Sex and Society: Men and Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe

What did it mean to be a man in medieval Europe? How did a man demonstrate his masculinity?

Prostitution, and the women (and men) involved, occupied a paradoxical position in the cities that straddle the border between modern day Germany and Switzerland. To some, prostitution was a necessary component of urban life whilst, to others, prostitutes embodied all that was wrong with society.

Alex interviewed Jamie Page, a research fellow at the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, about medieval attitudes to prostitution and how medieval city-dwellers viewed themselves.

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Approaching the Past

A: How does literature bridge the gap between traditional approaches to understanding medieval prostitution (legal documents which detail acts) and considering the actual emotions and feelings of those involved?

JP: I find this a very compelling issue – and in fact a fair amount of my previous research has tried to work across the gap between ‘historical’ and ‘fictional’ material, though I try to take the view that all kinds of material, whether stories, images, documents, etc., is ‘historical’.

I try to contextualise fictional representations of the past (in this case, of prostitution) against what we know of historical conditions, but in doing so, to ask what stories about prostitutes were trying to say to their audiences, or on the part of those who wrote them down (many stories were repackaged versions of earlier tales, so it’s a bit difficult to speak of ‘authors’ sometimes). I don’t know to what extent we can access the actual feelings and emotions of people who consumed literature, but we might say that literary texts provided people with an imaginary space in which to think about the problems that exercised them.

‘…literary texts provided people with an imaginery space in which to think about the problems that exercised them’.

This is certainly true of literary fiction (and other media forms) today, but medieval texts were often much more explicitly didactic, so the messages they impart are often closer to the surface. And you can always read texts ‘against the grain’, i.e. to try to work out what they might be saying about their society unwittingly, or unconsciously.

The Medieval Mind

A: Can we ever understand what masculinity meant in late medieval Europe?

JP: I think the answer to this depends on what you mean by ‘understand’. To my mind there are two levels on which you can approach this. The first is: can we grasp the external meanings of gender in the period, in other words, can we see how medieval people thought about and expressed their understandings of the cultural meanings of sex difference?

Do we get a sense of what they thought it meant to ‘be’ a man, bearing in mind that there were all sorts of different ways to do this – expectations differed for nobles, churchmen, poor laymen, etc. I think this is certainly possible.

There are plenty of didactic texts, images and other types of source which try to give explicit instructions as to how to act like a certain kind of man, e.g. chivalric literature like Geoffrey de Charny’s Book of Chivalry. And we can of course read sources that aren’t deliberately didactic to see what they reveal about gender norms and behaviour, such as court records.

Chivalric Love: Konrad von Limpurg and his lady in the Codex Manesse (c. 1300)

The other level on which you can approach this goes back to what I said earlier in relation to emotions, subjective states, and the ‘inner realm’ of individuals. Even if we can get a sense of what the ‘rules’ about masculinity might have been in certain times and places, it’s far harder to grasp how individuals actually processed these.

This is almost more of a philosophical question than anything else, and I don’t think it’s one confined to the study of the past. Can I ever really ‘understand’ or ‘access’ the experience of another person – whether in regard to gender or to something else – in a meaningful way?

Shifting Attitudes

A: Why did medieval society tolerate prostitution?

JP: We have to be a little careful about broad generalisations here, because it’s more true to say that some elements of medieval society tolerated prostitution for some of the Middle Ages. What is undoubtedly true is that within the western Church there is a lengthy theological tradition of justifying the social utility of prostitution – the ‘lesser evil’ argument which is still trotted out today in debates about the legality of sex work.

By the 1300s, as urbanisation picks up pace across much of western Europe, the legal and moral status of prostitution becomes a practical issue of civic order rather than just a problem for canon lawyers to chew over.

Different parts of Europe see different responses. Early on (around the twelfth century), most towns who issue regulations concerning prostitution largely pass measures which exclude them or stigmatise them, e.g. by forbidding them to live within the walls, or from touching anything on market stalls they don’t intend to buy.

‘Different parts of Europe see different responses’

But by the fourteenth century, especially in parts of what is now northern Italy, southern France, and southern Germany and Switzerland, many towns take the view that the best policy is to legalise prostitution and regulate it, either by compelling prostitutes to identify themselves in public by wearing special clothing, by forcing them to live in certain parts of town (red light districts, effectively), or by living in brothels owned by the authorities themselves.

Brothel scene: the hermit St. Abraham of Kidunaia finds the brothel in which his niece Mary lives, from Leben der heiligen Altväter/Vitae Patrum, print, Strasbourg 1477.

There are various theories as to why towns take this step – one quite convincing one is that it’s a response to a demand for greater moral regulation in cities following the experience of the Black Death. Others have seen it in broader terms as part of a general uptick in the intensity of urban government in general – here, the logic is that prostitution is seen to be inevitable, so it may as well be subject to control like other types of economic activity.

