THE HISTORY OF PROSTITUTION THROUGH THE RENAISSANCE

  Magistra Rosemounde of Mercia

    Prostitution is frequently called the world's oldest profession. Actually the profession of "shaman" predates it by thousands of years.[1] This inaccuracy reflects many of western society's traditional attitudes about women, e.g. women are property, women are sinful, women's purpose is to serve the needs of men. Because these attitudes are so ingrained, it is impossible to think of a time when they were not truisms. Prostitution is very ancient, however, and is documented in humankind's earliest written records.[2] The question of its origins has nearly as many answers as it has authors addressing the subject.

   The various theories break down into four basic categories. The first is that prostitution is inevitable because nature determines certain roles for men and women, and one of women's roles is to serve the sexual needs of men. This theory is shared by both traditional anthropologists[3] and by some modern theorists.[4] The socialist/Marxist view is that prostitution is an inevitable result of capitalism.[5] A third view, widely held by some anthropologists, is that prostitution is a holdover from early matriarchal societies where it was practiced without the negative social stigma that is attached to it today.[6] The final, and in my mind the most reasonable, theory is that prostitution is a function of a patriarchal and male-dominated society. This view is held by some traditional anthropologists, who believe that patriarchy is a superior form of social structure,[7] and by most modern feminists.[8]

   Whatever the origins and causes of prostitution, it has been a social institution throughout the recorded history of humankind. Yet there are many misconceptions concerning prostitutes. In general, it has always been a temporary job where any choice was involved. Most prostitutes left the profession to marry or simply found work of another type. For many it was a sideline, practiced to supplement their income from other sources. Prostitution is linked to other women's issues, such as the social status of women, birth control, and employment opportunities. One of the most important of these issues is economic status.

    Throughout history, prostitutes have fallen into three classes. The lowest is the prostitutes of the streets. These women were originally slaves, and in later times came from the entrenched poor. The next class up is composed of women who work in brothels or similar facilities, who mainly come from working-class backgrounds. The upper-class of prostitutes are the courtesans. Although there is some blurring between these categories, for the most part they are discrete and distinguished by working conditions, number of clients, amount of pay, and social status.

Women of the Streets


   Women of the streets were those who sold their sexual services by walking the streets in search of customers. In ancient times slaves made up the lowest class of prostitutes. These were the "temple prostitutes." Because of their association with state religions, many authors have assumed that prostitution carried no stigma in these cultures.[9] In actuality, the association with the temples was solely economic. The slave prostitutes carried on their business in the streets and taverns and turned their earnings over to priests to support the temples. This was the case in Babylonia, Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and Rome.[10] Confusion is caused by incorrectly equating these women with the priestesses who had ritual sex as part of various religious rites. This has been labelled prostitution by many authors, though it bears no resemblance to any modern definition.[11] Most of the former group worked the streets, although in Greece and Rome, large brothels were considered an easier way to control them. Solon, the Athenian lawgiver of the 6th century B.C., owned a large brothel populated with slaves.[12]

    Secular prostitution in the streets also existed in the ancient world. In Babylonia at the time of Hammurabi, the harimate had a notorious reputation, and men were warned not to marry them under any circumstances.[13] In ancient Palestine, women sat along side the roadways to attract customers.[14] Greek street walkers worked the taverns, but shared status and name, pornoi ("whore"), with the slaves in the brothels.[15] The Romans considered street prostitutes to be sexually insatiable, vicious, and likely to corrupt children.[16] The lives of these women were circumscribed in many ways. In Rome, the street prostitute's movements were controlled as well as her mode of dress,[17] and the Assyrians had severe penalties for those who wore veils in an attempt to pass as "respectable women."[18] Women of the ancient middle east turned to prostitution because they were widows, orphans, outcasts, or the daughters of prostitutes. There was no other place for those who did not have men to protect and support them.


