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The Politics of Medieval Prostitution

By Katherine E. Bliss

Medieval Prostitution

By Jacques Rossiaud

Basil Blackwell, $24.95

A book on 13th century French brothels might not sound like something you'd include on your summer reading list. Everyone's studied European history enough to know that the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages dictated everything from how to kiss to when it was appropriate to have a child, and prostitution hardly seems like the hot topic of those centuries.

But Jacques Rossiaud's new book on medieval prostitution is an engaging study that argues that the sale of sex did indeed flourish in a time when the Pope condemned everything from fornication to chastity. In an era in which the Church dictated what sexual positions pregnant women under the age of 25 could assume, the women of the night were the hardest working portion of the labor force in the cities and towns. Rossiaud analyzes the reasons for prostitution's longevity despite prohibition's on its existence.

Rossiaud's study is one of a growing number of works on the role of prostitutes in history, and he uses an impressive and exhaustive study of ancient French archives to show how prostitution came to be in medieval France. The author has clearly spent a considerable amount of time collecting and reading court records, marriage contracts and prison sentences from the cities of Lyons, Dijon and Toulouse, and he uses these to uncover the moral code that existed in the French urban areas.

In a time when women were repeatedly victims of sexual violence, and gang rapes by organized groups of men were considered common, Rossiaud shows that violated women lost their marriage marketability and were forced to turn to a life of selling themselves on the street or in the public baths.

Whether women were adulterous or victims of kidnapping and forced sexual intercourse, Rossiaud uses documents from the era to show that they were always considered guilty in the public's eye.

Everyone knew that women were by nature fornicators, lustful and insatiable. They sold themselves or they offered themselves. Even when taken by force, they were to be held as guilty: when they were kidnapped, raped or forcibly seduced (as Thomas Aquinas notes, following Jacques de Vitry), they led men into debauchery and their pride in their beauty made them all the more sinful."

Prostitutes, therefore, were to blame for their lot in life, and the town would do little to ensure their honor.

The main body of Rossiaud's work, however, centers on why prostitution was allowed to flourish in a time when contemporary theologians like Aquinas and Saignet fought against "Nature" and condemned fornication, chastity and masturbation as evil. He attempts to question whether the impetus was from within the town--men in the towns--or whether it was from without--salesmen and other wanderers who happened to be in town for a few days. And in the process he is able to maintain a light writing style that, while informative and academic, is not too ponderous to be enjoyed.

Rossiaud shows that prostitution was perceived as a necessary evil, which protected the society from potentially greater evils. With the use of countless Church documents and codices, Rossiaud shows that the Church gave support to the world's oldest profession, believing the women of the night to be responsbile for guarding the honor and chastity of the nuns, who prayed for the people.

City officials, according to Rossiaud, supported prostitution because they felt that by teaching young boys about the pleasures of the flesh, the prostitutes protected the honor of the unmarried girls in the towns. Furthermore, he argues, by providing services to all unmarried men, the prostitutes lessened violence and terror that might be propagated by unchanneled sexual energy.

Rossiaud adds that by catering only to bachelors or widowers, prostitutes could inform the authorities of adulterers, who were not supposed to enter the bordellos. When travelling salesmen came through the towns, they were able to use the prostitutes instead of deflowering nice young maidens. But most of all, the brothels made money for the towns, and people protested vehemently to keep them as a source of revenue.

Rossiaud's book doesn't present a cheery view of the role of women in the Middle Ages. Prostitutes were mere laborers for the common good, functioning without status, clout or social position. And he shows that they flourished only because taking them away would have made matters worse, as violence and unwed mothers plagued the countryside.

But he does show that prostitutes were the propagators of a sometimes new social order. Aggressive women who had no need to respond to social mores, they offended the male dominated society and led the way, more often than not, for the rise of the women in the French towns.

It's not as spicy as a Danielle Steele novel on the same subject, but Rossiaud's study does provide several interesting anecdotes about the lives of medieval women of the night. While the topic may appeal more to the medieval historian than to the random reader, Rossiaud's writing style is light enough that the study is one many can enjoy.

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