Prostitution in the Middle Ages

This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

“Call a jack a jack. Call a spade a spade. But always call a whore a lady.”
― Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind

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

Priest Adam and EveYou 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.


Why Necessary?

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…

Pepe Le PewYou’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.

bath house
This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

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).

The Experiment:

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.




17 thoughts on “Prostitution in the Middle Ages

  1. not that it may matter, necessarily, but what year is this set in? is it that 10 yr. period you referenced; if so, maybe things got worse before they got better but just wanted to share (and you may already know this) something from Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth medieval epic set in – well, starting in – 1123; anyway, he says his main protagonist, at least, as priest’s, sexuality was a problem. He says that all monks and priests were supposed to be celibate in the Middle Ages – I guess “supposed” being the operative word here. For him, at least, the obvious drama would be him fighting with his lust, but maybe this is a modern phenomenon, or maybe, as you pointed out, many, if not most, of them didn’t really fight it too hard even then, but rather, just gave in to it, or maybe not even considered trying because of the prevailing philosophy but at least – and not saying this would fit your story but just maybe wanted to put it out there as just a different perspective, or maybe hoping there were at least some good people, even priests, back then – he made him that it just wasn’t a big deal – “cheerfully celibate” he called him 🙂

    1. My book takes place in 1396. Being celibate was the ideal situation, but not the ideal and reality didn’t always coincide. I remember the character you’re talking about. Love that book!

  2. ok, you’ve read it then! so yours is a little later – and, no, they definitely didn’t; think that was what so special about that character; he actually did try to adhere to the ideal – and as far as actually going that far – no way

    1. I really did love that book! I’m sure there were plenty of good men too who did try to adhere to the ideal in reality.

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