Nuns as prostitutes ???

I vaguely recall reading years ago that at some point in time, probably hundreds of years ago, Catholic nuns worked as prostitutes to help support the church.
For some reason I recall it as being possibly isolated to just one island or something.
Googling just brings up porno. Am I remembering this correctly ? Anyone have the correct info on this ??


The Catholic Church of Medieval times was disorganized and debauched, with corrupt bishops and clergy abounding. This wouldn’t surprise me at all.

The book “A World Lit Only by Fire” is an entertaining read - look for the section called “The Waltz of the Chestnuts”.

oh so you mean it’s different now???

Women once ran houses of worship where brothels were enshired within, and sex with these sacred prostitutes was an act of communion.

Sacred prostitution predates secular prostitution by many centuries. Female goddesses (like the Babylonian Ishtar) were worshipped and revered by men and women alike. Funds were taken by believers to support these temples. Sacred prostitution originated in the far east but the Romans certainly encountered the phenomenon; the word, “abbey” originally referred to temple brothels.

But I have to question if the Catholic church (indeed monothestic Christianity in any form in any era) ever really sanctioned nuns for prostitution as a means to support the church financially. The advent of a male-centered Creator led directly to the fall of worship of female deities and the sacred prostitution. Once Israelites turned their backs on sex rites, new laws were written in Leviticus and Deuteronomy banning priests from marrying whores and preventing sex-paid monies from being given to the church. Biblical text after text decries prostitution’s idoltry and immorality. It’d be fascinating to see how church leaders managed to excuse nun-whores (if this ever happened) without being flagrantly hypocritical.

As the Bard spake:“Get thee to a nunnery.” There must have been some evidence/conventional wisdom on the subject. Was it a holdover from the days of sacred prostitution, or a comment on the base state of morals among religious orders and church hierarchy?

Or perhaps a comment on how the Protestant majority in England felt about Catholics.

Anyone here see the Ken Russell movie “The Witches”.

There was this big orgiastic scene in a convent, with Jesus coming down off the cross and gettin’ it on with the penguins. Classic stuff.

The film was based on the story of the “Witches of Loudun”, Loudun being a town on the Loire. Anyhoo, there were these Witch trials in Loudun at which some nuns were tried and found guilty of debauchery and some other stuff. Info about the trial is pretty difficult to find (even in Loudun itself).

Anyway, maybe this has something to do with it…

Or it could be that he was simply using a current slang term. Nunnery, abbey and a few similar terms were used to mean brothel back in Willy’s day. My WAG- The term simply began as irony. A place full of prostitutes was called a nunnery for the same reason a six foot tall, three hundred plus pound man gets the nickname Tiny

I have seen the light. I believe!

There were certainly plenty of convents for ex-prostitutes. But that’s not what the OP asked about. This article, from the website of the Australian Government’s Institute of Criminology, has this to say on that subject.

But are any of those examples actually true?

We first need to make a distinction between (1) ecclesiastical institutions, wittingly or otherwise, receiving rents from properties that were being used by the tenants as brothels, (2) ecclesiastical institutions managing brothels and (3) the female members of ecclesiastical institutions acting as prostitutes as part of their duties. None of the examples in the article need refer to the third possibility. There is nothing there that says that nuns actually acted as prostitutes, although that might be just a matter of wording. However, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it seems more sensible to assume that we’re talking about the other two possibilities.

There certainly were cases in which ecclesiastical institutions received rents from properties being used as brothels. The Southwark brothels are the famous example. But there were and are limits to how far any landlord can control the behaviour of his or her tenants. Such examples need not mean that prostitution was being condoned.

What that leaves is the question of whether there were any ecclesiastical institutions that were actually managing brothels. The article clearly suggests that there were. But given that it fails to distinguish this from merely receiving rents, that might not prove much. Nor does it help that the article is relying on modern secondary sources by writers who might not have appreciated that distinction either and at least one of those writers, E. J. Burford, is someone whose works need to be used with caution. Nor can it be assumed that the original sources for any of these claims will be accurate. Such claims are ones that might well have been exaggerated, even (or especially) by contemporaries. Unless we know precisely what the arrangements were in each case, it cannot be assumed that any of them fall into the category of ‘ecclesiastical institutions managing brothels’.

There is a fourth possibility, which is female members of an ecclesiastical institution acting as prostitutes in contravention of the rules of that institution. That however proves nothing, except that some nuns disobeyed the rules. Hardly a startling finding.

DocCathode is right about Shakespeare’s use of the word ‘nunnery’.

<nitpick> The movie is actually called
The Devils , based on the book by Aldous Huxley.</nitpick>

Unless there were two incidents in Loudun, you’ve got it backwards. It was the nuns who accused a local priest, Urbain Grandier, of being a witch and molesting them in spectral form. He was burned at the stake. Most historians believe the enemies he made in town and in Paris had much to do with his death. The nuns themselves were practically sainted, as many folks beleived the devil and his minions only bothered attacking the particularly holy.

a great account of his trial and death.

This is a good brief overview .

Sorry for the highjack, but the witch trials are an interest of mine, and Grandier a particularly interesting case.

quicken78, please keep such comments out of GQ. Thank you.

General Questions Moderator

As an institution, I’m certain that the Catholic church did not and could not sanction the prostitution of nuns. It’s certainly possible that occasionally either nuns decided to “freelance”, or were pimped by corrupt male clerics; but that would not have had official sanction.

What you have to remember was that in the Middle Ages, whoredom and nunneries were opposite strategies for society to find a place for unwanted women. In medeival Europe women were consdiered little more than cattle; they were supposed to be some man’s daughter, some man’s wife, or some man’s mother. Rarely, you might have a widow self-employed at some trade, but otherwise there were but two places for a woman with no man to be her custodian: either become a nun, sworn to remain celibate for the rest of her life; or become a whore, a pariah class outside the bounds of “decent” society. The aim of both castes was the removal from society of potentially childbearing women who had no husband.

Before the Protestant Reformation, the vast majority of nuns were NOT women who had decided to take up a spiritual life, but women who had no other respectable option in society. Many perhaps had no real interest in celibacy; certainly their male counterparts in the church flaunted this rule.

So nuns and prostitutes were not just opposites, but in a bizarre sense mirror images of each other.