The Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision to legalize brothels will invite a wide range of response, from those heralding it as a positive step toward protecting sex-trade workers from violence and exploitation to those decrying the removal of the last barricade to having brothels on every corner.
So it might be helpful to consider how our ancestors approached prostitution. The legal rationales and the moral codes of medieval Europe suggest that the legalization of prostitution is far from innovative. In cities across Europe, legalized prostitution coexisted with both public decency and Christian morality throughout the Middle Ages.
Just who licensed these brothels might give us pause. In most communities, it was municipal authorities, who considered them to be a public service. Other owners were a little more surprising. For example, the “stews” of Southwark, now the South Bank of London, were owned and operated by the Bishop of Winchester.
In Montpellier, in the south of France, the University of Montpellier owned the local brothel and collected the revenue. (Could this be a new source of funding for our cash-strapped universities?)
How could such institutions – civic governments, the church, the university – own such apparently disreputable businesses? In part, the answer is that prostitution wasn’t so disreputable. A prostitute might commit a sin, but she didn’t break a law.
Prostitutes were classed as yet one more group of workers to be regulated, just as there were guilds to regulate merchants or cobblers. A prostitute was entitled to work and entitled to her wages. Consequently, there were laws against a john’s stiffing a working girl and not paying the agreed price. Equally, a prostitute could be fined for false advertising. If she used a lot of makeup or wore clothes that made her appear to be more beautiful or younger than she actually was, the courts would consider her to have committed commercial fraud.
Prostitutes were integrated into the community to a remarkable degree. When the cathedral of Notre Dame was being built in Paris in the early 13th century, city prostitutes banded together and raised money to provide a stained-glass window. It took a lot of debate among leaders of the day before the bishop refused the gift on the grounds that it was tainted by sin.
So why were prostitutes not only tolerated but integrated into the social fabric? Partly, there was a sense of compassion and forgiveness. After all, belief by some Christians held that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute. If one of Jesus’s friends, the first to see him after the Resurrection, had been a prostitute, then anyone could repent and resume their place in respectable society.
Medieval people thought much like many people today: Prostitution is one of the few avenues of employment open to vulnerable women, the very young, the uneducated, those without family support. There were few job opportunities open to medieval women other than being a wife or a nun.
Widowed or orphaned women could find themselves destitute. A woman victimized by a violent husband, father or brother had nowhere to go. Perhaps, most sadly, a victim of rape might be considered unmarriageable and might be cast out by her family.
Because people recognized the close link between poverty and prostitution, there were many organizations devoted to helping women get off the streets. Sometimes, this meant a transition house where women could learn a craft, such as spinning. Other times, people donated money and other necessities to provide a dowry, so a woman could leave the sex trade and enter a legitimate marriage. This fact alone indicates how prostitutes were anything but ostracized from society at large.
Prostitution was thought to serve the needs of society. Medieval people were pragmatic and knew there would always be men who needed to buy or steal sex. Legalized and regulated prostitution gave them a place to go, rather than trolling the streets and harassing the town’s wives and daughters. Prostitution minimized the danger of wanton rape.
Even such eminent religious authorities as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas considered prostitution a “necessary evil.”
Legalized prostitution also meant that authorities could keep tabs on the women involved, making sure their own wives and daughters were not involved. The theory that kept the whole system going was that brothels were places where foreign men went and where foreign women worked. As naive as that sounds, medieval city councils clung to this rationalization.
Brothels flourished across medieval Europe. In 1348, during the Black Death, many of the brothels were shut down as frightened people denounced prostitutes as plague spreaders. But, soon enough, the brothels reopened, and new medical regulations saw the prostitutes receiving regular medical care.
There may be many benefits for our society and the women who work in the sex trade. With legalized brothels, perhaps, will come regulations leading to less street crime and fewer parks and laneways littered with dirty needles and used condoms. Women might be spared the violence of johns, the extortion of pimps and the numbing effects of addiction. Women and their children will benefit and so, arguably, will our communities.
Isn’t it time we caught up with our medieval ancestors?
Jacqueline Murray is a professor of history at the University of Guelph.