Anne Curry (University of Reading)
Reading Medieval Studies: v.14 (1988)
When the US House Committee on Military Affairs discussed in 1941 the formulation of an Act to prohibit prostitution within a certain distance of military and naval establishments, it was treading a well worn path, for the professions of arms and of prostitution are of equal antiquity and have always been inextricably linked. Throughout history, authorities have often sought to steer a middle course, acknowledging the sexual needs of the soldier yet trying to limit, or at least control, their fulfilment by ‘ladies of the night’. It would be erroneous to assume, however, a neat continuum in attitude and policy. There is much truth in the contrast drawn by Fernando Henriques between the ‘open and unabashed’ attitude of the medieval period to the specifically sexual function of the camp-follower and the ‘shame-faced’ stance of more modern armies.
The explanation of this contrast is the spread of venereal diseases, and it is not surprising to discover that the first legislation on such diseases in mid-ninteenth century England focussed on the sanitary inspection of prostitutes in military depots. Change has also resulted from the increasingly self-contained nature of modern armies. In the medieval and early modern periods (if not in earlier societies too), armies were less differentiated from the population as a whole. Female camp followers were an essential part of any army, furnishing not only sexual solace but also services such as washing, cooking and rudimentary medical care. As armies began to develop their own specialised units for such activities, so the camp-followers lost their proximity and the sexes were increasingly segregated.