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Chapter Seven of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University


7. Rape and Prostitution

Accurate statistics about rape in the modern age are almost impossible to come by, if only because few agree about what constitutes rape and because few rapes are reported. Accurate statistics about rape in Chaucer's time are even more difficult to come by because the few records that were kept are often lost, rotted, or eaten by worms. Still, we do have some information about rape in Chaucer's time. Records available for the French city of Dijon, for example, suggest that there were at least two rapes a month; that most of these were gang rapes done by two or more men; that the men were mostly between the ages of 18 and 24; and that the punishment for rape tended to be less severe than for other crimes, such as stealing.

Other scattered records broaden the base of information, but the total picture remains fuzzy. London records for 1380 show, for example, that Chaucer himself, then around age 40, was released by one Cecelia Chaumpagne from the charge of raptus. Because the matter was settled out of court we don't know quite what this case was all about, but there is no reason why it could not have involved sexual rape. There is evidence of rape in the literary record as well, as when the young knight in the Wife of Bath's Tale takes "by verray force" (3 888) the maidenhead of a young woman. For his crime he is condemned to death, but he is permitted to save his life by going on a quest to discover what women desire.

The point here is that rape did take place in medieval times. People knew about it and were concerned about it. They punished the offending rapists, though usually not severely unless the crime was repeated. They also institutionalized prostitution as a form of rape control. In an age when economic and social conditions were such that few men married before the age of 24 (women tended to marry at a younger age), those who managed the cities openly recognized the need to protect their wives and daughters by providing for regulated and organized prostitution. Indeed, the city leaders often set aside a specific part of town--usually away from the center but not too far away--for prostitution. They licensed certain specific buildings, taverns, or bath houses, and they stipulated the kinds of women who could be prostitutes in these establishments.

Although some women engaged in a private practice of prostitution, most of the records are for the public or officially licensed brothels. The regulated prostitutes were single or widowed, and they were almost all "foreign"--that is, not from the city they worked in. Part of the idea, after all, was to protect the local women from rape and less violent forms of shameful behavior. Young women were brought in to serve the unmarried men and widowers of the community--though of course married men might and did with care avail themselves of the services of these women as well. In France and England Flemish women were particularly popular as prostitutes, partly because they were from far away, partly because they were known to have a special appeal to men as well as eager skills as prostitutes.

It was important that the prostitutes be attractive. After all, if the purpose of prostitution was to protect the wives and women of the town from the lasciviousness of its men, then the prostitutes needed to be beautiful, or else the men would ignore them and turn their attentions to local women. Besides, the more beautiful the woman, the less sinful it was for a man to fornicate with her. The logic went something like this: the more beautiful a woman the more she aroused sexual passion in a man. That arousal, and the gratification that followed it, caused a man to sin. It was considered less sinful for a man to have sex with a beautiful woman because the sin was really her fault, not his. She had, after all, enticed him with her beauty. Some medieval moralists believed that the more difficult a sin was to resist, the less should be the penance for it. That kind of thinking, of course, sometimes led men to think lightly of rape. It was to some extent the victim's fault, particularly if she were beautiful.

One wonders how the local citizens felt about having prostitutes in their midst. It appears that, though they had some concerns, the townspeople were by and large in favor of prostitutes as the lesser of several evils. One thirteenth-century commentator drew an analogy between public women and public sewers. No one really wants either one around, of course, but if you take them away the whole place, not just a particularly rank corner of it, gets contaminated. It is better to have the filth concentrated and regulated than to have it uncontrolled and befouling the whole town.

Not only did the prostitutes draw the lightning bolts of the young men away from the respectable women of the town, but they also helped men avoid three sins often considered worse than fornication with women--masturbation, sodomy, and chastity.

Everyone knew that masturbation took place, but unlike fornication with women, it was a "sin against nature." While a natural sin like fornication with a woman was considered a lower-order sin and could be absolved by a parish priest, masturbation, because it was unnatural, could in some areas be absolved only by bishops or their lieutenants. Around 1300 the Archbishop of Sens wrote of sins against nature that "the first branch is when man or woman by him or herself, alone and aware of the fact and awake, falls into the filth of sin." Some theologians even considered masturbation to be a form of sodomy.

Homosexuality was considered to be the worst of the sexual sins, mostly because it was "against nature," but also because, like masturbation, it contributed to the depopulation of the world by redirecting the impulses that would populate it.

