The Agency of Sex Workers in Late Sixteenth Century Florence

I will be completing my Masters at the University of Oxford in 2020/2021. I will be studying an Early Modern History Mst, researching the agency of sex workers in late sixteenth century Florence, under the supervision of Regius Chair Professor Lyndal Roper.
I hope this work will grow into a doctoral project producing a comparative study of sex workers' agency in early modern Florence, Seville, Lyon and Havana. This project will allow me to consider the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on the agency exerted by sex workers, and will centre the lived experiences of sex workers, rather than the legal codes or bureaucracy created to manage them.
This research is only in its infancy, but I am happy to discuss it - please send me an email if you would like to know more.



An Introduction

I think that history should be in dialogue with the present, and that by studying marginalised communities in the past, we can learn why such inequalities endure to this day and how they can be overcome. We must also recognise the multiple political uses of history that co-exist in a complex society. As such, I will examine agency in sex work, and how it has been limited, expanded and conceived by sex workers, their clients, and wider society, in my project, tentatively titled “Sex Work and the Godly State – A Consideration of Agency”.

In particular, I will examine Florence in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, analysing the consequences of social disciplining and the Counter-Reformation on the independence and power of sex workers. I believe it will be fruitful to determine whether efforts at creating a “Godly state” resulted in a loss of agency amongst sex workers. This study will primarily concern women, although I will certainly consider the experiences of male sex workers as well: I am keen that my research should be intersectional, examining the multiple ways in which people can become marginalised, but will also explore this in relation to the contemporary understanding and concepts of these themes. I hope to examine sex workers’ position within the wider urban economy, and to assess the extent of their control over their own lives.

I hope to use the records of the Onestà, The Office of Decency, which was responsible for regulating prostitution in the city. I also intend to use the records of various religious houses which sheltered reformed prostitutes, or the children of prostitutes, in addition to memoirs, and court records (including those of the ecclesiastical courts) which often provide a rare opportunity to hear the voices of otherwise voiceless people. These sources will demonstrate the agency, or lack thereof, of prostitutes – for instance in the decision of some Florentine prostitutes to voluntarily enter religious houses for reformed sex workers, or in their ability to take clients or other citizens to court. Investigating sex workers’ agency will involve using the sources creatively and will be challenging, but worthwhile.

This research forms part of a larger project: I intend to pursue doctoral study, in which I will compare various cities and the agency of sex workers in those cities. In addition to Florence, I hope to research Lyon (as a way of accessing Gallicanism’s unique experience of the Counter-Reformation and social disciplining), Seville (a city with flourishing connections to the New World in this period, and long-lasting legal prostitution), and Havana (a burgeoning centre for trade between Spain and its Empire, where both enslaved and free women were engaged in sex work). This wider project will allow for a truly comparative history, with attention to the experiences of race, gender, and sexuality within sex work. In my preliminary research I have found mentions of enslaved women in sixteenth century Havana using illicit sex work to finance their manumission – this striking display of initiative and control, when these women might be considered powerless, is compelling. I believe this merits comparison and contrast with poor Florentine women turning to occasional sex work to supplement their ordinary income during periods of economic downturn.

There has been study on Florentine prostitution already, for instance Richard Trexler’s work, John Brackett’s study of the Onestà, or Nicholas Terpstra’s spatial analysis of the Florentine sex trade. This work is instructive and informative, but I feel there is an opportunity to develop this, focusing on the agency of sex workers, rather than on efforts to control and regulate prostitutes. I believe that a study of the degree of power and control prostitutes possessed over their own lives would be a rewarding and novel perspective. I intend to draw on the work of other scholars who have done similar research on different periods, perspectives, or locales, such as Judith Walkowitz’s influential work on Victorian London, Elizabeth Perry’s studies of Seville, or Michael Rocke’s examination of homosexuality in Florence. Studies of sex work in the Late Medieval period have informed my reading and thinking thus far, and I expect to discover other creative sources of inspiration – for example, Amalia Cabezas’ research on sex work in Modern Cuba.

Language is an integral component of my project, and my fluency in French, proficiency in Spanish and knowledge of Italian and Latin will be extremely useful: I will also continue working towards fluency in Italian and Spanish. Equally, the opportunity to further advance my palaeography skills will be crucial for the research I hope to do. I am already competent in palaeography, but would benefit from further instruction. The presence of innovative members of staff and a rich research community will provide varied scholarly perspectives, and allow me to develop my research in conversation with others. My conversations with Professor Lyndal Roper, in particular, have already helped me refine and develop my ideas for this project.


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