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Tag Archives: Middle Ages

  • 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.

  • 50 Medieval Finds from the Portable Antiquities Scheme by Michael Lewis

    A metal-detecting survey on the site of the Battle of Barnet, 1471. (Author, 50 Medieval Finds from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Amberley Publishing)

    How public finds are changing our understanding of Britain’s past

    You might have spotted those guys in fields, often wearing camouflage, swinging a metal-detector left to right (and back again), looking for ‘treasure’… and wondered what they actually find! A testament to their efforts can be found on an online database of archaeological (finds.org.uk) maintained by the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), which holds details of over 1.3 million items discovered by the public. These finds are transforming our understanding of the past – not only adding to new knowledge of the types of objects used in the past, but also proving insights to the places where our ancestors lived, and how they worked, survived and died.

    I have been lucky enough to work for the PAS since 2000, first as the Finds Liaison Officer for Kent – recording public finds in that county – then as Deputy Head of the Scheme, and now (since 2015), as its Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure. Some of those discoveries – Treasure finds – must be reported by law so that a museum might have the opportunity to acquire them. But most – about 80,000 a year – are recorded on a voluntary basis and then returned to the finder/landowner to do what they will with them. Many would hope that the most important items end up in museums for all to enjoy and experts to study, but unfortunately this is not always the case. The PAS (which covers England and Wales), was therefore established to make a record of archaeological finds made by the public which archaeologists are unlikely to ever see again, so at least the information about them can be preserved and help inform our knowledge of the past.

    This buckle from Costessey, Norfolk (NMS-F737B3) is typical of thirteenth-century buckles recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. (PAS, 50 Medieval Finds from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Amberley Publishing)

    Britain is archaeologically rich, with a fascinating history. For me one of the most exciting periods of our past is that of the Middle Ages, where these islands, though not conquered, were exposed to many cultural contacts from across the known world. It could be said that Britain became closer to Europe at this time, and also Europe began to form a common cultural identity. The material culture (objects found in the ground) of the Middle Ages, including that discovered in the ground, appears to reflect that. Objects found in England are often very similar to those known from across Europe, though of course there can be some difference, such as in style. But in general, those difference are less obvious than before.

    Painting of St James on a medieval rood-screen. (Author, 50 Medieval Finds from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Amberley Publishing)

    The phrase ‘Middle Ages’ is somewhat unfortunate. It suggests that the medieval period is a dormant phase between two ‘greater’ ages of history – that of the Classical past (particularly of the civilisations of Greece and Rome) and the European Renaissance, where radical and free thought became prevalent. Most archaeologists would consider the medieval period (in England) to be between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Protestant Reformation of the 1540s, dividing it from the early Middle Ages, sometimes called the ‘Dark Ages’, which preceded it. In my book – 50 Medieval Finds – I have taken the medieval period ‘proper’ (1066-1540) as my focus, leaving open the opportunity for another book on 50 Early Medieval Finds which I hope my colleagues will write!

    Highlighting just 50 of the 234,000 or so medieval finds recorded by the PAS means that the list in this book is necessarily selective, and indeed I could have easily chosen a different 50 from the ones I have. I have tried to give an impression of the array of medieval items that the PAS has recorded over the last 20 years, and the various insights that these objects tell us about the Middle Ages. Some items – such as the seal matrix of Fulk fitzWarin – are undoubtedly important finds in their own right, but others – like the spindle whorl from Cheshire – are just representative of a relatively common artefact type. In many ways – rather unconventionally for an archaeologist – it is the objects that take the lead here, rather than how they – like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle – work together to paint a picture of the past. Archaeologists will rightly say that the most important thing about any archaeological object is its find spot, as without it archaeological finds are just curiosities. Sometimes, however, it is important to recognise the beauty and intrigue of these objects in their own right – as objects that help us appreciate the skills of past people and make us remember how close these people were (in being and culture) to ourselves. That is why many are best enjoyed in museum collections, so they can be appreciated by as many people as possible.

