Dangerous women serving the city

Gillian Jack is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews, who lives in Edinburgh. She is currently writing up a thesis on a monastery for repentant prostitutes in late medieval and early modern Florence. Her interests are in the social history of women, particularly the poor, the religious, and the otherwise dangerous. 

In August 2016, Pope Francis spent an hour talking to twenty former prostitutes in a safe house in Rome. As part of his Friday of Mercy programme, he paid a visit to the refuge run by a Catholic charity. Like other nations, Italy has a long, imperfect, and little known history of civic response to prostitution. Whether these women were in danger, or dangerous, remains a bone of contention to this day.

Medieval thinkers tended to follow St Augustine who described prostitution as a necessary evil, a sin which prevented the greater sin of the corruption of “good” women by men’s insatiable sexual appetites. A follower of St Thomas Aquinas likened prostitution to a palace sewer — necessary to remove the filth from society, but deeply unpleasant and offensive nonetheless. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, European cities had mostly stopped trying to expel prostitutes and accepted the inevitability of their presence.

The late medieval period proved to be something of a turning point in the Italian states’ approaches to prostitution and none more so than Florence. Pope Francis’s medieval predecessor, Pius II (1458-1464), joked that Florence was less a city of merchants (mercatrice) and more a city of prostitutes (meretrice). This small group of women (probably no more than 150 of them in a city of 45,000) circumvented the rules established to keep women in their place. They lived beyond the control of fathers, husbands, or brothers.

There were precious few opportunities for ‘good’ women to exercise any independence. The law treated them as children: they were prevented from managing their own financial affairs, taking legal action against anyone, and were only reluctantly accepted as witnesses in court. The law required that a male relative acted on a woman’s behalf if she needed to undertake any legal transactions. In theory, a married woman’s dowry remained her property, but in practice her husband controlled it. Indeed, were she widowed, her father or brothers expected it to be returned, either for their own use or to marry her off again to the family’s advantage. Restricting women’s legal rights to representation allowed the city to control their behaviour and limit their freedom. Good women were rarely seen — they did not walk about the streets or hang out of windows as portrayed on TV shows such as The Borgias and The Medici. Women who behaved in this way marked themselves out as wanton and dishonourable: dangerous.

In 1328, the government ordered a brothel to be built outside the walls, at a place called Campoluccio. This was a characteristic policy of the Florentine government — facilitating while hiding — and one they applied to other problematic groups, such as lepers and Jews. It ensured that the service the prostitutes provided was accessible, but out of sight. The women were only permitted to enter the sacred zone protected by the city walls on Mondays. They were expected to behave “honestly” and were under no circumstances to conduct their business in the city.

This type of regulation should not be mistaken for acceptance. The city governors also sought to ensure that prostitutes were readily identifiable. Clothing, or “sumptuary,” legislation sought to preserve the distinctions between social classes. A statute of 1384 banned prostitutes from wearing fashionable high-heeled slippers and required them to wear gloves, and bells on their heads. Women suspected of being prostitutes could be hauled before the courts for failing to wear these items. It was imperative to authorities that there was no danger of a prostitute being mistaken for a “good” woman. They were to be visually and audibly distinguished, and so segregated.

However, in the late fourteenth century there was a more pressing problem. The Florentine population had not recovered from the ravages of the Black Death as quickly as other cities. The government believed that men were reluctant to marry because they enjoyed homosexual relations, and this was having a negative effect on population growth. They hoped that the presence of sexually available women would encourage men to enjoy heterosexual sex. In turn they would choose to marry and would have legitimate children to increase the population. To this end the city legalised prostitution in 1403. It built a civic brothel in the centre of town, and taxed the women’s earnings.

Despite their new legitimacy, the city’s prostitutes found themselves in an ambiguous position. They threatened the city with moral pollution. The city governors aimed to ensure that no one unwittingly spoke to a prostitute, mistaking her for a decent woman, and that women were not tempted to follow a richly dressed prostitute into her shameful profession. The city government put in place new legislation to curb prostitutes’ conspicuous displays of wealth by banning them from wearing gold and pearls, and from riding in carriages. Of course, only a small number of prostitutes could afford such luxuries.

As well as ensuring prostitutes’ visual distinction, authorities attempted to physically segregate them too. At first, they were only to live within the central brothel district. Later, the authorised zone was extended to certain additional streets across the city, but the women had to live and work in the same location. Their homes could not have windows looking out onto streets not authorised for prostitution, and they could not be close to religious buildings. The latter requirement was particularly difficult to fulfil in a city full of churches, monasteries, and convents. Although the women served the state with their labour, they were still seen as dangerous.

Many prostitutes worked and earned money beyond the control of a man. Those who had pimps were usually involved in a one-to-one relationship with him, and such men were regularly prosecuted and exiled from the city.  The civic authorities, in the form of the Ufficiali dell’Onestà (Officers of Decency) did not tolerate procuring, even as they allowed prostitution. As part of the Onestà’s strategy to control the sexual economy, they offered certain rights to the women who registered and followed the rules. Most significantly, they were allowed to bring legal cases to the Onestà court. This meant that prostitutes had far more legal rights than other Florentine women, rights which they exercised. Prostitutes appeared before the Onestà court as plaintiffs and defendants; they brought cases against their customers, and against one another, on matters as varied as petty squabbles and physical violence.

Now these women were, to varying degrees, independent of male authority. They had found a way to circumvent the city’s legal system which treated its female citizens as minors, with much restricted access to representation. After the 1403 legalisation of prostitution, the women gradually pushed the limits of the legislation, taking more and more liberties. The Onestà had begun to allow them to buy immunity from prosecution over certain matters, and in the sixteenth century had abandoned the rules on distinctive clothing entirely.

The records that survive about the prostitutes of early modern Florence are all written by the men who sought to regulate their activities. We know about them only through the legislation which governed where they were allowed to live and work, and what they were allowed to wear. We can read how much money they paid to the city, and the records of their court appearances and petitions. We have no diary, no account book, no records in a prostitute’s own hand. In a society with relatively high literacy, women, especially the poor women who became prostitutes, were rarely able to read and write. The women’s own voices are silent in the archive.

Over the course of three centuries, the prostitutes of Florence ascended from outcasts — tolerated only beyond the walls and wearing bells to distinguish themselves from “decent” people —  to workers in the service of the state. They were able to throw off oppressive legislation and gain legal rights. These dangerous women became more independent than the “good” women of the city could be. Their own words may be absent from the records, but their achievement is clear.