Women's Labors: Reproduction and Sex Work in Medieval Europe
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Journal of Women's History 15.4 (2004) 153-158



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Women's Labors:
Reproduction and Sex Work in Medieval Europe

Ruth Mazo Karras


What meaning could "sex work" have in pre-industrial Europe? The Book of the Taille from Paris in 1392 lists 172 occupations for women. 1 Prostitution, however, does not figure among them. Nor can we identify in medieval sources any of the other occupations that today might fall under the rubric "sex work"—notably performers of various sorts. Some medieval writers did identify prostitution as a variety of work. Thomas of Chobham, a twelfth-century theologian, for example, argued that a prostitute earned her pay through her work and was entitled to her wages. 2 Later medieval versions of saints' lives, unlike earlier ones, focus on earning one's living, rather than lust, as the motivation for prostitution. 3 Nevertheless, for most medieval authors, a meretrix was primarily a sinful woman, not a woman who did a particular kind of work.

Of course, the fact that a category of analysis was not in use at the time does not obviate its usefulness to historians, so we might ask in what other sorts of ways women's sexuality and women's work intersected. As in modern society, so too in pre-modern society did many service workers provide services in ways that bordered on the sexual, or were presumed to be sexually available to men who patronized them for non-sexual services. In medieval England, as Judith Bennett has shown, women connected with the alcohol business—brewing ale or beer, or serving it—were treated as sexually suspect, and my own research confirms that women who worked in or who simply frequented taverns were often accused of prostitution. 4 It may have been the case that taverns were convenient places for prostitutes to encounter customers, but it was also true that women who frequented men's gathering-places, especially places where alcohol was served, were considered to be there for sexual reasons, even if they were there as part of their employment. (In Florence, where the authorities were very concerned with sodomy and literally thousands of accusations have survived from the fifteenth century, the same was true of teenage boys in taverns. 5) Another occupation connected with illicit sexual activity was that of laundress. This may be because laundresses had occasion to enter masculine spaces such as monasteries or colleges, and also because they came into contact with intimate apparel. 6

Even domestic servants could fall into the category of "sex worker" as their employers often expected them to be sexually available. For a [End Page 153] householder or his son to have sex with a female servant was not quite normative or socially acceptable, but neither was it unusual or shocking. In essence, any working woman could be sexually vulnerable, not only domestic servants (probably the majority of women wage workers) but also peasant women. The droit du seigneur may be a myth, but lords could still rape or coerce with impunity. 7 Some women may have sought sexual encounters with employers or lords in order to gain privileges or social advancement. Nevertheless, the fact that this was one of the few options open to them meant that they were victims of the structure even if they learned to make the best of the situation. In terms of modern categories, however, we are moving from "sex work" to "sexual harassment." That women in a wide variety of occupations may have chosen or been forced to use their bodies to get ahead does not make all those occupations sex work, although it may indicate that, in the Middle Ages, any work women did outside the home was suspect.

Perhaps a more important nexus between sexuality and work, or between a woman's body and money, came precisely within the home, indeed within the marriage bed. In a sense, one could say that the normative career for a medieval woman was sex work, because marriage was indeed the norm and reproduction was considered its primary...


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