Of prostitution in Spain

Since both Spanish prostitution and Henry Mayhew came up yesterday, I thought it would be interesting to combine them and copy-paste from the excellent (though slow) Perseus database at Tufts the latter’s view of the former. I assume his street prostitutes who “traffic for the bare means of subsistence and submit to any and every degradation to obtain it” fall into the category of tosser. His point that “Madrid is assimilating itself to Paris, and Paris to London” notwithstanding, many of you will no doubt experience the odd personal plus ça change, plus c’est pareil moment. I thought I recognised “the habit of respecting persons more than principles”:

Of Prostitution in Spain.

FEW nations have been described in more various ways and in more contradictory terms than the Spaniards. In the pages of one writer, we find them represented as in all things a great example of virtue, morality, and uncorrupted manners; in another, they are pictured as the very embodiment of vice and degradation. We have been at much pains to deduce from the history, from the achievements, and from the actual state of Spain, as these are set forth by innumerable authorities, a just opinion of its national characteristics, and the sketch we shall offer is the result.

In that country we have to divide class from class before we can fairly view its manners. On the one hand we have a peasantry ill-taught, and educated to servility; then a trading body, with another employed in professions; and thirdly, a large order of nobles, degenerated altogether from its ancient splendour, but preserving nevertheless all the pride, all the indolence, all the sensuality, which characterized it in the age of extended conquest and prosperous commerce. Upon all these classes time has left traces, and the influence of their history has been remarkably strong. A rich soil, a warm climate, an abundance of precious minerals–these circumstances have been by no means without their effect. The Roman Catholic religion, an army of priests, an arbitrary government, and the habit of respecting persons more than principles–these have a still more distinct impression on the national character. A literature once illustrious but now dead, an empire once splendid but now perished, a commerce once magnificent but now decayed, a wealth once gorgeous and now turned to poverty, arts once noble and now degraded –in these we find an index to the Spanish national character. There is nothing virgin in the country, there is nothing progressive, there is nothing with hope: all the glory of Spain belongs to the past. The present is a wreck, and the future is a blank.

The manners of Spain present none of that simple purity which we find in Switzerland. Every influence to which the people are subject tends to corrupt them. Young women who stand at their windows, and see with delight the flagellants go by, lashing themselves until the blood splashes under their whips, cannot possess much dignity of mind. Yet such are the spectacles which in Spain have been made familiar and favourite to the populace. There is throughout Spanish society an effort to appear better than they are, which in itself is an unfailing indication of impurity. Men dare not when in company take any improper liberties with women, even those whom they might be able privately to seduce. On the stage they hoot a piece, which in France, or even England, would not be regarded as in the slightest degree indelicate. Nevertheless, in their retired rooms, ladies who are thus prudish before the world, will suffer approaches gross enough, will amuse themselves with obscene pictures, will pardon readily equivocal jokes, and listen to songs of the worst indecency. Nor will they object to behold the fandango danced, though, whatever some tolerant travellers may say, it is proverbially obscene.

In many parts of the country, and especially in Seville, the ancient national customs are still preserved, and young girls are always when in the street accompanied by a duenna. In Madrid, where manners have undergone a change, this is no longer the case; but in the more primitive cities it is more prevalent. The guardianship of such a companion, however, by no means implies absolutely a respectable character, for common prostitutes, when they do walk abroad, are often accompanied by old women who attract notice to them, and frequently engage visitors to their places of resort.

The actual intercourse of the sexes in public is reserved, except with respect to conversation. The gossip at a Tertullia, described by some tourists as delightful, is characterized by English ladies not at all inclined to satirize Spanish manners as very far from that which women in good society among us are accustomed to hear. Children who appear fresh from the nursery indulge in remarks which to many appear positively obscene. The intellectual standard among them is low. Ladies have been known who, with all the pride of an hereditary title, could scarcely write their own names.

Good wives and good mothers are nevertheless very abundant in Spain. It has produced heroines of every kind, from the intriguers of the Camarilla to the defenders of a city. When “in love,” the Spanish woman is exceedingly full of passion, and, carrying a knife, she occasionally employs it to revenge a slight. These essential characteristics of female manners are, however, gradually yielding under what we may term the common law of society in Europe. Madrid is assimilating itself to Paris, and Paris to London; so that as time progresses the peculiar features wear off, and statistics alone may at some future period form the measure of a people‘s morality.

