Assignment 1: Prostitution and Its relation with the syphilis epidemic throughout the 15th-18th centuries


Craig, Alexandra

Prostitution, although regarded as sinful, was tolerated during the Middle ages throughout Europe. The consensus throughout many communities was that Prostitution helped to prevent many higher sins such as rape, sodomy, and masterbation (McCall, 1979). Prostitution was permitted to be practiced in brothels or designated areas and streets throughout cities. However, by the end of the 15th century, outbreaks of sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, rampaged across Europe. This epidemic was immediately associated with prostitution, leading to an overall hostility toward the practice, and the eventual outlawing of the practice.

The illusion that prostitution correlated with plague, immorality, sinfulness, and contagion was the agent that started the social change which sparked the breakdown of the cultural social structure associated with prostitution. The horrors that venereal diseases such as syphilis produced, as described “Boils as big as acorns that burst and left scabs, terrible joint pain, rotting flesh, and a revolting odor tortured the infected”, terrified and ravaged society. All of these factors lead to the break down the long standing “illusion of safety [prostitution] creates” (Flexner, 1914), creating a social cultural change. 

Women, specifically prostitutes were thought to be the source of infection and the spread of syphilis (Vidal, 1849). There is no doubt that the social change calling to eradicate prostitution would help to decrease the spread of syphilis, but it also had terrible consequences such as rises in cases of rape and increased poverty throughout Europe. With the soaring poverty levels across Europe, there were an insufficient number of professions available for women to make a sustainable living off of. Out of desperation, many women were forced to prostitute themselves to support themselves and their families.

The image above is from a 1497 woodcut (3 years after the disease spread across Europe). It shows a man and a women both infected with syphilis being inspected and treated with a mercery containing salve, a treatment said to be even more painful and cause worse side effects than the syphilis itself.


Auguste, Theodore. Des Inoculations Syphilitiques. Paris: n.p., 1849. Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. Web. 11 Sept. 2014. < contagion/syphilis.html>.

Flexner, Abraham. Prostitution in Europe. N.p.: Century, 1914. Google Books. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.<>.

Harper, Kristin, Molly Zuckerman, and George Armelagos. “Syphilis: Then and Now | The Scientist Magazine®.” The Scientist. N.p., 1 Feb. 2014. Web. 11 Sept. 2014. < Syphilis– Then-and-Now/>.

Lydia Otis, Leah (1985). Prostitution in Medieval Society: The History of an Urban Institution in Languedoc. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 41. ISBN 0226640337.

McCall, Andrew. The Medieval Underworld. New York: Dorset, Web. 11 Sept. 2014. < Andrew-McCall-1979>.