How the Church created prostitution.

Janice Raymond’s A Passion For Friends arrived in the mail yesterday and I’ve been devouring it non-stop, although I still haven’t got round to reading The Transsexual Empire.

It stirs forgotten memories. I suddenly recalled telling my mother around the age of seven that I wanted to be a nun. Friends who know me today would laugh, or simply not believe me. I think it was the travel. I’d got it into my head that nuns travelled, alone or in twos. And perhaps something to do with gardening, being in a big herb garden all alone. That completed the image. My mother nodded sagely as though it was perfectly normal, but then mumbled something about me having to cut all my hair off, which may have put me off the idea…

But there was definitely a time in my life when I wanted to be a nun. Why? We weren’t a religious family. I’d never seen a nun, and had only heard about them as the butt-end of jokes. But I’d read about them and knew of them. It was a mystery. Until today.

The Nun as Loose Woman

Historically nuns were not associated with the straight-laced and conformist behaviour that they now represent. They were not obedient, docile and naive creatures who were “scared of sex” and who had been duped into marrying God . Quite the opposite. For many centuries nuns were thought of as “loose women”.

In keeping with last week’s theme of noticing and getting interested in what makes men angry, it turns out that over the centuries nuns have got right up men’s noses. Rather than being supported by the church, they were attacked relentlessly by Catholic clerics and critics, who condemned their independent lifestyle. In a feat of stunning patriarchal logic it transpires that the Protestant Reformation grounded the attacks in the virginity of nuns, and regarded this as the ultimate symbol of their looseness. In literary texts, scholarly texts, in popular opinion and even conveyed through certain words the word “nun” became synonymous with the word “prostitute”. :

“It used the age-old hetero-relational tactic of trasmogrifying the virgin–she who is untouched by men–into the prostitute, she who is despoiled, conquered, and constantly handled by men. In this view, all women who were unmarried were immoral. Once more, the female companion of other women was represented as the sexual companion of men (heitarai). A loose woman who resides in a female world that is free from direct bonds with men becomes a loose woman who is put in constant bondage to men and male desires. Women who are unattached to men become immoral.”(p.74)

It’s now common knowledge that women’s status was better before Christianity came along, but it bears repeating that with the demise of  “heathendom” and the advent of Christianity commanding female figures all but disappeared from public consciousness:

“Women ceased to have significant intellectual, political and social power. The convent thus became the refuge of many women who still craved this power and independence. It offered opportunities undreamed of and unactualized by most women during these times. As Eileen Power notes, monasticism “made use of their [nuns’] power of organization in the government of a community, and in the management of household and estates; it allowed nuns an education which was for long better than that enjoyed by men and women alike outside the cloister.

The nun carried on the tradition of the loose woman, that is, the independent woman, associated with a pagan and ungodly period. Therefore, female autonomy and detachment from men were regarded as pagan and ungodly. The male hierarchy was always in conflict with the independent spirit which had drawn many women to convent living initially.  Eckenstein notes that the good/bad woman distinction arose prior to the introduction of Christianity.

It arose as the father-age gained on the mother-age, when appropriated women were more and more absorbed into domesticity, while those women outside, who either resented or escaped subjection, found their position surrounded by increasing difficulties, and aspersions more and more cast on their independence.”

Christianity constantly cast “aspersions” on women’s independence. It symbolically heterosexualized the nun as the “bride of Christ” in its liturgies and prayer.

 Tax records show that large numbers of “loose women” abounded in the Middle Ages. “A door to door survey in Frankfurt between the years  1354 and 1463 showed that independent, that is, unmarried women comprised one-sixth to one-fourth of all taxpayers” (p.75). Many of the played a role in the life of the court and the town. Many were active in the labour force (with considerable opposition from men). Many earned their living my selling their wares at the marketplace. Some set up house together, leading to cooperative arrangements and female organizations.

My first thought right now is how insipid today’s modern women are compared to the women of the past:

“The Beguines, in particular, are a Gyn/affective testimony to the history of loose women. They gathered themselves into communal settlements throughout Europe, especially in Flanders, where many of their remarkable dwellings still stand. Dayton Phillips estimates that in Strasbourg, the community of Beguines and the unattached women who gathered around them constituted at least 10 per cent of the city. Despite disapproval from church authorities, the Beguines continued to grow. The movement spread “like contagion”. In the thirteenth century, Mathew Paris said that the rapid progress of the movement was one of the wonders of the age.” By the middle of the century, there were societies of Beguines in almost every urban area of Europe.

As a religious group without vows and outside the established religious orders of women, the Beguines posed an immense threat to the Church hierarchy. They often held meetings of women at which theology and spirituality were discussed without the counsel of priests. Hostile churchmen denounced their thirst for theological knowledge, saying that the study of theology should be restricted to clerics. Beguines sought no church approval for their lives but called themselves religious women.

The Beguine movement differed from all earlier female religious groups in that “it was basically a women’s movement, not simply a feminine appendix to a movement which owed its impetus, direction and main support to men.” It had no Rule of life. It sought no authorization from Rome and no benefits or patrons. The majority of its members came from the lower classes and lived by the toil of their own hands.

As you can imagine, the Beguines angered men no end. And so the church implemented a set of steps that would turn the women into prostitutes:

“Many people in the towns where they lived disapproved of the liberty that Beguine women enjoyed. R.W. Southern, a church historian, puts it this way: “Parish priests who lost parishioners to the friars, fathers who lost daughters, men who resented the women who got away, were all enemies of the beguines.” And bishops felt that women became beguines to escape obedience to priests and “the coercion of the marital bonds.”