   In early Islamic cultures, the harem was a form of slave prostitution, and men of wealth purchased hundreds of slaves for their harems.[19] Men could sell their slaves and concubines at will, but were not supposed to sell them into prostitution, which was illegal under Islamic law. Some did anyway, and prostitution was tolerated, though kept behind the scenes by the muhtasib--the morals police who had the power to punish prostitutes on sight.[20] The lowest class of prostitutes in India were the khumbhadasi. They came from the lower castes of society and had nominal legal protection from the State. Since marriage and prostitution were the only options available to women in Indian society, widows who failed to commit suttee had few, if any, alternatives.[21] In China, all prostitution was confined to brothels. The lowest class, called wa-sh, first appeared during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.--24 C.E.),[22] and was filled with women criminals or the female relatives of male criminals, prisoners of war, and slaves. They had few legal rights and numerous social disabilities. They were used to service soldiers and the poorest elements of male society.[23]

   Prostitution in medieval Europe was influenced by the views of the early Christian church. It was seen as a necessary evil, and therefore tolerated, although Church officials condemned the practice and encouraged women to give up the trade.[24] The lowest class prostitutes of the Byzantine Empire were in brothels peopled with girls from the countryside who had been sold by their parents in time of economic need.[25] In early Germanic societies, voluntary prostitution was a crime against the male relatives of the prostitute and was severely punished, but the sexual exploitation of female slaves was practiced.[26] Prostitution increased with urbanization, and the lowest class of prostitutes were serfs who fled to the cities.[27] They made up the ranks of camp followers who plied their trade at military garrisons and followed the armies in the field. Prostitutes were required to wear distinguishing dress, and there was concern about public soliciting. As urbanization increased, prostitutes began to cluster in certain areas of the cities, especially near universities and around the public baths or "stews." As in modern times, "public women" [28] were identified with venereal disease. Pimping was illegal in most places, probably in an attempt to control the street crime which was associated with it,[29] although stories of mothers selling their daughters into prostitution abound.[30]

   By the Renaissance, regulation of prostitution existed throughout Europe. Wages, rents, hours, and health examinations were all controlled by the various governments.[31] Fear of syphilis, at that time as deadly a disease as AIDS is today, led to the closing of the stews and the removal of most prostitutes to brothels.  Unfortunately, those women who were evicted from the brothels due to disease were left with no choice but to ply their trade in the streets.[32] In some areas, prostitution was outlawed entirely, but strict regulation and some efforts at reforming prostitutes were the norm.[33] None of these measures succeeded in reducing prostitution, and in 1490 the official register recorded 7000 prostitutes in Rome and over 11,000 in Venice.[34] Since street prostitutes were not registered, these numbers represent a minimum.


    Street prostitution has always been the most visible form of the profession. Composed of women from the lowest classes of society, it is unarguably the lowest status that a woman could have. It was not, however, the most prevalent form of prostitution. That distinction goes to the middle-class of the profession, the women in brothels.


Women in Brothels

    By far the most common form of prostitution throughout history was in a brothel. A brothel was an establishment where a number of prostitutes gathered to work, and sometimes live. The Babylonians referred to the women who worked in brothels and ale-houses as senhate,[35]  and the ancient Hebrews called them zonah, which means "faithless one."[36] In Greece the middle-class prostitutes worked in inns, sat in windows of houses, or worked as musicians and dancers. This class of women were called aultrides, which means "flute players."[37] Women of this class were generally not slaves, and though they probably came to the profession for reasons of economic hardship, they were able to turn beauty or talent to advantage. In Rome, the prostitutes of this class sometimes worked in brothels, but were more likely to be found in inns, working the circuses, or sitting in the windows of their houses--thus the word prostitute, which means "to set forth." [38]


   In the Islamic world, an interesting custom arose called mut'a. This was a form of temporary marriage, which could be for as short as one hour, in exchange for money. This was not considered prostitution, though it meets most modern definitions. Many of the women who practiced this were married and did so with their husbands permission and sanction of law.[39] Married women in India also sometimes practiced prostitution to make extra money, especially those from the sudra, servant caste. These artisan's wives were known as silpakarika. The women who worked in the brothels were called paricharika and usually had one or two special customers who looked after them. Musicians and dancing girls were also frequently prostitutes.[40] Prostitutes in China were classified according to their accomplishments, and the middle-class were entertainers. They worked in wine-houses, establishments that also served as hotels. Red silk lamps were hung on their doors for identification, which may be where we get our expression "red light district."[41]

