Prostitution and the spread of disease
As the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the prostitutes as slaves system established by the Romans collapsed with it, and the authority of the Catholic Church rose. Although the Church decried prostitution on moral grounds, and many priests urged prostitutes to reform, there was at first little secular action against prostitutes. The ebbing of the Empire returned prostitution to a business conducted largely independently, and practiced for the most part in the cities and larger towns of Europe. Some Church leaders and influential theologians supported prostitution as a necessary evil to control the sin of lust.
After the syphilis epidemic which swept much of Europe in the early 16th century attitudes towards prostitution changed among leaders outside of the church. Prostitution became linked in the public mind with disease. Brothels and streetwalkers were banned by many communities and the Church became more vocal in condemning the activity. Prostitutes were banned from the Church, though not excommunicated, and were to be welcomed back once reformed. It was around this time that the Catholic Church established Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute saved by the intervention of Christ, and the Church offered the same salvation to others.
At the time the Church and many lay leaders of communities considered a prostitute to be a woman who was promiscuous, not simply one who exchanged sexual services for remuneration. It was in this period that the first asylums for reformed prostitutes began to appear in Europe, and it wasn’t long before they were being used by the wealthy to rid themselves of no longer wanted mistresses and wives. Known brothels formerly operated by local governments began to be closed, and various means were established to shame prostitutes into reforming, such as the shaving of their heads, or the requirement to wear distinctive clothing.
Despite the efforts of Church and state, in virtually every society of the world prostitution proved impossible to eradicate. As the colonies in the New World began to grow all of them soon developed prostitution, along the seaports where visiting ships brought supplies and new settlers, and in the frontier, where isolated roadside inns and taverns offered travelers a meal, a bed, and frequently other services. In the Americas, the return of the slave prostitute began in the form of captured Indians offered to the guests of innkeepers for their enjoyment. Runaway indentured servants fled to other towns, and often earned their meagre living as prostitutes.
By the 1700s prostitution was considered to be immoral by most community leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, at least when speaking in their official capacity. In actual fact, nearly all of the world’s larger cities and towns featured an increasing number of prostitutes working the streets and in brothels, and in the world’s largest cities, London and Paris for example, the slums teemed with them. The moral authority of the Churches was openly scorned. Prostitution flourished for the simple reason that there was a steadily increasing demand for it and efforts to control its spread could not check that demand.