say, the regard for prostitutes in the public eye had dropped somewhat.
During the Medieval period, though slavery had been abolished, the class system of Feudalism kept serfs in practically the same situation. Because of the continual states of petty warfare, the male half of these serf population was frequently called upon to fight in the name of their lord, leaving their wives and children to pick up the slack either working the fields or, as many women bound in serfdom discovered, they could turn to the more lucrative occupation of prostitution, as a means of survival. The numbers of pilgrims on the road, and the continual needs of soldiers lent at least two forms of available employment: the servicing of pilgrims, or the occupation of camp followers for bands of soldiers.11 Both of these occupations saw growth of clientele with the occurrence of the Crusades, calling both more soldiers, and more pilgrims to take to the roads. Sometimes the prostitutes made that journey themselves: “During the crusades of the early Middle Ages thousands of whores mad the journey to the Holy Land with Christian armies. On one notable occasion in 1189, French Soldiers recruited a shipload of women and refused point-blank to set sail without them”12. The state in which most serfs lived on their traditional, lordly held land was so disagreeable that, in a pattern reflected throughout history, they began flocking to the cities “bands of men, women and children made for the towns, seeing in them a sanctuary from the depredations of the lords” 13. Yet in the cities the serf classes continued to constitute the very poor, under the heel of the emerging middle class: the bourgeoisie. It was necessary, therefore, for the growing working class to enter the city with some kind of trade or commodity ready to sell. In this regard, women stood in advantage of their male counterparts, for sex is something that will always be available to trade. Initially women worked independently, soliciting on the streets and working out of Taverns. Once again, the example harkened to was that of the classical world: the streetwalkers and their compatriots acted with similar audacity to the Meretrice of the Roman Empire. As a leisure commodity, sex workers naturally began to congregate around other leisure providing industries, namely bathhouses and taverns, leading to the common practice of calling later brothels ‘stews’. The burghers (bourgeoisie) however, having fully taken on the values of the emergent Christian religion, were entirely horrified by the easy way in which Prostitutes moved about and practiced their trade. With the resurgence of societal intellect and culture, gathering together again after the devastation of the Dark Ages, came a return to classical ideas, this time wed to Christian ideology: an all but impossible Gordian knot for any woman, especially one working in the sex trade, to emerge from unscathed.
As prostitution again became a ‘necessary evil’, maintained only to prevent young male members of society from committing graver sins, municipal oversight of city ‘stews’ only grew. Unfortunately “that prostitution was necessary because of men’s natural, if sinful, sex drive, this did not lead to respect for the prostitute herself”14. The prostitute, who was often a working class poor, if not positively destitute, woman attempting to scrape together some form of survival, was branded as a sinful woman and, as in previous ages, were limited to certain geographical areas, and appearances. Nor were they allowed to show any favour to a particular client, nor to refuse any client who might offer to pay, in an unsavoury return to the Athenian Dikteriades, the prostitutes of medieval Europe were ‘common women’ who belonged to all men. The women were required to stay in certain ‘red-light districts’ and were often beholden to their brothel-keeper. It was highly likely that the prostitute would have amassed some form of debt to the brothel keeper, trapping her in a cycle of debt and repayment, as she attempted to earn enough to pay back the sums taken out of her wages. On some occasions, this cycle began before the girl ever even set foot in the brothel; despite measures put in place to prevent it, there was still a very conspicuously present trade in indentured prostitutes, unfortunate girls who were traded to the brothel keepers in order to repay the debts of other family members, or otherwise unfortunate girls. The situation these women were placed in quite alarmingly resembled the spectre of slavery from bygone eras, especially given that such indentured prostituted could the be freely, though highly illegally, traded from one brothel to another. The prostitutes were also fined regularly, as part of municipal efforts to pay lip service to the churches ideal of chastity, especially where illicit prostitution had flourished under harsher restrictions15. The women who had the opportunity to work independently of state sanctioned brothels could more easily band together, creating licenced brothels run by someone sympathetic, perhaps a woman who had once been a prostitute herself: “Accusations against women alone range from 34 percent to 59 percent of total accusations. That so many were women indicated that this was an important area of female entrepreneurship” 16, especially useful in an age in which the economic capabilities of women had expanded somewhat into the male sphere, creating a slightly more equal footing from which to negotiate gender relations.
Whilst the Middle Ages may have heralded the return to prominence of the common prostitute, the rise of the brothel and the streetwalker, it was the renaissance that truly saw he re-emergence of the Greek prostitution tradition. In the form of the Cortegiane was reborn the tradition of the classical courtesans the Hetaerae. With one major difference: The Renaissance signalled a freedom, for male minds, from the constraints of Christian religious dogma, with this freedom was removed any vestige of holy approval, let alone the status of the whore-priestess that certain classes of prostitute enjoyed when the original Hetairae rose to prominence. The return to the classical ideal, touted during the renaissance, involved a second limiting of women’s movements. The good wife was once again cast in the Athenian mould, staying inside, out of sight, obedient, and chaste, “the inevitable counterpart to the confinement of renaissance wives was the rebirth of that other classical institution: the high-class courtesan. Like the earlier Greek Hetairae, the Cortegiane of Venice Florence and Milan were educated, influential and talented beauties who specialized in catering to the sexual and social needs of the men who had excluded their wives full from participating in their lives”17. These women were admitted to court, where their ‘respectable’ counterparts were forever barred, though her actions must have been guarded, lest any small misstep expose her to popular condemnation and send her back again to the level of puttana. If the courtesans could navigate his minefield of masculine expectations, they could become some of the most influential figures in contemporary politics: a prime example being Venozza Cattanei, the mother of the infamous Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, and the mistress of their father, Pope Alexander VI.