In the rural parts women share with men the heaviest labours of the field. They may be observed as you pass along the highways, staggering under the weight of enormous burdens; but this is a circumstance attaching to poverty in all parts of the world, not to any nation in particular. It is among the upper and middle classes in Spain, though in many other countries the contrary is true, that women wear most strongly a national characteristic appearance. In Madrid and the other fashionable cities you are surprised by the vast number of women who crowd the streets. They have no domestic occupations; they trouble themselves little with the nurture or education of their children; they devolve on hirelings the management of their household affairs; and they relieve themselves from ennui by sauntering through the public places, dressed with the minutest elegance, carrying their fans, and bargaining on it, by every possible species of coquetry, for admiration from the passers by.

A Spanish woman is a natural coquette, and when married cannot abandon the habit familiarly known as flirtation. This gives rise to jealousy on the husband‘s part, which produces infinite misery.

Marriage is held in law a solemn and irrevocable contract. It is under many legal regulations, and subject to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. In the hands of the clergy, indeed, there is vested a prodigious arbitrary power, which they are careful to exercise, lest it should become obsolete by disuse. They may still be seen interfering in matrimonial affairs; and a glance at the manners of the Spaniards some centuries ago will show that the clerical power has not decreased.

Public morality was carefully guarded under the rule of the Visigoths, only to be tolerated during the Middle Ages, since which time it has been at one time lax, at another severely regulated: at the present day we find it in a strange state of confusion.

In the year 586–601, the king of the Visigoths of Spain forbade prostitution in a most absolute manner under pain of severe punishment.

The daughter and the wife born of free parents, convicted of having delivered themselves over to abandonment, received for the first offence three hundred blows with a stick and were ignominiously driven from the city; a relapse was punished with the same corporal punishment, after which the culprit was handed over to a poor person, who was obliged to employ her in performing the most menial offices. If the parents were convicted of being accomplices and of having participated in the gain derived by their daughter‘s prostitution, each one received one hundred blows. The slave who gave herself up publicly to libertinage received three hundred blows, and when she was sent back to her master, her head was shaved, and she was banished from the city or sold in a place from whence she could not return. The master who refused to submit to these stipulations of the law received in public fifty blows with a stick or a whip, and the slave became the property of some poor man pointed out by the king or the judge, under condition of never being seen in the city again. If the master had participated in the debauchery of his slave, that is if he had reaped any profit, he received the same chastisement as the culprit.

This decree, made especially to repress prostitution in the cities, applied equally to women of ill fame who infested the boroughs, the villages, and the country at large.

This was at the commencement of the seventh century, and such were the severities of the laws passed by the king of the barbarians, Recard by name. The power of the Visigoths was broken a hundred years afterwards by the Arabs. The conquered fled to the hilly country, taking refuge in the mountains of the Asturias; but what laws were in force amongst them we do not know–we only know that the manners of the age were shameful. Perpetual wars, the capture and consequent pillage of villages, the license of the soldiery, helped to constitute a state of things not at all favourable for the developement of female chastity. The Christians and the Mussuimans held in captivity the women taken in battle and treated them as slaves.

The Arabs were soon in their turn conquered by the Moors, and, as the struggle was less bloody, the two people mingled and exercised a mutual influence over one another; but the influence of the Arabs was more direct. “The loose manners of the East,” says M. Guardia, “and the luxury ever prevalent amongst orientals, were impalpably engrafted on the austerer habits of the Christians. Chivalry was found to be perfectly compatible with debauchery.” The corruption of manners made rapid strides. Prostitution reappeared in all its forms; nor was it, as amongst the Arabs, hampered by municipal restrictions or fettered by arbitrary and severe legislation.

In the fifteenth century the old regulations were resuscitated, and immorality found itself once more compelled to bow to the dicta of priests. Nevertheless these rigorous measures proved that the remedy was worse than the evil. Secret debauchery took the place of public libertinage, and clandestine prostitution increased accordingly.

In the year 1552, Charles V. promulgated an edict against the keepers of houses of ill fame, considerably augmenting the existing punishments. Four years later this law was confirmed by Philip II.

The sequel, however, proves that laws were powerless against public corruption. Immorality is buoyant and contagious, and never so mischievous as when it is hidden.

The end of the fifteenth century witnessed a reform. Prostitution came to be regarded as a branch of the public administration, and placed under severe laws and precise regulations.

