TKJ – A brief history of prostitution in medieval times.


Medieval Bath-house and ‘lady’ attendants.

“Fancy a good time, dearie?”


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Last week we looked at medieval booze and now it’s time to lift the lid (maybe we should say ‘blanket’) on “The Oldest Profession.”

On the evening of Wednesday, September 9th. 1238. The Feast day of St Gorgonius. In Cheapside, London, we meet a lady of the night in book one of “The King’s Jew”. She’s sat in an inn when Sir Gilles de Burgh and his men come in for some entertainment. The prose goes like this –

“A middle-aged whore sat alone in a corner resplendent in the emblem of her trade, a striped piece of cloth sewn on her ragged outer garment. She eyed Gilles, as a ferret would a rabbit. …. She saw him looking. One grimy hand reached into her lice-infested clothing and emerged to reveal a …. Alas this courtesan was unaware that her charms had diminished as her age had grown, and the effect on Gilles was a wave of revulsion. His favourite hunting dog, Charis, had sweeter dugs than hers!”


The ‘Working Girl’ and clients.

I have redacted certain elements of the text (don’t want to offend anybody!) but you get the picture? AND JUST TO SAY that there is another ‘lady’ who features in the novel who is strong and feisty and far removed from the pitiful creature you just met.

The thing to notice is that this ‘lady’ can be easily recognized by what she is wearing – The striped cloth in this case. Another oft-used device was a coloured shoulder-knot worn on the left-hand side.

Sumptuary Laws (laws mandating that prostitutes should dress in a manner different from other women) were passed in order to make whores immediately distinguishable from respectable women (sumptuary laws also applied to peasants and the nobility alike and not only for prostitutes)

Other clothing rules for our female entrepreneurs were: – striped hoods or cloaks, black and white pointed hats, and yellow dresses. These later evolved into armbands of a certain colour, or a hood cut in a distinctive shape. Fur, jewellery, and even embroidery were generally forbidden to prostitutes because such finery was only considered appropriate for respectable women (but it may also have been for the protection of the prostitutes themselves). Such visible wealth could have made them targets for robbery, and with no male guardians, they wouldn’t have had much legal recourse.



Bath-house – note the bed in left of picture. Good clean fun eh?

In 747, Cuthbert, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote that it was a great ‘scandal and disgrace’ that so many English women and nuns should be allowed to set out on the pilgrimage to Rome. For very few of them ‘kept their virtue’, and there was scarcely a city in Lombardy or Gaul where you could not find several of these English pilgrims turned prostitute.

In 1161, Henry II tacitly condoned prostitution and gave the brothels of Southwark a status and protection they were to enjoy for the next 400 years.

Then in 1176, Henry placed the Bankside Stews of Southwark under municipal control. The most respectable prostitutes worked in brothels, or “stews.” Most villages had one.

BUT WHAT was a ‘STEW’ I hear you ask? – A ‘stew(e)’ or bath-house was simply a synonym for brothel. It is thought that the fashion for bathing was brought back to England by returning crusaders who wished to recreate the Hammams (bath-houses) of the east. There is evidence of ‘estewes’ being located on the Bankside dating from c.1100.


What the Crusaders saw.


In 1276 a law was passed that no whores be allowed within the London city walls.

In the early 1400’s there is a record of an Exeter prostitute, Emma Northcote, the majority of whose clients were priests.

In London, in 1401, there is a record of one Elizabeth, wife of John Waryn, who kept a ‘bordelhouse for monks, priests and others’.

In York in 1424 Elizabeth Frowe and Joan Skryvener were presented as procuresses for Austin Friars (Augustinian London Friars) and priests in general.

The importance of bawds, pimps and procurers in the sex trade of the late medieval period is underscored by the fact that they were often punished more severely for their actions than women accused of prostitution and if a woman engaged in her trade without the knowledge of her ‘handler’ then rough justice was meted out.



Who’s been sleeping in my bed?


