“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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!!
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