“Call a jack a jack. Call a spade a spade. But always call a whore a lady.”
― Patrick Rothfuss,
As many of you know, I created this blog as a way to share what I’ve learned about the Middle Ages while researching for my novel Beneath the Destined Stone. The chapter I’m working on right now takes place in a brothel, so it seemed like the perfect time to tell you a little bit about medieval prostitution.
Prostitution and the Church
You might be tempted to think the medieval church took a firm stance against prostitution. Think again. If the medieval church had a Facebook page, their relationship status would read, “it’s complicated.” The church didn’t exactly condone prostitution, but it was viewed as a necessary evil.
To understand this, you have to put yourself in the medieval frame of mind. As a medieval man (or woman), you know that your very health depends on having sex. Abstinence can lead to a dangerous buildup of the “seminal humor,” and nobody wants that. If you are unmarried, your physician will likely recommend masturbation (Heckel, 2). And as a man of good character, that is exactly what you plan to do.
But then you see her…
You’re walking through the market place and a beautiful woman passes by. Instantly, you are filled with lust. It is not your fault. It is hers. You believe, as most men of the time do, that, “a beautiful woman is something which cannot be resisted and most of the sin lies with her as she is too great a temptation” (Eckman, 4).
So what’s a man to do?
You could rape her. It is common knowledge that women secretly enjoy rape (Eckman, 8). But there is some risk involved. Unless she’s a widow, or has no male relatives, she is somebody’s property. And defiling somebody’s property is not cool. If she happens to be a virgin, you might find yourself castrated (probably not though, judges tend to be pretty understanding about these things).
Fortunately, you don’t have to risk it. You can just spend your pent up lust on a prostitute.
The church agrees with you that is the best choice. In fact, plenty of priests are doing the exact same thing. According to Goldberg (175), “within a sample of 166 presentments for fornication or adultery involving women residents within York over the ten-year period 1441-51 the names of 45 different ordained clergy are presented.”
So how do you find a prostitute?
Going to a brothel is always an option. If you live in London, you have eighteen to choose from (Orme, 1). You’ll have to leave the city walls to find one, though. Prostitution isn’t illegal, but it’s not decent, and decent folk don’t want to pass by a brothel on their way to market.
If you don’t feel like making the trip, there are always streetwalkers. This is how most career prostitutes choose to make their living (Goldberg). You’ll find them in taverns or bathhouses or roaming the streets. Don’t worry, you’ll know them right away. Prostitutes are required to wear colored hoods when they enter the city. Just be careful. You want to make sure that don’t choose a woman who consorts with known lepers, or you might come down with the “French disease,” an unusually contagious form of leprosy known today as syphilis (Rawcliffe, 111).
Normally, this is the point in my post where I try things out for myself. Sorry, folks. Not this time. Instead, I’m going to do something that I’ll admit makes me very nervous. I’m going to share a chapter of my book. This is not a perfect chapter. I am not done editing, and it will likely change by the time I submit it to literary agents. That being said, I thought you might find it interesting to see how all this research translates to a fiction novel. If you’d like to check it out, you can read it here.