Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Women in Medieval England by Lynda Telford

Prostitutes were often depicted as mermaids, as in this illustration from the Luttrell Psalter. (Courtesy of the British Library, Women in Medieval England, Amberley Publishing)

Prostitution

This has always been one of the most misunderstood areas of the lives of women in any era, and women at the centre of the sex industry have endured similar conditions throughout the centuries.

They have been considered sinful, unclean, the destroyers of happy homes and the carriers of disease – but few of those who used or vilified those women, stopped to consider why they were driven into that way of life, where abuse and contempt bred loss of self-respect, brought danger, and often early death.

In the medieval period, a woman was defined by her respectability. Whether a pure virgin, or a mature matron, she had certain status, based on that of her family and her prospects as a wife and mother. These were easy to lose. The loss of a husband, the resulting loss of earnings and /or personal dignity, through hardship, could easily lead to desperation, which could entice any woman into the ‘oldest profession’, as a way of keeping body and soul together.

Once on the slippery slope of becoming a “common woman” she also lost the support and approval of the church, and instead found herself opposed to all that was legal and decent in the society around her.

Fornication at an amateur level was always present. Any working man might need to ensure that the woman he married could conceive, so he would try her out first. While to him, this was a sensible precaution, as divorce was not possible, it left her open to the charge of promiscuity, or being a “lecherwyte”. If she became pregnant, and she bore the child outside of marriage, she was also a “childwyte” and both these situations incurred fines.

Casual fornication was not necessarily a problem BEFORE marriage, but adultery after marriage was, and a woman could be severely punished, whereas a man might be able to shrug off its consequences. An active sex life, if not transmuted at some point into respectability within a marriage, could lead to the degradation of being an out–and–out “fallen woman”.

Springtime Seduction - 'If we were found, we would be dishonoured.' 'But inside you must come, for our love!' Redrawn from Giacomo Jaquerio's fresco at Castella della Manta in Saluzzo. (1418-1430) (Author, Women in Medieval England, Amberley Publishing)

For those already at that level, the brothel gave the only possible, if variable, protection. As a member of a ‘bawdy house’ a woman at least had a roof over her head, and food to keep her working. That roof might be owned by the local landowner, or even the local abbot, as in the case of the Southwark properties of the Bishop of Winchester. This led to the women working in them being known as “Winchester Geese”. The goose-bumps, sometimes contracted from these women, have come down into present day language, though any woman too obviously diseased would find herself thrown out onto the street to fend for herself, without even the doubtful protection given by the organised brothel.

Organised they certainly were, with the bawdy-house keeper always on the lookout for new women, fresh from the country, hoping for a better life in the towns. Bath-houses became an innovation, where men could wallow in warm water with the woman of their choice, often with food and drink served to them in situ. These at least had the benefit of ensuring that the clients had been washed, before intercourse was attempted.

 

Some prostitutes could occasionally find themselves on the RIGHT side of the law, if they proved useful as “testers” in impotence cases. This was the only way a married woman could hope for an annulment, by proving that her husband was incapable of doing his duty, providing her with a sex life and with children. The York Cause Books give many examples of men being examined by a panel of respectable matrons, to decide whether they could achieve an erection. Sometimes a “tester” wasn’t quite so respectable, and in York a local whore named Margery Grey (professionally known as Cherrylips) was used instead. It was possibly believed she would be comfortable exposing herself to strange men, as well as probably being younger and more attractive, and more likely to gain some sexual response.

The men who failed the test would have their marriages dissolved, and would find it difficult to make another, due to their inability to perform their husbandly duty.

Some women were tricked, or otherwise forced, into prostitution. The archetypal innocent country girl was a common victim, being offered a living-in place as a servant, only to find that sleeping with strange men formed part of her duty. The landlord could then claim that she owed him money, and she could be imprisoned until she paid it, either in cash (usually impossible) or by selling sex.

Naughty Nuns - Redrawn from a medieval original in the MS Douce 264, showing disobedient nuns being taken home to their convent in a wheelbarrow, pushed by a naked man. (Author, Women in Medieval England, Amberley Publishing)

A slightly more unusual “female” whore was John Rykener, a transvestite prostitute caught with a client in the hayloft of an Inn. He was wearing women’s clothing, calling himself Eleanor, and claimed to be an embroideress. All very amusing – but the penalty for sodomy was being burned! John was arrested and turned up in court still dressed as a woman, apparently oblivious to the danger he was in. The judge did not appear to want to exact the full penalty, so charged John with “defrauding his clients of their expectations”. The pretence that any of his clients imagined he was really a female saved his life, and he was merely fined.

The clergy were not exempt from the prevailing hypocrisy regarding sex. There were even some brothels known to cater exclusively for priests, while nuns, often in convents against their will, could also find opportunities to have a good time. One nunnery near Wakefield in Yorkshire became notorious, and the Bishop had to step in. He was finally convinced of the goodness of the nuns, by the lover of one of them!

So, despite the official line that all prostitution was a menace to society, many people at all levels not only indulged in it, but made money from it. The only losers, as always, were the women at the bottom of the pile, the prostitutes themselves. Few of them could hope to save enough to start their own business, so the used and abused, cast off when no longer serviceable, remained the dregs of society, often through no fault of their own.

While Magdalen houses were quite common in Europe, for the rehabilitation of such women, they were less usual in England, and the sex workers were left to live and die in the shadows.

Lynda Telford's new book Women in Medieval England is available for purchase now.