Transe Macabre (transemacabre) wrote in plantagenesta,
Transe Macabre

The oldest profession: Prostitutes of medieval England

Sex sells, and sex has been sold just about as long as there've been people willing to pay for it and money to buy it with. Ruth Mazo Karras, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, wrote an interesting book called Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England (1998) which discusses the status of prostitutes in medieval English society.

Women who turned willingly to prostitution likely did so because of lack of work opportunities, or to supplement a meager income. A woman from a poor family, domestic servants, impoverished widows, or women who were unable to lure husbands, were all susceptible to prostitution. Many, if not most, prostitutes did not sell themselves full-time. Laundresses, also called lavenders, in particular had an unsavory reputation, and in London laundresses were even banned from bath-houses, suggesting they were known for visiting male bath-houses searching for clients.

Sometimes young girls were lured into dangerous situations, as happened to nine-year-old Agnes Turner, who was lured into the home of Agnes Smith, who then bared the door. Agnes Turner was then attacked by a clerk named Robert, but her cries drew the attention of passersby, who came to her rescue. Agnes Smith was sentenced to the thew (a pillory for women) for three days for arranging for Agnes Turner's near-rape.

Pimps were known as 'bawds'. Bawds could be male or female. In 1385, an apprentice embroideress named Joan alleged that her mistress, Elizaveth Moryng, forced Joan and her other apprentices to "to live in lechery and go with friars, chaplains, and all others wishing to have them." Some bawds sold their own daughters. Brothels were also known, as in the case of Peter Bednot and his wife Petronella, who kept a brothel on Grub Street in London in 1425. A woman convicted of bawdery could expect to spend some time in the thew, as well as having her head forcibly shaven before a jeering mob.

For the most part, brothels were forbidden in towns; only in a couple of cases, such as in Southwark, were there regulated brothels. It seems that relatively few women actually lived at the brothels; when times were lean some women would take up prostitution, and then go back to more respectable employment later.

London banned whores from dressing like "good and noble dames or damsels", and prostitutes could not wear fur-lined hoods, but rather striped hoods, un-lined. Striped hoods became a symbol of prostitution, so that Bristol issued a law that proclaimed "Let no whore walk in the town without a striped hood."

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.

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