Prostitutes then, as today, were vulnerable to violence. The 1299 Coroner’s Roll for Oxford records the murder of Margery de Hereford. The coroner determined that an unnamed clerk had known Margery carnally and that when she demanded her fee the clerk stabbed her in the left breast.

The Church had laws about every aspect of sex. Adultery and fornication in some cases were sins punishable by death, but for a time the Church actually condoned prostitution, admitting that it was a necessary evil. Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the sterner theologians, wrote: “If prostitution were to be suppressed, careless lusts would overthrow society.”



Young St Thomas.


And in the early part of the Middle Ages, priests were actually allowed to marry and have children.

The areas where the ‘trade’ was practiced were suitably named and very suggestive – such as Gropecunt Lane and Popkirtle Lane, narrow byways running north from the St Pancras churchyard and intersecting with Cheapside just across from Mercers’ Hall.

Remember this is just a ‘blog’ a brief outline of the situation and if you want the definitive version then I recommend – Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others by Ruth Mazo Karras (I haven’t read it myself but it crops up all over the place when researching the subject).

I’ll leave you with this image of a London ‘Stew’ – I particularly like the look of the ‘Jester’ standing in the doorway – you just know he’s dying to open his eyes!!



I doubt that this is the debating society headquarters!


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TKJ – A brief history of booze in medieval times.



The traveler wears spurs. Food and drink at the medieval inn.


“Alcohol consumption in medieval Britain was, by modern standards, very high.”

Thus say the experts and I’m not going to argue with them! 

A word of caution before I go further. Ale is not the same thing as beer. Beer has hops. Hops are what give beer its bitter quality and long shelf-life.


In the ‘Dark Ages,’ Ale and alehouses are mentioned from the earliest times in the laws and canons issued by kings and bishops.

Thus, in 616, the number of ale-sellers was restricted by King Ethelbert of Kent. (Ethelbert’s law for Kent, the earliest written code in any Germanic language, instituted a complex system of fines).



Ethelbert (is that a ‘pub’ he’s holding?)

In 570, The monk, St. Gildas (born around 517 in the North of England or Wales) accused British chieftains and clergy of going into battle drunk and leading the country to ruin.

Drunken Brits? I don’t believe it!

In 675, Fortunatus commented on what he considered to be the enormous capacity of Germans to drink!

In 680 Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, decreed that a Christian layman who drank too much must do penance for fifteen days AND he said that a person is drunk “when his mind is quite changed, his tongue stutters, his eyes are disturbed; he has vertigo in his head with distension of the stomach, followed by pain.”

In 688, King Ine of Wessex made laws specifically about alehouses.

In 745 Ecbricht, Archbishop of York decreed that no priest should eat or drink in a tavern.

That rule has long since gone!

While hops may have been used as early as around the mid-eighth century, exactly when and where brewing with hops began is unclear. Old recipes added such ingredients as poppy seeds, mushrooms, aromatics, honey, sugar, bay leaves, butter and bread crumbs. That’s why the ‘brew’ had to be strained (see Viking cupbearers below).

In 965 King Edgar of Wessex and England ordered that there be no more than one alehouse per village. Interestingly, Edgar also regulated the size of drinking vessels, by reference to measures which were marked by pegs in the size of the vessel (this is thought to be the origin of expressions such as ‘I’ll take you down a peg or two’). Edgar was a very small man, recorded as being less than five feet tall.


850-1100 A.D.

Alcohol was central to Viking culture. The Vikings had the same categories of alcoholic drink as the Anglo-Saxons — mead, ale, wine, and beor (BEER). Like the Anglo-Saxons, they venerated mead but drank mostly ale. Modern attempts to reproduce a Viking brew have resulted in a strong (9 percent ABV), dark, and malty beverage, sweet in taste – which would have seemed even sweeter in an age when sugar was rare. In polite Viking society ale was strained before being served – ale strainers have been found amid the grave goods of well-bred ladies, who performed the role of cupbearers in the Viking halls.