The commitment of the Beguines to each other was not sealed by the irrevocable promise of religious vows. Their commitment was evident, in the ways in which they cared for each other. Dayton Phillips, who examined the wills and addresses of the women in Strasbourg, reveals that a whole section of the town was inhabited by women who shared houses, rented to other women, bequeathed property to their Beguine friends, and ensured that other Beguines could become tenants after the present resident moved on or died. Often Beguines became the center for larger groups of loose women.

As with all loose women, the Church acted to curtail their independence. The General Council of Vienne in 1311 condemned the Beguine way of life. Shortly thereafter, many critics acted to dissolve the Beguine houses, or Beguinages, but this was not really accomplished until the beginning of the fifteenth century. Some of these women continued to live in a modified Beguine style until the end of the eighteenth century. Others went into established religious orders. Many others, according to Rufus Jones, who “were deprived of their Beguinage and turned adrift without means of support, and forbidden to beg, were compelled to die of want, or sink to a life of prostitution.”

And so from this I’ve learned that for all its sophistry and charity, the Church–religious men–would rather see women as prostitutes than free, and that they have historically actively conspired to create conditions where women have been forced into prostitution. And then they stand there and preach on the pulpit about the evils of “vice” and wanton women. Has anyone got an AK47 handy because right now I… nah, forget it.


15 thoughts on “How the Church created prostitution.

  1. Interesting thread Cherry, and yes the Beguines were a very independent group. But, I question the interpretation of “loose” in this context. I do not think it means “loose” as in immoral/prostitute, I think it means “loose” as in unattached/independent from menz/church.

    • oh, yes! Sorry, there was so much info in the chapter that I probably didn’t get from point A to point B properly in this post. Raymond definitely means “unattached” when she says “loose”, but it turns out that any unattached woman was seen as immoral, by default IYSWIM. There’s a bit more to it than I’ve mentioned here. Definitely worth a read!

      • Yes, there seems to be more A to C, and you skipped the B.
        The biggest push for patriarchy/church control was to reduce the number of single, independent (hence unattached) women – burning times mainly.

        The established convents for nuns were a way to wrangle at least some of those pesky women who refused to submit to marriage with men, and control them in church institutions.

  2. Re: the meaning of ‘loose’, JR is making that very point; that women who are ‘loose’ as in ‘unattached to males’ are for that very reason defined as ‘loose’ as in ‘lacking morality’ to justify the punishment meted out to them, masking the real reason for that punishment: their refusal to accept that attachment to males. It’s interesting that the label ‘loose woman’ reveals that truth through the two meanings of the word ‘loose’.

    I love this book (I’d never heard of the beguines until I read it – important bit of herstory there!) – thanks for writing about it Cherry 🙂

  3. I bought it as an ebook – now all I have to do is find time to read it. Thank you, CBL, for this beautifully written article.

  4. It’s interesting that so many of my favorite people through the years have mentioned that the idea of becoming a nun had passed through their minds as girls; not a single one of them was religious.

    I think it’s an indication of the very real, palpable existence of collective female memory/herstory.

    Thanks for sharing, Cherry 🙂

  5. yep, i wanted to be a nun too. admittedly it was after watching the sound of music about a billion times, and yeah i am not religious so no idea where that one came from. collective unconscious is probably right, or at least there was something very pleasing to me about the idea at some level, either through media representations of it or from somewhere else, that i didnt understand. my mom sneered at me and embarrassed me when i told her about it. she was raised catholic, and deliberately didnt raise us as anything. in reality, it was probably the best idea i ever had.

  6. Thanks so much for this info, it’s really interesting! I’ll forward it to my friends, hopefully they’ll understand the google translation.

    It seems that convents were at first used by women to flee the genocide/ burnings and continue to live independantly, but men of the church quickly understood that and did everything to take hold of convents. I think this explains why many nuns were tortured to death; so the church could take control of the convents. Convents then became an easy way for men to imprison or “tame” women if they were too threatening or either send girls there to be groomed and packaged before marriage – this lasted for centuries. Until recently, convents and nuns have had much monopoly over girl’s education in France, and many women have a very traumatic experience of it. Here it definitely has a very negative connotation.

    My mum was abused by nuns in her childhood, so maybe that’s why I have never wanted to become a nun. Instead I used to say that I would never marry men and wanted to live with my mum for the rest of my life. Well it’s sort of true now.

    • yes, when I was at uni I watched the awful film “The Magdalene Sisters” which is based on true events that took place in Ireland.

      “Bad girls” (those who had been raped or birthed illegitimate children) were sent to do laundry at convents run by nuns. The abuse was awful, but it was quite a tidy business for the church in that the girls of course were working for free, but the laundry generated a profit. Some were never released and remained at these laundries until old age.

      I did a bit of research into the laundries and it turns out that the last one closed in 1986 or thereabouts, and NOT because it was a breach of human rights, but because it was no longer economically viable because everyone now had washing machines.

      Those nuns were obviously handmaidens of the patriarchy, and contributed to women’s distrust of other women. Actually, you see this in porn! Where women are abused by women, and the caption states that the *aim* of this type of SM is so that young women will learn to distrust other women, especially older women.

      • Not just in Ireland, they had similar set ups in England as well (possibly closing around the same time, possibly for similar reasons). I read something somewhere on it, but darned if I can remember the exact details!

        But certainly I recall these type of 20thC workhouses, run by convents, for unmarried & impregnated women. If I recall correctly, most examples were around the Midlands in the UK.

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