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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32.1 (2002) 109-144

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From Prostitutes to Brides of Christ:
The Avignonese Repenties in the Late Middle Ages

Joëlle Rollo-Koster
University of Rhode Island
Kingston, Rhode Island


This study investigates cultural appropriation in late medieval Avignon. It is an illustration of how a notoriously disenfranchised group, prostitutes, creatively appropriated an ascendant cultural model, that of traditional conventual life, to better their own lot in life. This process of appropriation occurred during late medieval Avignon's papal residency within the context of male authority attempting to control the dangers of female sexuality. In order to rein in the threat of sexual promiscuity, the city magistrates institutionalized prostitution, then tried to remedy this vice through charity, and finally encouraged the reform of prostitutes by establishing Repenties houses --convents for repentant prostitutes--where Mary Magdalene was promoted as a central hagiographic model of penance.

Yet despite their marginal status within the city and their vulnerability to male forms of power, I show how these women adopted--and were remarkably successful, even in worldly terms--a religious life according to male clerical forms. The Repenties appropriated conventual life by organizing their house according to a monastic rule. They successfully assimilated spiritual models of feminine penance circulating in the late Middle Ages, and they fostered their temporals (worldly goods and properties) just as did nuns from regular orders. 1 Evidence of this cultural competition is seen very clearly in the spatial tug-of-war that took place between the founders of the Avignonese Repenties and the Repenties themselves. Even though the Repenties' convent was marginalized on Avignon's southern periphery, the Repenties' presence in the material form of real estate endowments and acquisitions was felt in the very heart of the city. The ability to appropriate the norms and practices of a dominant culture proved to be determinative in shaping the history of the Avignonese Repenties. [End Page 109]

Prostitution in Avignon

Medieval society accepted a double standard of sexual behavior for men and women; while allowing men a degree of sexual permissiveness, sexual austerity was demanded from women. Medieval gender theory held that women were by nature fickle and unstable, prone to sexual temptation and hence needing the restraining hand of male control. By the end of the Middle Ages, sexual sins were attributed specifically to women. As Ruth Mazo Karras states, when discussing legends of prostitute saints, "all feminine sin was expressed sexually." 2 Masculine logic accepted prostitution as a necessary evil, an institution protective of public order. Institutionalized in red-light districts or brothels, prostitutes might shield daughters, wives, and widows from sexual exploitation and prepare men for marriage. 3 Uncontrolled prostitutes, however, were thought to endanger social order. 4 The prostitute therefore could exist only under two controlled conditions: they must be either segregated or reformed.

The treatment of prostitutes by medieval theologians reflected an ambiguity toward sex and women in general, in that prostitutes were condemned as promiscuous but accepted as serving a social function, a ministerium. 5 Medieval theologians debated the number of men a woman had to have sex with to be considered a prostitute, as well as the existence and validity of the financial gain earned by a prostitute in the process. Interestingly enough, even though medieval civic authorities created legislation to deal with the phenomenon of prostitution, they rarely attempted to define what a prostitute was. Only Marseille's thirteenth-century statutes included a chapter entitled De meretricibus [Regarding prostitutes]. The Marseillais designated prostitutes "public girls" who day and night received two or more men in their houses. Secondly, they defined a prostitute as a woman who "did business trading her body, within the confine of a brothel." 6 Unexpectedly, this statute acknowledges male concupiscence as one of prostitution's causative factors. It seems that Marseille echoed the theologians' views on the issue of prostitution (or, perhaps, vice versa). Promiscuity and trade, the exchange of money for the pleasure of a body, made a prostitute...