A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Bad History Hits a Red Light

Syphilis, medieval style
In my previous post, I took historian Michael Bliss to task for committing a certain type of error I chose to call the “Has been-Ought” fallacy, or the fallacy of deriving an “ought” claim from a statement about how things were in the past. In this post I’d like to present some more shoddy argument by another who makes her living in the historian’s trade.

It begins with a story that has been in the news here in Canada for the past couple of days. It involved a court challenge to our criminal laws surrounding prostitution and the sex trade. Prostitution per se is not illegal in Canada, but many of the surroundings of the trade are. The challenge to the current laws insists that since having sex for money is not an illegal activity, the other legal prohibitions surrounding it create harmful working conditions which pose a threat to women, and are therefore unconstitutional. The challenge made it through Ontario’s highest court, so now it will presumably make its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Although I have my own opinions on this case, I shall not try your patience with them here. Suffice to say, I believe the decision was a bad one, on much the same grounds as I believe the earlier Insite decision was a bad one — both cases make pronouncements on issues of public policy (not within the court’s mandate), and because they uphold victim culture and further erode the notion that persons are responsible for their own behavior. But enough about my unpopular and possibly mistaken opinion on the matter.

In any case, no sooner had the decision come down, than we were entertained with a flurry of excited articles extolling the economic and social benefits of an industry in legalized brothels in Canada, most of them written in a tone of lurid speculation and hushed excitement. One thing these enthusiastic articles have in common is that they are all written by men. Men, it seems, or at least male journalists, cannot wait to have legalized brothels. The opinions of women, including prostitutes themselves, on the subject are considerably more mixed.

I should say that there was at least one article, written by a female historian, which offered an unusual defense of legalized and regulated brothels. Penned by Professor Jacqueline Murray, and cleverly titled “The Whores of Yore”, it made the argument that the people of the Middle Ages had it right in their attitude towards the sex industry. Prof. Murray seems to be a historian of a rather revisionist bent. According to her, in the Middle Ages legalized brothels were the norm. She further contends that they provided legitimate career options for women who had fallen through the cracks of a society devoid of social safety nets. She also argues that they provided two further benefits. First, they made prostitution healthier, by enabling authorities to conduct health inspections, and by giving prostitutes access to medical care. Second, legalized brothels provided men with an outlet for their sexual urges, which would otherwise find expression in the accosting and potential rape of respectable wives and daughters.

In each of these claims, Professor Murray is dead wrong, and laughably so. Let’s examine each claim in turn.

Legalized Brothels:

Prof. Murray claims that legalized brothels were the norm in medieval times. As an example, she cites the case of the Bishop of Winchester’s ownership of London’s Southwark “stews”. She is right in claiming that brothels were commonplace. But to claim they were legal is quite a stretch. And with regard to the canard about the Bishops of Winchester, sadly, it seems the learned professor has fallen for the historical equivalent of an urban legend.

First off, we are in no doubt of the Church’s official position: prostitution is a sin, for both buyer and seller. This means that, as far as canon law was concerned, prostitution was illegal.

As for Southwark, yes, the land formed part of the manorial lands of the Bishops of Winchester (or more appropriately, the corporation of the Bishopric of Winchester). There would have been a variety of businesses situated on those lands, all of them paying some rent to the bishop. Some of these businesses were “stews” — taverns in which prostitutes customarily plied their trade. The bishop would not have been a pimp or procurer of women, as those who reproduce this story seem to imply. He would merely be a landlord, a receiver of rents from the many tenant businesses, stews included. I suppose this technically means the bishops lived off the avails of prostitution, but they had no direct hand in running brothels. Therefore, Prof. Murray’s claim that “the ‘stews’ of Southwark, now the South Bank of London, were owned and operated by the Bishop of Winchester” is misleading, to say the least.