Of course, there is also considerable regional variation. Medieval England had hardly any legal brothels; there were a few in coastal towns like Sandwich (in Kent), and some in Southwark (in London), where I’ve seen it argued that the local authorities were worried about the presence of foreign merchants who were used to having brothels in their own cities. And there are other parts of Europe where different problems of social and moral order arise.

 For example, Christian municipal authorities in the Iberian peninsula, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims co-exist, are very worried about sexual contact between members of different religions, and intervened aggressively to punish transgressors.

A: Why did attitudes towards the legality of prostitution shift during the fifteenth century?

JP: This is an interesting and oft-overlooked question, because it’s sometimes been assumed that efforts to suppress prostitution in areas where it had been legal were largely a product of the Reformation.

To be sure, many brothels in southern Germany, where brothels had been a very common site, were closed in response to preaching campaigns in the sixteenth century which saw them as a symbol of the decadence and corruption of urban life.

‘…symbol of the decadence and corruption of urban life’

But as in so many areas, scholars over the last few decades have been pointing out just how many continuities there were either side of the Reformation with regard to the moralising tendencies of urban government, the perceived need for the reform of the Church, and so on.

I think attitudes towards prostitution are very much part of these trends. Again, talking about southern Germany, there comes a point in the later 1400s, when, just as civic authorities are trying to take on a more central role in the regulation of moral behaviour in cities, and setting themselves up as guardians of virtue, they become increasingly aware of the moral problems represented by the brothel.

‘…they became increasingly aware of the moral problems represented by the brothel’.

How can the city fathers both encourage people to live good, Christian lives, whilst also effectively running brothels in which men and women have extra-marital sex? There are two other key developments which sharpen these difficulties: in the first place, marriage takes on an increasingly important role as the perceived ideal form of life, whilst secondly, the political values of urban craft guilds become increasingly aligned with the governmental practice of city councils. These values heavily equate marriage and the married state with honour.

All of this, I would argue, creates an environment where the moral compromise on which legal prostitution had rested, becomes increasingly uncomfortable and incompatible with the role that urban governments are claiming for themselves. From that point, brothels become an obvious and easy target for Reformation polemic from around the 1520s.

A: What is the relationship between medieval ideas of marriage and attitudes towards prostitution?

JP: This is another interesting question that certainly shifts over time, and there are a number of ways you might interpret it. I’ll stick to just a few.

In the first instance, one way to think about this question is in relation to social classification. There are various schemes of social classification floating about in the Middle Ages – the classic one being the tripartite division of society in to oratores, laboratores, and bellatores (those who pray, those who work, and those who fight) – but one very important one for women is the division of female identities into virgins, widows, wives, or concubines, categories which are heavily based on marital status.

The Three Estates: Oratores (‘those who pray’), Bellatores (‘those who fight’), and Laboratores (‘those who work)’

 Ruth Mazo Karras has written extensively on this, and her argument is that if a woman couldn’t be safely accommodated within one of those categories because her sexual behaviour violated its norms, then she could only be classified as a prostitute (meretrix). So from this perspective, ‘prostitute’ becomes a kind of negative category into which women are relegated if they can’t conform to gender norms heavily predicated on marriage.

Another way to interpret this question is in relation to some of the developments I mentioned earlier in relation to the legal status of prostitution. Again, I’m talking largely about the urban world I know best in the southern German-speaking lands, though there are certainly parallels elsewhere. I referred to the increasing importance of marriage and the idea that matrimony is the ideal state for Christian people, one that gains increasing currency towards the turn of the sixteenth century.

One related development is that marriage and prostitution – or rather, ‘whoredom’, since what’s really meant here is illicit sex – become conceptually opposed. This means that women (and censure falls much more heavily on women than on men) increasingly risk being thought of as whores and face criminal penalties for engaging in extra-marital sex.

If we jump forward into the 1500s, whoredom takes on an enormous symbolic freight, a kind of counterweight to marriage as the ideal Christian state. You can see these ideas manifested in figures like the Whore of Babylon, a figure from the Book of Revelation who often appears in polemic directed towards the pope and the Roman Church.

The Whore of Bablyon wearing the papal tiara (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1522)


A: Is there a reason for your focus on southern German cities?

JP: I would have to say that there are both personal and academic reasons why I find this part of the world so compelling. If we begin with the academic: what interests me about the southern German – and Swiss! – cities is that they seem to straddle both a southern and northern European cultural world, in which they’re part of an overarching structure (the Holy Roman Empire) firmly based in the north, but politically they resemble the landscape of city states found over the Alps in Italy.

