Prostitution

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Imperial Rome (early period) 

Research Interests: 

Brothels

Working Class Sex Workers

Courtesans

Italy (High Mid)

The Ignominious Stripe: three young women condemned to prostitution, saved by Saint Nicholas; painted mural, northern Italy, about 1340. San Domenico Church in Bolzano

1340 saint nicholas saving prostitutes
Writings tell us that Saint Nicholas was throwing a purse of money through the window to the prostitutes to save them.  Are we sure he wasn’t just paying his tab??
black and white dresses devils cloth fresco in color
Color photo of the same fresco shows the women’s dress pattern

Europe

Research Interests: 

The red and yellow striped dress: How was it worn? What did it look like? Depictions in period art? 

Municipal Brothels 

Great Britain

Research Interests: 

Brothels, Bath Houses, and “Stews”

The Striped Hood: Depictions in period art? What colors were the stripes? How was it made/worn? 

Striped under dresses or over dresses? 

Taken from a Blog Post on Medieval Brothels :  Content Warning- SWERF* Author

In the early Middle Ages, after the breakdown of Roman urban civilization, there is very little sign of prostitution, probably because the culture was so overwhelmingly rural.  However, when medieval cities began to grow in the eleventh century, prostitution grew with them….The organized church of course frowned on it, but many a city council, deciding it was better to regulate the practice than to drive it underground, established municipal brothels.  In late medieval cities, young women (generally from the countryside) who found no other way to support themselves might go into a brothel. …Often municipal brothels were connected with the municipal bath houses.  People would bathe, and while all warm and naked would start to have other thoughts as well, which could be satisfied right nearby.  In modern Britain brothels are still sometimes referred to as “stews,” because of their association with bath houses…. Medieval municipal brothels continued until the sixteenth century, when the religious ferment of the Reformation finally led to their demise.

This well researched article on prostitution in the middle ages with specific mention of Britain:

Researching prostitution during the Middle Ages is not an easy ask, particularly in Medieval EnglandProstitution was not necessarily a woman’s sole career choice and there are many examples of women who used prostitution to supplement their everyday income. A lack of centralised law across England provides a consistently different attitude towards prostitutes across the country, an attitude which was already significantly different to that on the continent. As a general rule Europe seemed to be far more lenient and accepting of the occupation as a necessary public utility and, although many countries engaged a policy of restriction, it was aimed against the clientele of the prostitutes and not the prostitutes themselves…. The rest of Europe was largely tolerant of sex workers. The rationale being that allowing brothels to operate accorded the authorities some level of control over the industry, created specific areas where men could go to indulge discreetly, protected innocent women and limited the disruption caused by prostitutes who advertised themselves in the street. The idea of publicly operated brothels never caught on in England, which maintained a negative attitude towards the occupation and punished anyone involved; the women themselves, those who allowed it to operate and the clients. England had more prosecutions for prostitution than any other European country, even more than certain areas of Italy which had outright banned the trade. … While there were a number of full time prostitutes, there were also women who simply used it as a means to bolster their primary source of income during particularly hard times, more disturbingly there were those women who were sold by their family members in order to generate funds for the family.  … While in London the area of Stewside was unofficially designated the medieval equivalent of the Red Light District, in Coventry any single woman renting a room for herself could be arrested under suspicion of prostitution, which prompted the authorities to outright ban single women from renting rooms. In towns where prostitution was rife but uncontrolled, any woman wandering the streets after dark was presumed to be available for sale and cases of mistaken identity resulting in violence were common. As such numerous towns/cities demanded that prostitutes dressed themselves in specific clothes to distinguish themselves from the general populace, with most requiring the ladies to don a striped hood. Particularly successful whores found themselves prosecuted for breaching sumptuary laws (laws which restricted the clothing – colour, material etc, that certain classes could wear) rather than the act which earned them the money for the finery in the first place. …During the later medieval period the Christian notion of the ‘reformed prostitute’ took hold, fueled by the cults of Saint Mary of Egypt and Mary Magdalene, and public opinion softened towards whores. Instead of being women to be reviled, these women were now the subject of charity, and public funds were set up to assist women trying to escape a life of sex work. Despite this in many areas women known to sell their bodies were not allowed membership of their local church until they had set aside their life of sin, though we should also point out that there are numerous, numerous records of churchmen being caught with prostitutes. The punishment for which was severe (for the churchmen).

Excerpt from Ruth Karras. Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England: 

Whereas for men prostitution sometimes substituted for marriage as a sexual outlet, for women it substituted for marriage as a means of financial support. It was difficult for a woman to support herself outside the conjugal unit . . . [f]or those who did not marry – whether by choice or by circumstance – options might be limited even under favorable economic conditions (Karras, 49).