For a fascinating and thorough history of the Southwark stews, I cannot recommend highly enough Henry Ansgar Kelly’s article, “Bishop, Prioress, and Bawd in the Stews of Southwark,” Speculum 75 (2000), 342-388. You will quickly learn that there is no basis, in medieval London at least, for the claim that brothels were legally-sanctioned operations. They were illegal, notwithstanding that the local authorities often turned a blind eye to them. If that makes them legal, then by that definition an underground dogfighting league is legal so long as it keeps paying off the cops. And in fact the stews of Southwark were shut down by the authorities from time to time. And whores were punished, much more severely than they are in our society. Then, as now, there were occasional moral panics interspersed among periods of official indifference.

In short, Prof. Murray’s high claims of legal prostitution in the Middle Ages are essentially rubbish. At best we can say that in some areas, for some periods, prostitution was de facto legal, but it was never so de iure.

Economic Opportunities for Women:

This argument can be hastily disposed of. I’m sure prostitution did provide incomes to women who were outcast. I suppose if such a woman had cut off an arm or a leg and begged in the streets, then that too would have provided her with an income. Does that make it good social policy to encourage it, or to tax it? Can we really not do better for our women than the medievals did (or rather didn’t) for theirs? Let me ask you this: If you had a daughter who had fallen on hard times, would you prefer she had the “option” of prostituting herself, or would you prefer a proper social safety net to help her get back on her feet? (I know, I’m suddenly raving like a socialist. Chalk it up to my inner Red Tory.)

Part of what makes destitution a bad thing is that it limits freedom by compelling people to do degrading things against their preferences and better judgment. Prof. Murray seems to speak of prostitution as a solution to poverty, when it should be viewed as a symptom of it. She doesn’t seem to realize it, but her views betray a chilling lack of empathy for the poor that makes even a cold soul like mine shudder. This is truly “let them eat cake” thinking at its worst. And yet, ironically, I imagine she prides herself on her liberality, tolerance, and kindness.

Sexual Outlets for Men:

Professor Murray is far from the first person to make this claim. This has been argued since time immemorial. Some medieval theologians thought prostitution was a necessary evil, and a minority claimed that it deterred homosexuality. In short, this line of argument says that men — or some indeterminate subset of them — are lecherous by nature, and that if it weren’t for the sexual outlet that prostitutes provide, they would be busy raping respectable women, or else having sexual congress with men or animals or ripe fruit. This argument is more than a little dubious. What’s more, it manages to be degrading both to men and women at the same time.

Supposedly, a certain proportion of men who visit prostitutes would rape women if prostitutes were unavailable. This is an empirical claim, and to my knowledge it has never been empirically verified. But even if it could be verified, I doubt very much that it can support an argument for legalized prostitution. It implies a reductive view of men as utter slaves to their sexual drives. Furthermore, these sexual drives cannot be controlled, trained or sublimated. If this were true, then it seems to me a more natural answer would be castration, not legalized prostitution. Instead, we’re told by people like Prof. Murray that the only way of dealing with these men is to provide poor women for them to use as sexual “outlets”.

And they must be poor women, mind you, fallen women. After all, we don’t want these men touching the daughters of decent people, respectable people. And here methinks I spot the latent schizophrenia in much “progressive” philosophizing about prostitution: On the one hand, we are to believe that there is nothing wrong with prostitution, and that we should legalize it, tax it, and make it safe for women. Women who engage in it are to be called “sex workers” and are to be treated as if they are skilled tradespeople who have freely made a valid career choice. On the other hand, of course, you would be hard pressed to find people who would approve of their own daughters entering this supposedly respectable trade. What would be your feeling if your daughter's high school guidance counselor suggested she take up this trade, or that she had an aptitude for it? In other words, it seems to be implied by the ruling progressivism on the subject that prostitution is a valid career choice only for the daughters of others, preferably for the poor, or for the daughters of the poor. These are the appropriate outlets for potential rapists to let off a little steam with.

