Brothels in the Middle Ages

Consider what brothels represented in the Middle Ages in Western Europe | Middle Ages, prostitution, prostitutes, harlots Бордели и публичные дома в Средние века касл мэн castle men

Today we will look at how brothels operated during the Middle Ages in Western Europe and the general attitude towards sexual services at that time.

Oddly enough, in many cities of Western Europe there were brothels, which were also licensed by local authorities. And their existence was justified by none other than St. Augustine, whose treatise “De ordine” noted that “if you remove harlots from society, all affairs will be disordered due to lust.”

Thus, prostitution was considered a source of outlet for young and unmarried men. which might otherwise endanger “noble” women. In some cities, especially Florence, prostitution was believed to discourage men from committing sodomy.

Let’s list the regions of Western Europe where licensed prostitution was the norm in the Middle Ages:

  • southern and central Germany
  • Netherlands
  • Northern Italy
  • southern France, etc.

Although there were some regional differences, most Western European cities that had licensed brothels followed the following business model. The brothel was owned by the city and rented to the owner of the brothel (in most cases the owner was a man), who was responsible for its day-to-day operations. In turn, the brothel owner paid a tax to the authorities in exchange for the right to collect room and board fees from the harlots living in the brothel, as well as collect one-third of the fees they charged clients (33% of the cost of services provided). The owner also received additional income through the sale of food and drinks. After paying for room and board, the harlots could keep the rest of their earnings, as well as any tips a visitor might give them.

The widespread recognition of the social utility of prostitution made it a highly visible part of urban life in the Late Middle Ages. But despite recognizing their role in society, brothel workers are still dishonest and sinful. During the 14th and 15th centuries, any woman suspected of illicit sexual relations risked being equated with a brothel harlot and could even be forcibly placed there by the authorities.

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But it wasn’t always a one-way road. Women who ended up in brothels could leave with enough money for a dowry that would allow them to marry and become respectable. In doing so, they could follow the example of one of the most important Christian (Catholic) symbols of redemption, Mary Magdalene, who was unfairly labeled a harlot in the sermons of the Late Middle Ages.

Бордели и публичные дома в Средние века
a medieval brothel (15th century German engraving)

Harsh living conditions for brothel dwellers

But life in brothels was quite harsh. Most of the girls ended up there because of debts. From the many court cases against harlots, we can conclude that the owners of the brothels exploited their guests, and in addition to collecting regulated fees, they created restrictions on the freedom of movement of their workers (they even forbade going to church), they could confiscate their property without explanation, and take away all the tips they received , existing expensive clothes, and also force them to buy expensive gifts for the owners of the establishment for various holidays. In addition, there were cases when brothel residents were bought goods 3-4 times more expensive than their market value.

There were also cases when harlots were forced to do additional work, for example, spinning every day (if they refused, they were required to pay a high fine). And for refusal they were beaten with rods and belts.

One common image in modern culture depicts the brothel as a sensual environment in which good humor and innocent fun are commonplace. There is some evidence that brothels actually sought to create this image for themselves by providing luxurious furniture, warm accommodations, and the opportunity to eat and drink in the company of attractive women. But this does not correspond to reality, because life in an ordinary municipal brothel could be truly hellish.

Financial exploitation and violence were quite common in brothels. Still, available court cases indicate that authorities sometimes sided with women and developed stricter rules for brothel owners, which made life easier for the harlots working there.

Now you know that brothels and brothels were quite common in the Middle Ages, and the life of its inhabitants was unenviable. Still, after the period of the Reformation, brothels in Western Europe began to disappear as civil authorities became increasingly concerned about the moral compromise required to maintain them.

Additionally, through this link, you can find a wealth of fascinating information about the Middle Ages and medieval castles.