Saturday, August 7, 2010
Sumptuary laws: Prostitutes, Jews and Courtesans
At the end of the 12th century Pope Clement III (1187-91) ruled harlots should dress differently from honest women (Freiberg 1879, cited in Brundage, 1987). Prescriptive codes, along with sumptuary legislation prohibiting prostitutes from wearing certain luxury materials followed. This action was thought to demonstrate a degree of tolerance i.e. as long as prostitutes remained clearly labelled they could remain within society. Laws relating to prostitution mainly applied to professionals but other sexually active women, were often included. The focus of this legislation was to shame and stigmatize these women.
In twelfth-century Arles (South of France), prostitutes were prohibited from wearing a veil, the sign of a respectable woman, and anyone who saw an "immoral" woman wearing one had the right and the responsibility to take it from her. Similarly, in fifteenth-century Dijon , although it was not established in the law, removing a woman's headgear was an accusation of sexual immorality.
In England prostitutes were required to wear a striped hood in some towns and used as punishment for prostitution in others. Sumptuary legislation required prostitutes to dress according to their station and distinguished them from "respectable" women. Although such laws often were ignored (as indicated by their frequent reiteration) they were nonetheless an important part of the discourse that constructed the prostitute.
In 1243, Avignon law prohibited Jews and prostitutes from touching food at the market and requiring them to purchase whatever they touched.
Similarly, clothing regulations labelled the Jewish people. In late medieval German towns, "both Jews and prostitutes were believed to perform essential services for the community, yet both groups were excluded from full membership of the city," and both were buried in unconsecrated ground. Medieval societies not only treated Jews, heretics, and lepers in ways comparable to prostitutes or sodomites, but also sexualized them, basing at least part of their otherness, on their sexuality. The idea of Jewish men having sex with Christian women was an important undercurrent in the development of hostility toward the Jews; the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council cited this as the reason why Jews had to wear distinguishing clothing.
Courtesans were a prominent feature of Venice in the seventeenth century. According to Rosentham (cited in Tucker, 1999) courtesans were sexualized versions of aristocratic women, kept in court and often used by upper crust men for the purposes of sex. In Occidental society courtesans were similar to Chinese concubines. Some were kept by nobles and had extravagant homes and clothing fit for royalty. Others had a different client every night and were reported to amass fabulous fortunes (often more than most of the town's merchants).
Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) was attribute to say "Publish and be damned." when the courtesan Harriette Wilson threatened to publish her memoirs and his letters.
Throughout history courtesans have dressed as ornately as aristocratic women (Masson, 1975). The habit had little to do with imitating their superiors but instead a deliberate display of their wealth and prestige. Courtesans often set the fashions and by doing so made statements of beauty and identity. Whilst governments saw the women's costumes as a symbol of their city's wealth and stature, the male dominated republic, also cracked down on the courtesan’s dress through sumptuary laws. These regulations were intended to protect the honour of female patricians from the courtesans, who mimicked their noble bearing and costumes. Courtesans became so established and wealthy in their own right it was difficult to separate them from true noblewomen. The action of subsequent governments was to restrict the wearing of some clothes to the nobility, according to Rosenthan (cited in Tucker, 1999). These laws were often flaunted by the courtesans but did influence women of the lower class. Karras (1999) described how, in most Medieval towns, prostitution was illegal or in some cases regulated, clothing regulations required prostitutes to wear distinguishing marks (Weaver, 1999).
Brundage JA 1987 Sumptuary laws and prostitution in late Medieval Italy Journal of Medieval History 13:4 343-355.
Karras RM 1999 Prostitution and the question of sexual identity in medievel europe Journal of Women's History 11:2 159-177.
Masson G 1975 Courtesans of the italian renaissance London: Cox and Wymann Ltd.
Tucker C 1999 Dressed (or undressed) for success University of Southern California Chronicle.
Reviewed on 3/01/2016