Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Death and the prostitute
  • Creator: Master of Philippe of Guelders
  • Description:

    In this illumination, a dancing, skeletal figure representing death takes a woman by the hand. The figure of death wears a flowing white sheet and the woman is fashionably dressed for the 1490s, wearing a belted gown with large sleeves and a simple black cap. The two are shown indoors against a background of a tiled floor and tapestry, framed by a pair of columns. Below the picture are two columns of verse text, reading in English translation:

    “Worthless woman,
    Living in carnal sin,
    You have led a dissolute life
    In every season, winter and summer.
    Feel terror in your heart,
    For you will be held tight.
    One is tormented for doing bad things.
    When one keeps doing it, sin is harmful.

    I gave in to this sin
    For unbridled pleasure.
    Hang the ones who led me there
    And left me to the trade.
    If I had been well brought up
    And guided in the first place,
    I would never have been found like this.
    The end follows the beginning.”
    [From The Danse Macabre of Women edited by Anne Tukey Harrison]

    The image and text are framed by a decorative border of squares containing flowers, animals, and acanthus leaves. On the right page, Death takes the bathhouse attendant by the hand. She is an appropriate figure to follow the prostitute, since many couples went to bathhouses for illicit sex as well as luxurious accommodations and good food.

    The Danse macabre des femmes is a manuscript version of a poem in which the figure of death comes to claim women of all social stations, inviting them to join the Dance of Death. Based on the earlier Danse macabre des hommes, a version in which Death invites various men to join in the dance, the Danse macabre des femmes appeared first in a 1482 manuscript and shortly after as a printed book. The pictured manuscript image above is accompanied by a verse text, beginning with brief remarks from death and the author and then moving to short dialogues between death and the various women. The Dance of Death motif was extremely popular in late medieval Europe, appearing often in murals and illustrated poems. Scholars disagree on the inspiration behind the motif- it may have stemmed from an obsession with death following the wars and plagues of the 14th century, though Gerstman argues that macabre motifs (especially The Encounter of the Three Dead and the Three Living) appeared in European art decades before the advent of the plague. Ultimately, The Danse Macabre reminds the viewer of both death’s inevitability and its disregard for social station.

    Attitudes toward prostitution in late medieval France were mixed, beginning with the very meaning of the term. While the modern definition of a prostitute as a woman who sells sex applied in the Middle Ages, any unmarried woman who was sexually active could also receive the label. The Church condemned both types of prostitution, as it did all extra-marital sex. Civic leaders, however, thought that prostitutes might act as a “release valve” for disorder, a way to prevent the large population of journeymen and other unmarried workers from committing acts of violence and rape. However, since women were seen as more susceptible to temptation, it was thought that allowing prostitution might lead otherwise “honest” women into sin.

    These conflicting views on the status and value of prostitutes led to different legal approaches to prostitution. While some towns banned it outright, others (including Paris) regulated prostitution heavily, prescribing distinctive clothing and specific times when prostitutes could be in public, and, especially in late medieval France, establishing a system of licensed brothels for greater control.

  • Source: Gallica - Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Death, Image of Mortality Prostitutes
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15- 16
  • Date: Ca. 1500
  • Related Work: Other records in Feminae from the Danse macabre des femmes:
         Death and the wet nurse
         Death and the old debutante
    Digital copy of Ms. fr. 995 including the Danse macabre des femmes in Gallica
    Other images from the Bibliothèque nationale copy of the Danse macabre des femmes:
         Death and the knight’s lady
         Death and the newlywed
         Death and the old woman
         Death and the witch
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. fr. 995, fol. 37v
  • Original Location: Paris
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 31.3/20 [full page]/
  • Inscription:

    “La Morte
    Femme de petite value
    Mal vivant en charnalite
    Mene avez vie dissolue
    En tout temps yver et este
    Aiez le cueur espouente
    Car vous serez de pres tenue
    Pour mal faire on est tourmente
    Peche nuist quant on continue

    La femme amoureuse
    A ce peche me suis soubzmise
    Pour plaisance desordonee
    Penduz soyent ceulx qui my ont mise
    Et au mestier habandonnee
    Et conduite premierement
    Iamais ny eusse este trouvee
    La fin suit le commancement”

    [From The Danse Macabre of Women edited by Anne Tukey Harrison]

  • Related Resources: The Danse Macabre of Women: Ms. fr. 995 of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Edited by Ann Tukey Harrison with a chapter by Sandra L. Hindman. Kent State University Press, 1994;
    Gertsman, Elina. The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance. Brepols, 2010;
    Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Prostitution and the Question of Sexual Identity in Medieval Europe,” Journal of Women’s History 11, 2 (1999): 159-177;
    Nowacka, Keiko R.A. “Persecution, Marginalization, or Tolerance: Prostitutes in Thirteenth-Century Parisian Society,” In: Difference and Identity in Francia and Medieval France, ed. by Meredith Cohen and Justine Firnhaber-Baker. Ashgate, 2010. Pages 175-196;
    Otis-Cour-Leah. Prostitution in Medieval Society: The History of an Urban Institution in Languedoc. University of Chicago Press, 1985.