1066 – After William, Duke of Normandy, captured England at the Battle of Hastings, English-French wine trade expanded rapidly.

1080’s – Russian priests preached the virtues of drinking in moderation and entire sermons were devoted against drunkenness. However, the idea of abstinence from alcohol was rejected as heretical.

I’m with the Russians on that one!

1102 – In England, Anselm decreed that priests should not attend drinking bouts or drink too much.


St Anselm

St Anselm


1152– In England, where wine was imported and expensive, and therefore noble, the demand of its gentry sparked a viticultural revolution in the Bordeaux region of France. This had been English soil following the marriage of Henry Plantagenet to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152.

1188 – The first national levy on ale in England was imposed to support the Crusades.

Twelfth Century

Alewives in England brewed, at least, two strengths of beer and monks brewed three, with the strength of the beverage indicated by single, double, or triple Xs.



Alewife serving a pilgrim outside her alehouse.


The ‘broom’ sticking out of the roof was sometimes seven feet long and a Royal Decree ordered that the size be reduced as people were being knocked off their horses!

Public records in the medieval period before the Black Death show that brewing ale was mainly women’s work. This female dominance of the trade likely evolved because brewing was not a specialist trade and only marginally profitable. The lack of needed specialization and physical location within the home made ale brewing an accessible trade for women to add income to the household in both towns and countryside communities

Thirteenth Century


The most important development regarding alcohol throughout the Middle Ages was that of distillation. However, it was Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) who first clearly described the process which made possible the manufacture of distilled spirits.



Albertus – full of spirit!

Thus was born the WATER of LIFE (aqua vitae)

Amaldus of Villanova (d. 1315), a professor of medicine, is credited with coining the term aqua vitae: “We call it [distilled liquor] aqua vitae, and this name is remarkably suitable, since it is really a water of immortality. It prolongs life, clears away ill-humours, revives the heart, and maintains youth.”

These were modest claims compared to those made much later by the fifteenth-century German physician, Hieronymus Brunschwig:



Medieval distillation.

“It eases the diseases coming of cold. It comforts the heart. It heals all old and new sores on the bead. It causes a good color in a person. It heals baldness and causes the hair well to grow, and kills lice and fleas. It cures lethargy. Cotton wet in the same time and a little wrung out again and so put in the ears at night going to bed, and a little drunk thereof, is of good against all deafness. It eases the pain in the teeth, and causes sweet breath. ….

He goes on for another fifteen pages about the benefit of spirits so I’ll call it a draw just here!

In the mid-1200s, fermenting and drinking hard or fermented cider became more popular in England as new varieties of apples were introduced.

1256 King Louis IX (1226-1270) banned taverns from serving drinks for consumption on the premises to anyone other than travelers.

1268 Adulterating alcoholic beverages was a crime punishable by death in medieval Scotland.

1300 In the village of Longhurst (as featured in Book one of “The King’s Jew) an estimated 60% of all families were connected in some way with the brewing or selling of ale.

1309 – London had an estimated one alcohol vendor for every 12 inhabitants.



Patrons of the Inn and ‘mine host’ in the back room fetching more ale.


1316 – Because of a scarcity of wheat in England, a proclamation was issued prohibiting its use in brewing.

1330 – A law was enacted in England that required that wine and beer be sold at a reasonable price. However there was no indication of how to determine what a fair price might be.

1366 – Exporting beer and ale from England required a royal license.



The man in green has drawn his dagger and is fighting with the bearded stranger!


1381 – The increasing price of corn in England led to an increasing price of ale, leading to a concern that the poor would not be able to afford the beverage. Therefore, the mayor of London decreed price controls on ale.

PRICES = (12d = 5p at today’s prices)

Wine = 4d a gallon.

Ale = 1d a gallon.

Beer = 1d a quart.

You could get two chickens for a penny!

Thus ends our look at some background for “The King’s Jew” Thank you for reading this far

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