It’s Healthier:

Professor Murray makes the claim that prostitution in the Middle Ages was rendered healthier through legalization. Prostitutes working in brothels were subject to medical inspection, or so she claims. Given the prevailing state of medical science and practice at the time, I can only imagine what these “inspections” consisted of. We can safely assume that they were invasive, degrading, and open to abuse.

We are also told by Prof. Murray that the brothels brought prostitution into the open, and made medical services available to the women. Again, given the state of medieval medical science, I can only wonder what sort of help they could expect to receive from a medieval doctor.

I once wrote an article on the history of syphilis. It was a fascinating subject to research. The mainstream consensus is that syphilis arrived in Europe from America in the 1490s; in other words, it arrived at the tail end of those sexually enlightened Middle Ages that Prof. Murray extols. It is hard to overestimate how the arrival of syphilis ravaged a society that was unprepared for its onslaughts, and one of the main vectors of transmission was through baths and brothels. Read up on the arrival and initial spread of AIDS in North America and you will find the parallels are eerie; many cities in the early 1980s shut down their bathhouses. And much like AIDS in 1980, for the late medieval syphilitic there was no effective medical help to speak of, other than quack cures like mercury. The syphilitic would have mercury baths, causing her teeth and hair to fall out and making her drool uncontrollably. The “cure” was a form of poisoning that was as likely to kill as the disease itself.

(Incidentally, we get our word “quack” from the Dutch kwakzalver, a hawker of salves. The Dutch word became popular in English because it sounded much like “quicksilver”, the most popular quack treatment for syphilis. But I digress.)

The fact is, throughout pre-modern literature, the whore is a byword for short life, as it still is today. Medieval history provides no support for the notion that prostitution ought to be legalized.


It is often argued (for example, by feminist intervenors and amici curiae in the famous Canadian case of R. v. Butler) that the availability of pornography causes men to rape and should therefore be banned. Others argue that pornography provides an outlet for men, and therefore makes women safer. In the absence of any sound empirical evidence, it seems one can make unverified empirical claims either for or against a thesis.

Might not a similar phenomenon be happening with the back and forth regarding prostitution? One side, as exemplified by people like Prof. Murray, will argue that prostitution provides an outlet for men’s sexual urges. But since there is no evidence one way or the other, it can just as easily be argued that access to prostitutes might actually irritate and enflame those aberrant sexual urges and actually cause more men to rape. And after all, if society takes a winking attitude towards using women as sexual outlets, perhaps pushing the envelope a bit is not such a terrible crime? Or at least that is what such lowlifes might be led to think to themselves.

Of course, there is a relevant sense in which much prostitution is akin to a kind of indirect rape. If the typical prostitute is driven to the sex trade through poverty or addiction or literal slavery, then she suffers from a compromised will. Therefore, perhaps the sex she engages in cannot be characterized as entirely consensual. The man who pays to have sex with her perhaps does not physically overpower her and pin her down. Rather, her life circumstances do that dirty work for him.


  1. Very interesting. I hadn't thought about this before, but wouldn't you say that the societies that have been most friendly to prostitution have also been most oppressive of women? Perhaps the feminists should be careful before they eradicate chivalry entirely.

  2. You may very well have a point there, CONSVLTVS. Unfortunately, that bodes rather ill for we Romanists, since the Romans we so admire had a rather liberal attitude towards prostitution; while by our standards, they were not particularly friendly to female equality either.

    On the other hand, I don't know enough about prostitution during the early and middle republic to be able to say what their attitude was towards prostitution. I imagine it was rather LESS liberal than under the late republic and empire, but I have no solid evidence for that claim.

    1. No civilization ever got everything right, including the Romans. I think their example is particularly relevant for us, though, because so many of the western democracies modeled their constitutions directly or indirectly on the Roman Republic. So, we can profit from paying attention to the Romans' failures as well as their successes.

      From my own observations in Thailand and the Philippines, I certainly would say there is a correlation between open acceptance of prostitution and inequality for women. But two examples is hardly conclusive proof, so I hesitate to draw too strong a conclusion.