On the flipside of this luxurious coin filled with illicit education and dazzling beauty, was the common renaissance prostitute. In keeping with classical tradition, she was usually a foreign citizen, or at least, had moved from another city in the conglomeration of city-states, which had yet to form into an Italian nation18. Whilst their practice was not illegal (though that of their Pimps was), there was still a heavy emphasis from clerical contemporaries on reforming, entering a Magdalene convent, repenting their sins, and wither becoming productive chaste women, or leaving to become respectable Italian wives. This second option was not necessarily a guarantee of wholesome lives forever after: the practice of the Prostitute-Housewife, supporting her husband’s income on illicit relationships, was a matter of great concern for the Italian city fathers: “Authorities found concubines and housewife prostitutes troubling because, although living dishonourably, they did not inhabit the city’s brothels and were thus indistinguishable in public from honourable women”19. The emphasis in this case was the ability to distinguish the good woman/bad woman dichotomy, which was challenged by both the practice of ‘hidden prostitution’ itself, as well as the assertion of prostitute’s rights. These efforts came in the face of male indifference, such as the claim that if a respectable woman was raped on a street frequented by prostitutes, she had no recourse for justice, as she should not have been on that street in the first place, unless she herself was a prostitute, as well as laws similar to those of the middle ages, namely the inability of prostitutes to refuse potential clients. This assertion manifested itself in the records of criminal complaints, in which women, “instead of remaining silently in the shadows, as the logic of confinement would suggest…women asserted themselves and their rights in the streets to the authorities. Likewise prostitutes claimed the right to accept and reject potential clients”20.
If the Renaissance was a triumph for prostitutes, built on the freedoms allowed them in the Middle Ages, then the advent of the reformation would stand as the single most devastating event in the history of the profession. The rise of Protestantism as a dominant religion harmed women in general, and prostitutes in particular, far more than previous ideals (as misogynistic as they were) put together: “At the heart of the new Protestant image and society was a new sexual morality – one that was both more pragmatic and more repressive than that of the early church”21. The reformation emphasised the role of women as that of wives and child bearers, elevating marriage to the point where the prostitute was no longer a safety valve for the preservation of such, but the prostitute became a figure of basest sin, tempting away good husbands for carnal satisfaction. This fear of salacious and dangerously malicious women was typified by the witch craze that swept through Europe. The brothel went from a civic resource, providing “suitable, clean, and healthy women” as keepers of civil peace and symbols of cities hospitality22, to being the practice and consequently the people, singled out as targets for masculine anxiety; prostitutes became the ultimate scapegoats for protestant fanaticism.
Unfortunately for any dishonourable women hoping to create a better life for themselves, the practice of cyclical indebtedness and other financial constraints made it difficult for most prostitutes to find alternate employment. Indeed many of the practices associated with Renaissance prostitution remained a part of the system into the reformation; the brothel keepers were criminals, and the prostitutes were foreign women, defined at the margins. When the reformation swept through, these practises and beliefs associated with organized prostitution were swept aside in the denial of prostitution as a profession, further grounding the practice in the sin of the prostitute herself. Certain official records from the city of Augsburg, in which, “The 1537 Ordinance does not mention prostitution by name, but speaks instead of those who commit fornication and adultery exemplifies the results of this way of thinking. No longer a clearly identifiable trade, prostitution was subsumed under these sins; and the prostitute was not addressed as a separate class of woman”23. This denial of prostitution as a trade made it much easier for authorities to focus on the moral depravity of prostitutes, whilst the closing of official brothels led only to the growth of an illicit sex trade, profiting on the sale of a woman’s virginity, outside the prescribed bounds of marriage within the church24.
Modern perceptions of sex work have been irrevocably influenced by the values of the reformation era bourgeoisie. The condemnation of such industry comes, ultimately from the fanatical moral reform of an institution that has been an integral part of the history of human civilization. Up until the dawning of the reformation, even when history was at its most male dominated, as in the classical and renaissance worlds, the figure of the courtesan was still one of the most powerful positions on the societal ladder. Prostitution was seen as a necessary, even if unsavoury practice, which has been influenced, derided and vilified by influential men throughout the ages. The greatest attestation to the strength of the industry stands in its defiance of such men; the flat out refusal of prostitution to fade away, and the continual assertion of women, both prostitutes and enterprising individuals, to maintain their own autonomy and rights, to remain outside of the influence of the brothel, and to choose which men they allowed to enter it.
Ghirardo, Diane. “The Topography of Prostitution in Renaissance Ferrara”. Journal of
the Society of Architectural Historians. Vol. 6, No. 4, (2001). 402-431
Karras, Ruth. “The Regulation of Brothels in Later Medieval England”, signs Vol 14
No. 2, Working together in the Middle Ages: Perspectives on Women’s