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    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 father's house.

    Deuteronomy 22:21


    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

    At 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 giv’st 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 Peter’s Palace, pimps, brothels and whorehouses are to be found everywhere, a most shameful situation!4

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    1. Tannahill, Sex in History, p 264.

    2. Richards, Sex, Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages, p 126.

    3. Joachim Kahl, The Misery of Christianity (English translation by N. D. Smith), Penguin Books, p 80 citing G. Rattray Taylor, Sex in History (London, 1953).

    4. Johannes Burckard. Dietari secret. Catalan translation, Valencia 2004, pp. 418-422. cited by the CATALAN HISTORICAL REVIEW, 1: 63-79 (2008). Institut d’Estudis Catalans, Barcelona. DOI: 10.2436/20.1000.01.5 · ISSN: 2013-407X.

    Burchard was appointed Master of Ceremonies to Pope Sixtus IV in 1483, having bought the office for 450 ducats. He held it until his death on 16 May 1506, successively acting as Ceremoniere to Innocent VIII (1484–1492), Alexander VI (1492–1503), Pius III (1503) and during the early years of Julius II.

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