By Ruth Mazo Karras
Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1990)
Introduction: The sinner who became a saint always had a certain attraction for medieval Christians. A sanctified prostitute presented a paradox, for Christianity rejected any positive aspects of sexual pleasure even within marriage and considered sex outside marriage even more abominable. Nevertheless, Christianity was a religion of conversion, repetance, and forgiveneness: Christ “came not to call the righteous, but sinner to repentance” (Mar 2:17). Saints who had been sinners embodied the message that confession, contrition, and penance could wipe away the worst of sins, and saints who had been prostitutes embodied it most dramatically.
The late medieval church added few penitent saints to its calendar. By the thirteenth century, the papacy controlled the canonization process tightly and stressed a life of heroic virtue as one of the requirements for sanctity. Although there were still saints who came to holiness late in life, even a few who had led lives of sexual sin, most contemporary saints in the central and late Middle Ages were either in religious orders or lay people of virtuous life. The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, the most popular hagiographical compendium both before and after the advent of printing, emphasized virtue through the entire lives of contemporary saints. This did not wipe penitent saints off the hagiographical map, but it meant that the prostitutes and others who were venerated were those whose lives were set in the distant past.
The prime example of the prostitute saint was Mary Magdalen, probably the most popular saint (after the Virgin Mary) in all of medieval Europe. Five other prostitute saints also appeared prominently in medieval hagiographical literature. Four of the stories – Mary of Egypt, Thais, Pelagia, and Mary the niece of Abraham – came from the literary tradition of the Vitae Patrum, tales of the desert fathers of late antiquity, and were retold throughout Europe. Afra of Augsburg was known mainly in Germany. Mary Magdelan’s story provides the key to reading all the legends and thus to an understanding of medieval prostitution, and it will be discussed following the others.