About 1623, the health of the community began to be considered, and hygienic measures were introduced. This was a great step, and one rendered the more necessary by reason of the terrible ravages committed by lues venerea, which at this epoch assumed the form of a terrible epidemic.

Three quarters of a century elapsed, and the subject was carefully studied, for in 1704 the council decided that the mayors of towns could arrest and imprison immodest women, who showed themselves in crowds upon the public promenades, and became an object of scandal and disorder. But these coercive measures often repeated were without effect. Soon the law was found to be powerless against corruption.

Since this epoch, public morality has been lax and openly disregarded. The provinces imitated the example of the capital. At the end of the eighteenth century an attempt was made to legislate, but nothing came of it. In 1822, the Cortes passed a Bill relating to public health, which, in point of fact, was nothing more or less than to establish houses of ill fame and recognise their existence. This fell to the ground through the opposition of a physician named Garcia.

In 1853, the population of Madrid was estimated at 270,000. These figures include the floating portion, which is not insignificant. Every woman who chooses to prostitute herself for money is perfectly at liberty to do so; she has to render no account of her conduct, no authorisation of any sort is necessary. The police give no passes nor is there any registry. Under these circumstances statistics are next to an impossibility. Not only does the law tolerate and acknowledge prostitution, but it actually appears to cherish and foster it, by permitting the grossest disorder, and by placing no obstacle in the way of the incessant progress of debauchery. Local authority confines itself to noticing only the most flagrant occurrences–such as a too great number of women in the promenades and public thoroughfares, or when a large number of men amongst the soldiers in garrison fall victims to the ravages of syphilis. It follows from such a state of things that the hospitals are gorged with sufferers, and frequently do not suffice to contain all those who wish to enter. The consequence is that this disease takes the most alarming forms, and does serious injury to the public health.

We cannot possibly make anything like a correct estimate of the number of women who live by prostitution in Madrid, although some manuscript notes furnished to M. Guardia, place it at about one thousand. This may only be an approximate calculation, and it is clearly putting it at its minimum rather than its maximum. Two hundred of these are kept women; though we are inclined to believe this much below the actual numbers, as manners are very loose in Madrid, and the habits of Spaniards incline in a singular degree to concubinage. Probably six hundred women live in houses of ill fame, the keepers of which exercise the most absolute authority over the unfortunates that come into their power. In every one of these houses one finds an indefinite number of young women, which varies from eight to ten. The woman who keeps the place lodges and dresses them. In many of these places there are only two or three resident women, for there are also houses of appointment and convenience. If the number of indoor pensioners is limited, those who walk about the streets are like locusts or the sand of the sea-shore, next to innumerable. They have their abode, perhaps, in their own families, or else they return to their lodgings. Most of these public women are either milliners, seamstresses, laundresses, and pastrycooks, or employed in the manufacture of tobacco. The people who keep houses of ill fame find it to their interest to preserve the health of their lodgers, which they are not, as a rule, negligent of, but yet it is a fact that syphilis is prevalent in Spain to a frightful extent. The authorities are at no pains to prevent its ramification, and the climate is only too favourable for its growth and extension. We divide the women who live by prostitution in Madrid into three classes: 1st, Those who are kept; 2nd, Those who live in houses of ill fame; and 3rdly, Those who are free, and merely make use of the abovementioned houses for a short time. Within this latter category we must include about three hundred prostitutes, who constitute the lowest grade and infest the worst parts of the capital. These have been recruited perhaps from all classes, having sunk lower and lower, until every vestige of shame and modesty having totally disappeared, they traffic for the bare means of subsistence and submit to any and every degradation to obtain it. They even exercise their avocation in the streets and public places. On the other hand, prostitution has plenty of places of resort, such as cafés, public houses, and refreshment rooms.

The police are fully empowered to take into custody any woman guilty of an open breach of the law, although they may not interfere with her for plying her trade, or we might, with some justice, say her profession. Sometimes the magisterial authorities banish them from Madrid, thus getting rid of the most dangerous characters, who, however, like black sheep in the provincial flocks, only serve to carry corruption into districts hitherto uncontaminated.

There is in Madrid a hospital for foundlings, but the fecundity of Spanish prostitutes is not considerable. This is an asylum for every child found in the streets or brought by mothers who wish to get rid of their children. On an average it receives annually from 4500 to 5000 infants. It was founded in the sixteenth century by charitable people.

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