Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door
of her father's house, and the men of her city shall
stone her with stones that she die: because she hath
wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her
Attitudes to prostitution have oscillated throughout the ages.
Often they were determined by the immediate interests of the
Church. Biblical passages like the one above could be used or
ignored according to taste: those who wanted to ignore it could
claim that it applied only to married women, or only to Jewish
women, or that the provision had been over-ridden by the New
Testament. So it was that the Church could embrace prostitution
when it suited, as it did for financial reasons.
At one time there was a successful church brothel in Avignon
where the girls devoted part of their time to religious duties,
and part of it attending to the needs of Christian customers
inheritors of the ancient practice of temple prostitution.
Pope Julius II was said to have been so impressed by the one
in Avignon that he founded a similar one in Rome1.
Prostitution was regarded as a lesser evil than sodomy, so brothels
were sometimes founded in order to encourage heterosexual sex.
Following a series of clerical reports in 1415, an Office
of Decorum was set up in Florence to reduce endemic homosexual
activity. One of its tasks was to set up a municipal brothel.
The Church certainly leased property to brothel keepers. In
the late Middle Ages the papacy netted 28,000 ducats a year
from such property2.
The Church seems to have taken some pride in its promotion of
prostitution, as for example at Lyons. When Pope Innocent IV
left an extended Church Council there in the mid-thirteenth
century, Cardinal Hugo made a farewell speech.
We have made great improvements since we have been here.
When we arrived, we found three or four brothels. We are leaving
only one behind us. We must add, however, that this one brothel
stretches from the east to the west gate3
the Council of Basle held between 1431 and 1449, some 1,500
prostitutes serviced the Fathers of the Council.
In England the Bishop of Winchester was so well known for his
brothels (called "stews") in Southwark that prostitutes
in his 22 licensed stews came to be known as Winchester Geese.
To have been bitten by a Winchester Goose was to have
contracted the great pox (i.e. syphilis).
Secularists recognised the scandal, even if ecclesiastics did
not. Shakespeare makes mention of it in Henry VI when
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, reproaches the Bishop of Winchester,
saying to him Thou that givst whores indulgences
to sin. The indulgence did not extend to a Christian burial,
another scandal now commemorated by the people of the Borough,
in south London.
Rome as well as Avignon housed brothels. The following is an
extract about Rome under Pope Alexander VI, written by the Pope's
own master of ceremonies in 1501:
There is no longer any crime or shameful act that does not
take place in public in Rome and in the house of the pontiff.
[...] Who could fail to be horrified by the account of the
terrible, monstrous acts of lechery that are committed openly
in his house, with no respect for God or man? Rapes and acts
of incest are countless, his sons and daughters are utterly
depraved, great throngs of courtesans frequent Saint Peters
Palace, pimps, brothels and whorehouses are to be found everywhere,
a most shameful situation!4