    Dr Michael Lewis is Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure at the British Museum, and co-curator of the British Museum’s international touring exhibition on Medieval Europe.

    Michael Lewis' new book 50 Medieval Finds from the Portable Antiquities Scheme is available for purchase now.

  • Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly

    On Saturday, 14th October, Conisbrough Castle was the venue for my first talk after the release of my book, Heroines of the Medieval World. In the glorious sunshine, the Castle looked spectacular, the ideal setting for a history talk.

    I grew up just 5 miles from Conisbrough Castle and so, as a child, every summer holiday included a picnic at the castle and a climb to the top of the keep. As a student I volunteered at the castle, helping out at events and giving guided tours to school groups. In those days, the castle was just a shell, with green slime on the walls, but now it has floors inside, a roof to protect it from the elements and visual displays throughout. The Visitor Centre has a small museum with a cartoon strip telling the castle’s story and interactive displays for the kids. Conisbrough Castle’s only claim to fame seemed to be its link to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, in which it played the part of a Saxon stronghold.

    Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, built by Hamelin and Isabel de Warenne in the late twelfth century. (Heroines of the Medieval World, Amberley Publishing)

    However, Conisbrough had been very much a Norman stronghold since the Conquest, given as a prize to one of William the Conquerors’ most loyal followers, William de Warenne, first earl of Warenne and Surrey. My talk took place on the 951st anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the day the Castle changed hands. On the morning of the battle, it belonged to Harold II, but by the end of the day Harold had lost the kingdom and his life and Conisbrough was a prize of war.

    Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women – famous, infamous and unknown who broke the mould. Those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history. Four of the women in the book had strong connections with Conisbrough Castle, and so it seemed appropriate to hold my first talk and book signing at my ‘home’ castle.

    Roche Abbey, final resting place of Maud Clifford, Countess of Cambridge. (Heroines of the Medieval World, Amberley Publishing)

    My talk concentrated on these four women, telling the stories of their lives and explaining their links to this magnificent castle. The first was Isabel de Warenne, great granddaughter of the first Earl of Warenne and Surrey. Isabel was one of the greatest heiresses in England and it was her second husband, Hamelin, who was responsible for building the keep we still see today. The second Heroine was Joan of Bar, neglected wife of the last de Warenne Earl of Surrey. She was followed by Isabel of Castile, who gave birth to her son, Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge, within the castle walls and thus became the matriarch of the York dynasty which would rule England under Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III. And the last was Maud de Clifford, widow of Richard of Conisbrough, who lived out her life at the castle and was buried at nearby Roche Abbey, and who had family on both sides of the Wars of the Roses.

    The talk was aimed at demonstrating the many links that Conisbrough Castle has to the major events in English medieval history, from the Norman Conquest, to the disastrous reign of Edward II and the civil war which became known as the Wars of the Roses. Conisbrough Castle and its former residents have a rich history and it was a pleasure to bring just a few moments of it to life.

    Attended by over 50 people, the audience was made up of friends, family, readers of my book and blog – historytheinterestingbits.com - and visitors who had called at the Castle because it was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. And they were aged from 3 to 73! I was nervous – the last time I had done a talk was when I used to give tours at this very castle as a student. I had made plenty of notes, but in the end, I never even looked at them. The stories just flowed, from one Medieval Heroine to the next, with the children kept busy counting the number of Heroines, and the number of gruesome deaths!

    However, the audience was lovely. Some had travelled from as far afield as Manchester, Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire. One lady gave me flowers and another gave me a ‘congratulations’ card from The Swinton Book Lovers Club (from my home town). Several people had brought their copies of ‘Heroines of the Medieval World’ for me to sign and many more bought the book on the day – it was a pleasure to sign every single copy.

    I am very grateful to the staff at Conisbrough Castle, who were absolutely wonderful, welcoming guests and encouraging visitors to join the talk, and even offering discounts on Castle entry to anyone who had a copy of my book.

    It was a perfect day.

    Sharon Bennett Connolly's new book Heroines of the Medieval World is available for purchase now.

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