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A book on 13th century French brothels might not sound like something you'd include on your summer reading list. Everyone's studied European history enough to know that the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages dictated everything from how to kiss to when it was appropriate to have a child, and prostitution hardly seems like the hot topic of those centuries.
But Jacques Rossiaud's new book on medieval prostitution is an engaging study that argues that the sale of sex did indeed flourish in a time when the Pope condemned everything from fornication to chastity. In an era in which the Church dictated what sexual positions pregnant women under the age of 25 could assume, the women of the night were the hardest working portion of the labor force in the cities and towns.
Rossiaud analyzes the reasons for prostitution's longevity despite prohibition's on its existence. Rossiaud's study is one of a growing number of works on the role of prostitutes in history, and he uses an impressive and exhaustive study of ancient French archives to show how prostitution came to be in medieval France. The author has clearly spent a considerable amount of time collecting and reading court records, marriage contracts and prison sentences from the cities of Lyons, Dijon and Toulouse, and he uses these to uncover the moral code that existed in the French urban areas.
In a time when women were repeatedly victims of sexual violence, and gang rapes by organized groups of men were considered common, Rossiaud shows that violated women lost their marriage marketability and were forced to turn to a life of selling themselves on the street or in the public baths.
Whether women were adulterous or victims of kidnapping and forced sexual intercourse, Rossiaud uses documents from the era to show that they were always considered guilty in the public's eye. Everyone knew that women were by nature fornicators, lustful and insatiable. They sold themselves or they offered themselves. Even when taken by force, they were to be held as guilty: when they were kidnapped, raped or forcibly seduced as Thomas Aquinas notes, following Jacques de Vitry , they led men into debauchery and their pride in their beauty made them all the more sinful.