As for chastity, was that really considered a sin? Increasingly, it was. As repeated waves of the plague carried off large segments of the Christian population at a time when infidel populations--the Turks and the Arabs, for example--seemed to be thriving, there was increased concern that Christian men and women should obey God's injunction to go forth and multiply. Men who were chaste were not doing their duty. Prostitution, then, was seen to serve the good purposes of society and the church by keeping young men from the sins of masturbation and sodomy, and by keeping them from developing habits of chastity that would further depopulate the Christian nations. Indeed, houses of prostitution were seen as something like training grounds for young men, helping them to develop their "natural" impulses and inclinations so that, when they did marry, they knew how to pay the "debt" they owed to their wives and to society by providing children.

Did the clergy approve of prostitution? That is really three questions: did the clergy approve prostitution for other men, did they approve of prostitutes themselves, and did they avail themselves of the services of prostitutes? The answer to the first question is that, while there was some disagreement, by Chaucer's time the clergy tended to accept, if not exactly encourage, the practice of prostitution. They tended to think that, while fornication for any purpose but the procreation of children was a sin, they also knew that it was a lesser, because "natural," sin, committed in response to certain needs and instincts placed in man by God. The clergy tended either not to stand in the way of prostitution or quietly to support the city fathers in their policies about prostitution. For those men of the church who, like the summoner in Chaucer's Friar's Tale, wanted for whatever reason to seek out sinners, the very fact that the practice of prostitution concentrated sinners in certain locations tended to make their jobs easier.

Did clergymen approve of the prostitutes? It seems that most members of the clergy were less cynical than that evil summoner. While they had some moral reservations about the practice of prostitution, the Bible provided them with the example of Mary Magdalene, and they found themselves officially forgiving prostitutes. They sometimes allowed prostitutes to be buried in church grounds, and they usually accepted alms from them. The moral position of prostitutes was uncertain. Those who enjoyed their trade were usually considered beyond forgiveness, but those who plied their trade because it was the only way they could support themselves were more easily forgiven. Of course, there was always the hope that the prostitutes would repent. Pope Innocent III even stated that it was a great act of Christian charity for a man to take a former prostitute as a wife, thus helping to save her soul by taking her forever out of the brothel.

The answer to the third question--whether members of the clergy visited prostitutes as customers--is complicated by the fact that most older clergymen had taken, and most younger ones intended to take, vows of celibacy. Such vows notwithstanding, some clergymen were not celibate. Literary works of the period, particularly the fabliaux, routinely show members of the clergy engaging in sexual activities--Malyn's grandfather in the Reeve's Tale, for example. Sometimes they paid for sex in these stories--the monk in the Shipman's Tale, for example. The historical record confirms such activities. The records of the city of Dijon, for example, show that members of the clergy made up some 20 per cent of the clientele of the places of prostitution.

There appears not to have been widespread moral outrage at the dealings between prostitutes and clergymen. Townspeople tended to be amused at clergymen who frequented the brothels, but there is little evidence that they were terribly upset by them. Men of the clergy were, after all, men. Their fornicating with women was a sin, yes, but a "natural" sin, and perhaps more acceptable than the masturbation or the sodomy that might be its unnatural alternative. Besides, it was better for such clergymen to go to prostitutes than to tempt the daughters and wives to whom, by the nature of their profession, they had such ready and intimate access. If given a choice between having their clergymen go to prostitutes or accost the pretty young women of the town, most men would far prefer the former. Chaucer shows a number of clergymen engaging in lechery with other men's wives. Surely the husbands of those wives would have preferred meeting their spiritual fathers in the local bath houses to surprising them in their wives' beds.

Indeed, even in the fourteenth century there were some theologians who were wondering whether it might not be better for men of the clergy to be permitted to marry. It was evident that many of them were not capable of honoring their vows of chastity. Although the church hierarchy resisted such thinking, they were aware of the problems and felt that it was better for clerics to fornicate occasionally with public prostitutes than to keep a concubine, to lead their female parishioners astray, to commit rape, or to engage in "unnatural" acts.

Prostitution, while less prevalent in England than in France, was nevertheless a fact of life in Chaucer's world. Not everyone talked about it, but almost everyone knew about it. In the Friar's Tale the Friar tells us that the summoner in the tale "hadde alwey bawdes redy to his hond" (3 1339) and that he sometimes had the "wenches at his retenue" (3 1355) tell him the names of the men "that lay by hem" (3 1358) so that he could summon them into the ecclesiastical court. Some of Chaucer's readers have wondered whether there may be a shadow of prostitution hanging over the Shipman's Tale, in which the wife of the merchant of St. Denis sells sexual favors to a monk for 100 francs, but surely it is going too far to suggest that the Wife of Bath shared certain characteristics with public women.

Or is it?

Primary source: Jacques Rossiaud, Medieval Prostitution, 1984 (translated by Lydia G. Cochrane, Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1988).

Chapter Seven of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University

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