Indecent Behaviors

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Indecent Behaviors



Improper Activities. Along with premarital sexual activity, people engaged in, and were often punished for, a range of other sexual activities and moral offenses during this period. Particularly after the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, religious and political authorities attempted to ban dancing, spinning bees (where young men and women gathered in the evenings to chat while the women worked), and clothing styles that revealed too much of the body or bodily contours. In many southern European cities, women charged with improper behavior such as flirting might be locked up in institutions established by church or city authorities for repentant prostitutes and other “fallen women.” Such houses, often dedicated to the biblical figure Mary Magdalene, also began to admit women who were regarded as being in danger of becoming prostitutes, generally poor women with no male relatives; the ordinances stated explicitly that the women admitted had to be pretty or at least acceptable looking, for ugly women did not have to worry about their honor.


In the fourteenth century, many cities in Europe supported the opening of houses of prostitution, for reasons similar to those presented below by the municipal council of Florence. In the sixteenth century, city councils, such as the one in Nuremberg, closed the approved Brothels although illicit prostitution continued.

[Florence] Desiring to eliminate a worse evil by means of a lesser one, the lord priors.... [and their colleges] have decreed that . . . the priors . . . [and their colleges] may authorize the establishment of two public brothels in the city of Florence, in addition to the one which already exists: one in the quarter of S. Spirito and the other in the quarter of S. Croce. [They are to be located] in suitable places or in places where the exercise of such scandalous activity can best be concealed for the honor of the city and of those who live in the neighborhood in which these prostitutes must stay to hire their bodies for lucre, as other prostitutes stay in the other brothel. For establishing these places . . . in a proper manner and for their construction, furnishing, and improvement, they may spend up to 1,000 florins....

Source: Floreatine State Archives, Provissioni 105, fols. 248r-248v, translated by Gene Brucker, in The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study, edited by Brucker (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 190.

[Nuremberg] [January 5, 1562] The high honorable [city] council asks for learned opinions about whether it should close the city brothel, (Frauenhaus), or if it were closed, whether other dangers and still more evil would be the result.

[January, 19, 1562] The learned counselors, pastors and theologians discussed whether closing the house would lead the jourheymen and foreign artisans to turn instead to their masters’ and landlords’ wives, daughters, and maids. The pastors and theologians urged the city not to break God's word just because of foreigners, and one argued that the brothel caused journeymen to have impure thoughts about women. If they were never introduced to sex, they would not bother other women. The argument that a man performed a good deed when he married a woman from the brothel, which he could no longer do if the brothel was closed, is to be rejected, as closing the brothel would also pull the women out of the devil's grip. One jurist added his opinion that because there were only ten or twelve women in the brothel, they couldn't possible be taking care of all the journeymen, so closing the house would not make that much difference. The council then asked for an exact report from Augsburg about the numbers of illegitimate children before and after it closed its brothel [in 1532] to see if it had increased or decreased.

[March 18, 1562] On the recommendations written and read by the high honorable theologians and jurists, why the inen of the council are authorized and obliged to close the common brothel, it has been decided by the whole council to follow the same recommendation and from this hour on forbid all activity in that house, to post a guard in the house and let no man enter it any more. Also to send for the brothel manager and say to him he is to send all women that he has out of the house in two days and never take them in again. From this time on he is to act so blamelessly and unsuspiciously that the council has no cause to punish him. When this has been completed, the preachers should be told to admonish the young people to guard themselves from such depravity and to keep their children and servants from it and to lead such an irreproachable life that the council has no cause to punish anyone for this vice.

[May 18, 1577] The high honorable city council asks for learned opinions, because adultery, prostitution, immorality and rape have gotten so out of hand here in the city and the countryside.

Source: Nuremberg: Bavarian State Archives, Ratsbiicher 31, Fols. 316, 350; 36, Fol 15. Ratschlagbücher 36, Pols. 150-153. Translation by Merry Wiesner-Hanks.

Illicit Love. Prostitution was increasingly regulated during this period, and in some areas prohibited outright. During the Middle Ages most European cities allowed prostitution in licensed brothels; community leaders justified this policy by saying that it protected honorable women and girls from attacks by young men. The women in these brothels were expected to come from outside the city and their customers were supposed to be unmarried men, not married men or priests. During the fifteenth century many city fathers began to feel increasingly uneasy about permitting prostitution and started requiring women to wear distinctive clothing or not appear in public at all. By the sixteenth century, cities in central and northern Europe started closing their houses of prostitution; this movement happened first in Protestant and then in Catholic cities and was supported by religious reformers from all groups. Southern European cities, especially those in Italy, generally licensed prostitutes and restricted their movements but did not prohibit them outright. Forbidding prostitution did not end the activity, however, but it did mean that women—and occasionally men—could now be arrested, fined, and sometimes banished for prostitution. Their customers, however, were rarely charged.

Rape. Courts also heard cases of rape, which was a capital crime in many parts of Europe, but the actual sentences handed out were more likely to be fines and brief imprisonments, with the severity dependent on the social status of the victim and perpetrator. The victim had to prove that she had cried out and made attempts to repel the attacker, and had to bring the charge within a short period of time after the attack. Charges of rape were fairly rare, which suggests that it was underreported, but examinations of trial records indicate that rape charges were usually taken seriously because judges and lawyers rarely suggested that the woman herself provoked the attack. Women bringing rape charges were often more interested in getting their own honorable reputations back than in punishing the perpetrator, and for this reason they sometimes requested that the judge force their rapists to marry them. It may be difficult to understand why any victim would do this, but it was often the easiest way for a woman who was no longer a virgin to establish an honorable social identity.

Unbecoming Conduct. Certain activities by married people might have also led to their being charged with improper behavior. Religious and political authorities rarely intervened in disputes between spouses unless they created public scandal or disturbed the neighbors, and they usually attempted first to reconcile the spouses. This policy included terrible cases of domestic violence, in which one spouse—almost always the wife—accused the other of beatings with sticks or tools, brutal kicking, stabbing, or choking. Courts generally held that a husband had the right to beat his wife to correct her behavior as long as it was not too extreme; in England “too extreme” meant the stick that he used was narrower than his thumb—the origin of the term “rule of thumb.” Accusations of adultery were taken far more seriously than those of domestic violence, because this misbehavior directly challenged the link between marriage and legitimate procreation. Adultery was a capital offense in most of Europe, and in a few cases individuals were actually executed, though usually they were punished with fines, prisons sentences, or banishment. As in rape, the severity of the punishment usually depended on the social status of the accused, and also on the gender of the guilty party; though adultery on the part of married men was theoretically a crime in most of Europe, only infidelity on the part of married women was actually punished.

Whispered Charges. Along with courts and other legal authorities, sexual activity of all types was also controlled through less-formal means, such as discussions among neighbors and acquaintances about some-one's reputation and honor. Such discussions show up in court records when they led to charges of slander. The most serious accusation for a woman was to be termed a “whore,” and most sexual slander directed at men—terms such as “cuckold,” “whoremaster,” or “pimp”—actually involved the sexual activities of the women who were supposed to be under their control.


Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Clarendon Press; Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Guido Ruggiero, The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Margaret R. Somerville, Sex and Subjection: Attitudes to Women in Early-Modern Society (London & New York: Arnold, 1995).