And as mentioned, there are also personal reasons why I’m drawn to this region. These have to do with years spent travelling and working in southern Germany and Switzerland, making friends and getting to know some of its corners well.

It’s also stuffed with fascinating and distinct places, all of which are intensely conscious and demonstrative of their history, I think partly as a legacy of this fragmented historical landscape.

The city of Nördlingen still retains its complete circuit of medieval defences

The city I’ve worked on most, Nördlingen, is a prime example – the city itself is built within a meteorite crater (have a look at the Ries crater on Google Maps!), and its medieval ring wall is still standing in its entirety. The walls are built of suevite, a metamorphic rock created from the meteorite impact that sparkles in the sun on nice days.

‘…rock created from the meteorite impact that sparkles in the sun on nice days’.

The city has been through an enormous amount, including a couple of major battles in the Thirty Years War, an intense witch craze, and air raids in the Second World War. It’s also played host to NASA astronauts who drove moon buggies around the landscape nearby as a training exercise, the idea being that the high concentration of extraterrestrial rock made this an ideal testing ground. For a part of the world that’s sometimes overlooked as a bit dull and sleepy, there’s an incredibly rich sense of the past to be found.


A: What contemporary insights can this research provide?

JP: I would like to think there are a couple of points on which the work on prostitution might feel relevant to the present day. Several connected issues especially have come to occupy me in the finishing stages of writing my book.

The first is what we might call the ethical questions that arise from the sources that form the basis of each chapter, which are criminal case records in which individuals gave testimony, often in circumstances of high stress or direct duress – perhaps even torture – applied by their their interrogators.

This issue has been a central concern in scholarship on heresy and witchcraft, for obvious reasons, but I think it’s relevant for the women in the cases I’ve looked at, too, because of the marginal status they held in the period.

John Arnold has stated the problem as a matter of ‘what we should do with the words of the dead’ (I might be paraphrasing here) – in other words, do we have obligations to people whose speech was extracted from them in coercive circumstances? Is there a risk that we become a bit like the interrogators themselves, extracting people’s speech to serve our own purposes? Obviously, there’s a difference between historians who read archival documents and those who conduct the interrogations themselves, but it’s an arresting idea nonetheless, and I think shows the importance of being self-aware in our practice.

For me, this question has come into focus as I’ve been thinking about the role played by the voices of sex workers, who today are a heavily marginalised group – albeit less so than in many earlier times – and don’t typically play much of a role in shaping the legislative and normative environments in which they operate.

If you look at the portrayal of sex work in the popular media, there’s also a lot of sensationalism, and a tendency to exaggerate its glamorous or grim facets. Since the 1990s, spurred by historians like Judith Walkowitz, much of the history of prostitution has aimed to write about sex work in terms of agency (without ignoring the constraints and pressures that often define it), portraying individuals as ‘complex subjects’ who live within their communities, make choices, have a multitude of different kinds of social relationships, etc., even if they were often stigmatised at the same time.

I would like to hope that my work helps to put medieval women into this larger picture, helping us to see them as the kind of ‘complex subjects’ mentioned by Walkowitz. In this I owe a lot to the pathbreaking work of earlier scholars who have mapped out the institutional structures of prostitution in the Middle Ages and analysed its cultural significance, since this has allowed me to lean on their work in focusing more closely on individuals.

To take this a little further, there’s one particular way in which I’d really like the work to have an impact. This is in relation to a very pervasive idea about prostitution, something that you see in just about every media story on the topic, namely that it’s ‘the oldest profession’. I think this is a superficially harmless, but in reality quite damaging notion.

It’s hard to deny the extraordinary continuity of sex work throughout history, but when we do that, we see prostitution as this timeless phenomenon that’s just always simply ‘always there’, it can be very easy to begin overlooking the people involved and forgetting to see them as individuals. They become like ciphers who just fill a larger, unchanging pattern – we don’t see their lives, their experiences, as complex and distinct in other ways.

‘…it can be very easy to begin overlooking the people involved and forgetting to see them as individuals’.

This is problematic, not just because it’s ahistorical, but because it’s de-humanising, and means we might fail to see the agency and individuality of people around us in the present day. There is, of course, a slightly paradoxical situation that by writing about prostitution in the distant past, I might be reinforcing the impression that prostitution is a permanent feature of human society.

 All the same, I would like to think that by stressing the complexity of individual lives in the period, I might be able to help push back against the tendency to overlook the people themselves.

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Cover Image: Nuremberg in 1493 – Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (Text: Hartmann Schedel) / Public domain

Figure 1: Master of the Codex Manesse (Foundation Painter) / Public domain

Figure 2: History Today

Figure 3: Unknown author. / Public domain

Figure 4: Lucas Cranach the Elder / Public domain

Figure 5: Wolkenkratzer / CC BY-SA (

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