    Middle-class prostitutes in the Byzantine Empire were usually entertainers and theater women. Tradition has it that Empress Theodora was once a prostitute of this type who rose through the ranks and eventually seduced the Emperor into marriage.[42] In Europe, women plied the trade in taverns and inns, and as cities grew, actual brothels were established. Some prostitutes established guilds in the same way as the other professions. Female troubadours also sometimes practiced prostitution. Many of the prostitutes of this class had other employment which was inadequate to meet their needs.[43]

    By the Renaissance, brothels were a well-established part of the cities, and were restricted to designated areas. Prominent men frequently owned brothels, and taxes on them were paid to the state, which regulated them. Regulation attempted to get all prostitutes into the brothels where they could be counted, taxed, and controlled. Fear of syphilis led to regular medical inspections.[44] Special hospitals were founded for diseased prostitutes, and there was an active movement in the 16th century to abolish prostitution,[45] which built convents and shelters for reformed prostitutes. Despite these efforts, prostitution continued to flourish, especially in the larger cities where wages for women were low, and there were large numbers of men in the professional merchant class.[46]

 Courtesans

    Courtesans are the elite of prostitutes. Their lives have been lauded by writers of many times and places. In societies where wives were not allowed to interact socially with men, courtesans have been used to fill the gap. They are the only prostitutes to leave their names in histories, and at times they have had a profound effect on politics and the arts. Courtesans have inspired entire genres of poetry and set styles of fashion. Some rose from the ranks of middle-class prostitutes through talent and education, and some were trained virtually from birth. Many of them came from the middle and upper-classes and chose the profession because it was the only way to achieve wealth and prestige in a world dominated by men.

   The courtesans of Babylonia were the kizrete and were highly prized as concubines.[47] The Epic of Gilgamesh includes the story of how a courtesan defeated the wild man Enkidu through the arts of love.[48] In ancient Egypt tales of famous courtesans were written as popular stories. The concubines of the Hebrew patriarchs also came from this class, but no where was the courtesan more highly prized than in ancient Greece.

    The hetairai were educated and served an important social function because proper women were restricted to their homes and had no place in public life.[49] Stories of the hetairai abound, and some of their names are still known today. There was Thargelia, a 6th century B.C. Ionian, Aspasia of Athens, a lover of Pericles, and Thas of Athens, who became the mistress of Alexander the Great and later the wife of Ptolemy, king of Egypt.[50] The stereotype of the good-hearted prostitute, now a part of our mythology, began with the stories about Greek courtesans.[51] Courtesans also did well in Rome, but they never had the status and devotion they knew in Greece.[52]

   The courtesans' role in Islamic countries was similar to that in Greece. They were usually entertainers, and frequently of foreign birth. Men made contact with them through procuresses, and hired them to provide diversions as well as sexual services. The love poetry of the Islamic Middle East, which later strongly influenced medieval European poetry, was written to courtesans.[53] The courtesans of India fostered the arts and education, and were even hired to tutor the daughters of the wealthy. The devadises were courtesans devoted to temples, a role that existed into the 17th century.[54] In China, courtesans were part of the elegant life. They were extremely accomplished in the arts and served the same social function as the Greek hetairai. They worked in tea houses in a district known as the "green bower" from the color of the lacquer work on the houses.[55] In Japan, courtesans were known as geishas, and they populated "the floating world."[56]

    The best known courtesan of the early middle-ages was Empress Theodora (c. 497-548). Emperor Justinian changed the laws forbidding marriage to prostitutes by the upper-class shortly before he married her. Once Empress, Theodora helped change laws that denied property rights to women and built refuges for prostitutes who wanted to leave the profession.[57] Courtesans do not appear in the literature or histories of the later middle-ages until the beginning of the Renaissance. Wealthy men had mistresses and concubines, but the courtesan did not come to prominence again until around 1450. During the rediscovery of the Classics, stories about the hetairai surfaced, and there was a market for courtesans once again, particularly in Italy. A courtesan of Venice, Veronica Franco, built a refuge for prostitutes in 1577. It was unique in its time, as it allowed the women to live there with their children and go outside to work at legitimate jobs.[58]

    Courtesans were the privileged class of prostitutes. Their lives were comfortable and their work well paid. Yet, even the hetairai of ancient Greece strove to achieve respectability through marriage.[59] As prostitutes, they were still stigmatized, and recognized as women of  lower status. Like all prostitutes, they catered to men's sexual needs, and were considered inferior as a result.



