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Prostitution in the Medieval Canon Law

Prostitution in the Medieval Canon Law

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Prostitution in the Medieval Canon LawAuthor(s): James A. BrundageSource:
Signs,
Vol. 1, No. 4, (Summer, 1976), pp. 825-845Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL:
Accessed: 09/08/2008 17:12
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Prostitutioninthe MedievalCanonLaw
JamesA.Brundage
Prostitution has been calledtheoldesthumanprofession,1anditis cer-tainlytrue thatvirtually everyknownsystemofpositivelaw has hadsomethingtosayabouttheprostitute,thepimp,theprocurer,and theconduct oftheirbusiness.2Mypurposehereis toexaminethe treatmentof theharlotandher tradebythelawyersandlawgiversof the medievalchurch.One difficultquestionmust be faced at the outset: thedefinition ofthetermitself. What isprostitution,sofarasthemedievalcanonists wereconcerned?The answer to this fundamentalquestioninvolves two
1.Ithasevenbeensuggestedthatprostitutionmaybeolder thanhumanity:inves-tigatorshave characterizedsomeformsofsexualbehavioramongchimpanzeesand otherprimatesasprostitution(seeVernL.Bullough,TheHistory ofProstitution[NewHydePark,N.Y.:UniversityBooks,1964],p.4,and theliterature citedthere).Theantiquityandubiquityofprostitution amonghumansocietieshas often been remarkedupon, althoughBullough pointsout(p.14)thatjusthowuniversal itmaybedependsuponone'sdefinitionof whatbehaviorprostitutionincludes.It is clearthat sexualpromiscuity maybe discov-ered invirtuallyeveryhumansociety.Promiscuityandprostitution,however,arenotnecessarilysynonymous,althoughthe medieval canonists tendedtoidentifythe onewiththeother.2. Thusalthoughforbidden in theMosaiclaw(Lev.19:29,21:7),prostitutionobvi-ouslywaspracticedinancientIsrael(e.g.,Gen.38:12-26,Judges11:2,1Kings3:16-28,etc.).Sacralprostitutionisimplied,thoughnotexplicitlydescribed,in thelaws ofHam-murabi(seeTheBabylonianLaws,ed.,with translation andcommentary,G.R.DriverandSirJohnC.Miles,2vols.[Oxford:ClarendonPress,1955],1:360-61,366-67).Through-outthepaperI have usedsynonymsfor"prostitute"suchas"harlot,""whore," "tart,""trollop,"and thelike."Prostitute"is arelativelyneutral,almostclinicalterm,whiletheother termscarryacertain amountofjudgmental freight.Since thesourcesIhaveusedemployterms whichare morejudgmentalthanneutral,it seemedappropriatetotrytoconveysome senseofthatfactbyusingEnglishterms of a similar sort. Theword meretrix nLatin,forexample,carriesabout as muchjudgmentalweightas"whore"doesinEnglish;itiscertainlylessneutralthan"prostitute."
[Signs: JournalofWomen n CultureandSociety1976,vol.1,no.4]?1976byTheUniversityofChicago.Allrightsreserved.
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MedievalProstitutionstrandsofthought.Prostitutionmaybetreatedasamoralcategory,inwhichcasetheelementofsexualpromiscuitywillbeprominentlyem-phasizedinthedefinition.Orprostitution maybe treatedprimarilyas alegal category,atypeof trade which hasimplicationsforpublicorderandpolicy.Inthiscase,the element ofgain,the cashnexus of thetransaction,willtend to beemphasized.Themoralistwillmainlybeconcerned about the ethicalproblemsofindiscriminate intercourse forthe sake ofgain;whilethejuristwill tend toanalyzeprostitutionintermsof the hire-salesituation,will beconcerned aboutthequasicontractestablishedbetween the harlot and hercustomer,will havesomethingtosayabout thepropertyrights conveyedinthetransaction,theprice paid,and the value receivedintheexchange.Thiscontrastinviewpointsisparticularlyintriguinginthe treat-ment ofprostitutionbythecanonists,thelawyersof the medievalchurch.The canonists constructedanelaborateandcloselyreasonedsystemofjurisprudencetoregulateallthe branchesofhumanactivitythat toucheduponthe moralinterests,thebusinessactivities,and thesocialconcerns of the churchinmedievalEurope.Since the church wasfar andawaythelargestandmost intricate institutional structure inmedievalsociety,itslegalsystemwasimmenselyinfluentialinshapingthe attitudes anddictatingthelimitsofactionandpolicyofmedievalpeopleateverylevel ofsociety.Monarchs, monks,andmerchants;bishops,businessmen,andbureaucrats;popes, princes,andpimps-allneeded to know howtocomplywithor,ifnecessary,toevade,thelegalsanctions devisedbythecanonists.Consequently,canonlawyers playedcriticallyimportantrolesindeterminingthewaysin which medievalsocietyfunctioned.Partlyfor thisreason,nodoubt,theranksof thecanonists included someof the ablestandmostpowerfulminds of thetwelfth and thirteenthcenturies.Theingenuityandoriginalityof theirwork is notalwayseasytoperceivebecauseofthe technical mediuminwhichtheyworked.Theirinsightsand ideas tend to be embeddedinlengthyandoften tortuouslegaltreatises.Thus theideas ofacanonistare neithersoimmediatelyperceptiblenorsopleasurableto readas,say,thoseofapoet.On thewhole,though,the ideas ofthecanonists oftenhadfargreaterimpactonthefunctioningofgovernments,the enforce-mentofsocialpolicy,andtheworkingsofbusinessthan the ideas ofanycomparablegroupofwriters.Thecanonlawinitsoriginswasanoffshoot of moraltheologyandneverwholly escapedits moralisticheritage.Yetthe canonists alsodrewuponthe Roman law as amajorsource of theirarcanescience,andtheyemployedbothlegaland moralconceptsintheirwriting.Thisdualityaccountsforsomeofthepeculiaritiesintheir treatment ofprostitution.3
3.Prostitutionis,infact,extremelydifficulttodefinesatisfactorily.TheproblemisdiscussedbyBullough,pp.1-2.Aclassic definition isgivenbyIwanBloch,DieProstitution,2vols.Handbuch dergesamtenSexualwissenschaft(Berlin:LouisMarcus,1912-25),1:38.
826Brundage

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