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She is currently writing up a thesis on a monastery for repentant prostitutes in late medieval and early modern Florence. Her interests are in the social history of women, particularly the poor, the religious, and the otherwise dangerous. In August , Pope Francis spent an hour talking to twenty former prostitutes in a safe house in Rome. As part of his Friday of Mercy programme, he paid a visit to the refuge run by a Catholic charity.
Like other nations, Italy has a long, imperfect, and little known history of civic response to prostitution. Whether these women were in danger, or dangerous, remains a bone of contention to this day. A follower of St Thomas Aquinas likened prostitution to a palace sewer — necessary to remove the filth from society, but deeply unpleasant and offensive nonetheless.
By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, European cities had mostly stopped trying to expel prostitutes and accepted the inevitability of their presence. This small group of women probably no more than of them in a city of 45, circumvented the rules established to keep women in their place. They lived beyond the control of fathers, husbands, or brothers. The law treated them as children: Good women were rarely seen — they did not walk about the streets or hang out of windows as portrayed on TV shows such as The Borgias and The Medici.
Women who behaved in this way marked themselves out as wanton and dishonourable: In , the government ordered a brothel to be built outside the walls, at a place called Campoluccio. This was a characteristic policy of the Florentine government — facilitating while hiding — and one they applied to other problematic groups, such as lepers and Jews. It ensured that the service the prostitutes provided was accessible, but out of sight. The women were only permitted to enter the sacred zone protected by the city walls on Mondays.
This type of regulation should not be mistaken for acceptance. The city governors also sought to ensure that prostitutes were readily identifiable. A statute of banned prostitutes from wearing fashionable high-heeled slippers and required them to wear gloves, and bells on their heads.