Endnotes

       [1]   Tannahill, Sex in History, 78. "Profession" implies specialization on a full time basis.

     [2]   This may not be technically true since cuneiform writing is now being accurately translated. Prostitution is mentioned in the law codes from the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2050 B.C.). Bullough, 16.

     [3]   Id., 1-2.

     [4]   This is the position taken by Lars Ericsson as discussed in Schwarzenbach, Contractarians and Feminists Debate Prostitution, 28 Rev. of Leg. & Soc. Change 103, 105 (1991).

     [5]   Bullough, 3-4, and Tong, Women, Sex and the Law, 49-50.

     [6]     Bullough, 5-8.

     [7]   Id., 2-3.

     [8]     Tong, 51.

     [9]   Tannahill, Sex in History 79 (1982)

     [10]   Bullough, 20, 22, 27, 36, 49.

     [11]   The qadishtu of ancient Babylon, for example, engaged in sexual rituals associated with the goddess Inanna (Ishtar). Id., 19.

     [12]   Anderson, A History of Their Own, vol. I, 45 (1988).

     [13]   Id., 20.

     [14]   The story of Tamar and Judah in the Old Testament gives a graphic account of this practice.

     [15]   Bullough, 36. The word " pornography" means the writing of or about whores.

     [16]     Id., 51.

     [17]     I d., 54.

     [`18]    Tannahill, 81.

     [19]   Bullough, 73.

     [20]   Id., 74.

     [21]   Id., 89-94.

     [22]   Tannahill, 189-191.

     [23]   Bullough, 107.

     [24]   Tannahill, 279.

     [25]   Bullough, 111.

     [26]   Id., 115.

     [27]   Anderson, Vol. I, 358.

     [28]   Tannahill, 279.

     [29]   Bullough, 121-125.

     [30]   Anderson, Vol. I, 363.

     [31]   Id., 364.

     [32]   Bullough, 139-155.

     [33]   Anderson, Vol. I, 366.

     [34]   Tannahill, 280.

     [35]   Bullough, 20-21.

     [36]   This  refers to a lack of belief in the Hebrew god rather than having anything to do with fidelity. The word may have derived from an ancient type of marriage where the "metronymic" wife remained in the home of her parents and exerted far more independence than the traditional Hebrew wife. Id., 29.

     [37]   Id., 38. The term may be a clever euphemism rather than a reference to actual musical skill. Or it may be that these women were, in fact, entertainers and musicians as well.

     [38]   Id., 49-51.

     [39]   Bullough, 75.

     [40]   Id., 87-89.

     [41]   Id., 107 and Tannahill, 191.

     [42]   This "unauthorized biography" was written by one of her detractors, so its accuracy is dubious. Id., 111.

     [43]   Id., 121-123.

     [44]   Id., 139-155.

     [45]   Anderson, Vol. I, 365.

     [46]   Some authors, such as Michel de Montaign (1533-1592), attributed prostitution to women's reduced status in society. Bullough, 155.

     [47]   Bullough, 20-21.

     [48]   Tannahill, 79.

     [49]   Id., 35-39.

     [50]   Tannahill, 101.

     [51]   Anderson, Vol. I, 48.

     [52]   Bullough, 52-59.

     [53]   Tannahill, 231-244.

     [54]   Bullough, 86.

     [55]   Tannahill, 189-191.

     [56]   Id., 323.

     [57]   Anderson, Vol. I, 47-48.

     [58]   Anderson, Vol. I, 366.

     [59]   Tong, Women, Sex and the Law, 54 (1984).

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 B. Anderson & J. Zinsser, A History of Their Own vol. I (1988)

B. Anderson & J. Zinsser, A History of Their Own vol. II (1988)

Vern and Bonnie Bullough, Women and Prostitution:  A Social History (1987)

Cooper, Prostitution:  A Feminist Analysis, 11 Women's Rights L. Rep. 98 (1989)

Erbe, Prostitutes:  Victims of Men's Exploitation and Abuse, 2 Law & Inequality 609 (1984)

Schwarzenbach, Contractarians and Feminists Debate Prostitution, 28 Rev. of Leg. & Soc.     Change 103 (1991)

Sion, Prostitution and the Law (1977)

Tannahill, Sex in History (1982)

Tong, Women, Sex and the Law (1984)