The story of Dubrovnik prostitutes in the Medieval and Renaissance times is just as important as many lofty political and cultural achievements of the Republic. These ‘ladies of the night’ left no written testimony about the quality of their lives. But legal acts and criminal court archives from that time point to an intriguing attitude that the state and society had about them. Whether they simply turned a blind eye to their way of life or outright supported them, the Republic treated prostitution as it did all other important state affairs – pragmatically.
Several court cases prove that even when prostitutes received punishment for unruly behaviour, it was never connected to their line of work. They would actually freely state their occupation as ‘meretrix’, a word describing a registered prostitute in ancient Rome. Unlike in other European cities, in the 13th century Dubrovnik, there was no legislation proscribing a particular attire for prostitutes (a hood or a belt). And it was only in 1409 that an act limited their activities to a particular part of town called ‘Castelleto’. Historians believe that Castelleto may even have been the name of a brothel situated in the part of today’s Dubrovnik called Kaštel.
There are a few reasons why the Republic pragmatically tolerated prostitution. One had to do with the marriage norms of that time. Namely, most noble marriages were arranged and only at the point when the man reached financial security, around the age of 30 or 40. Sometimes with up to 20 years age difference between them, spouses honoured their marital agreement but lacked romantic love. This, of course, only allowed men to seek pleasure outside the walls of their home.
The second reason was to protect the chastity of young noble women. As a busy trading port, Dubrovnik always buzzed with young males boasting their virility. To reduce the rape and crime rate during such bacchanalias, the Republic welcomed services provided by the prostitutes. It was a pragmatic solution and a way to choose a lesser evil.
Some sources reveal that the Republic even financially supported brothels. The care they extended especially towards aging prostitutes is a definite sign of how socially sensitive Dubrovnik society was. But the particular ‘retirement’ measure they introduced was also very pragmatic. Namely, when a ‘working woman’ was ‘too old’ to do her job, the state chose a nobleman to marry her, thus securing her a ‘pension’. If a nobleman refused to perform this duty for his homeland, he would have had to pay an extremely high fine. The reasoning behind this mechanism was simple and effective: it was more opportune for the Republic to socially integrate such a women than to make her into a charity case.
With the advent of Humanism and Renaissance, moral values began to change. Free enjoyment of bodily pleasures coexisted with even stricter sexual norms. Because the age of Renaissance also meant the rebirth of the body, there were more instances of syphilis. And it didn’t take long for the medicine of that time to connect sexually transmitted diseases with visits to brothels. Late 15th century records show that several Dubrovnik prostitutes were actually banished from town due to their line of work. But some historians argue such banishments had more to do with where they conducted their business – outside Castelleto – rather than with the nature of their business.
There is still much to be discovered about the everyday lives of these ‘ordinary’ Dubrovnik citizens. And as history begins to focus on more marginal stories, certain things become clear. Attitudes to prostitution in the Dubrovnik Republic are not some isolated quirk, but a reflection of a society that was socially and culturally among the most advanced in Europe of that time.
by Andrea Pisac