Prostitution may have been the only acceptable way for some women to support themselves in the absence of a husband who would provide for them economically. Unfortunately, most prostitutes’ reasons can only be guessed at due to a lack of records in this area. Historians must generally rely on court records that mention women accused of whoredom; very rarely do records detailing the workings of actual brothels still exist. Since the records in question seldom define what they mean by “whoredom” it can be difficult to figure out if the women in question were truly prostitutes (women whose services were generally available to all and sundry in exchange for a fee) or just a bit licentious (akin to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath).

Contributing further to the confusion in England, at least, is that for most women in the trade, prostitution was not their sole occupation. When a woman’s normal occupation didn’t bring in enough money, she might turn to prostitution in order to make up the difference. Therefore, prostitution may have even been, for many women, a cyclical income source undertaken during whatever was the “off” season for their regular occupations (Karras, 54).

A note on garb from the blog of Rosalie Gilbert:

At times women who were prostitutes wore visible markers on their clothing to identify them with their trade.Ironically, at certain periods over the Middle Ages, prostitutes were exempted from sumptuary laws because it was acknowledged that a women in that line of work required certain things to make her desirable in order to make a living. Dress in the Middle Ages by Francoise Piponnier and Perrine Maine state that:

The striped cloak .. in Marseilles.. the striped hood worn in England, the white hood of Talouse, the black and white pointed hat of Strasbourg were increasingly replaced by bands of fabric stitched to the sleeve or the shoulder, then by tassels worn on the arm.

Other notes I have seen in blogs and articles attributed to (Karras) Common Women:

Pimps were known as ‘bawds’. Bawds could be male or female.

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.   In Southwark – the Bishop of Winchester owned the properties in question, and the ladies were often known as “Winchester Geese“.

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.”

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.

Follow up on:

Some of the strictest laws around women’s dress in history involve making prostitutes stand out as different. Depending on where you lived, a prostitute had to wear yellow, black or white, mark herself out with tassels on her arm, or, if she lived in England, wear a distinctive striped hood. The yellow thing was a common marker for a societal outsider: it was also associated with medieval Jews living in European cities.

But it wasn’t all bad. In the Encyclopedia Of Prostitution and Sex Work, Debbie Clare Olson points out that prostitutes were pretty much the only people who got to dress “above their station”: ladies of the night were actively encouraged to flout sumptuary laws and pretend to be extravagant noblewomen, complete with jewelry and embroidery everywhere. It marked them out as alien, rather than part of “normal” regulated society.

https://www.bustle.com/articles/118996-8-bizarre-fashion-laws-from-history

Resources:

Primary Sources:

Trans. Henry Thomas Riley, Liber Albus: The White Book of the City of London, (John Russel Smith 1862)

Trans. & ed. P.J.P Goldberg, Women in England 1275-1525, (Manchester University Press, 1995)

Painted Mural, three young women condemned to prostitution, saved by Saint Nicholas, about 1340. San Domenico Church in Bolzano (Bologna), Italy

Secondary Sources:

Drunken, Foolish, or Witless Women” : Proper and Improper Dress for Ladies in the 14th Century, a class by Baroness Katheryn Fontayne, OM

Sexual Deviancy and Deviant Sexuality in Medieval England, by Isaac Bershady

Synopsis: John Rykener’s story, a legal record of his transvestite prostitute life, remained buried for centuries in the volumes of A. H. Thomas’ Calendar of Select Pleas and Memoranda of the City of London 1381-1412. While reading through A. H. Thomas’ Calendar of Select Pleas and Memoranda, Ruth Mazo Karras and David Lorenzo Boyd, professors of medieval gender and sexuality, chanced upon a case involving a transvestite prostitute. This case is the only known instance of a transvestite as well as the only known legal record involving homosexuality in a temporal court — in any court — during the Middle Ages in England. The entry Karras and Boyd found dated from 1395. Rykener’s case sheds light on how medieval society dealt with sexuality. Furthermore, this case helps guide modern perceptions of sexuality. It reveals how people’s appearances and conduct in the Middle Ages connoted their sexuality and how sexuality was handled in a legal setting, all very similar to modern issues surrounding sexuality. More broadly, studying how medieval society dealt with sexuality guides us today on how we can better engage and support people of all sexualities. Rykener’s own story, however, begins on a wintery London night.

Research by Ruth Mazo Karras:

Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England, Oxford University PRess, (1998)

The Regulation of Brothels in Later Medieval England, Signs, Vol. 14, No. 2, Working Together in the Middle Ages: Perspectives on Women’s Communities (Winter, 1989) pp. 399-433

 


*SWERF: Sex Work Exclusionary Radical Feminism

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