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In 14th-century London, Church leaders discovered how to make a tidy income from sex workers. Kate Lister explains how this contradictory state of affairs came about.
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Dr Kate Lister 5 June W herever there have been people buying and selling sex, there have been laws trying to suppress, regulate or profit from it, and medieval London was no different. By the late 14th century, sex work in London was tolerated as long as it was restricted to two areas: Cokkes Lane now Cock Lane in Smithfieldwithin the city walls, and Southwark, a district then outside the city, but within the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester.
Historically, wherever you have had public bathing, sex has been working up a lather at the heart of it, and the bathhouses were known to be places where one could purchase considerably more than a soap-on-a-rope. Of course, not all bathhouses were brothels, but by the early s, all stews naughty or nice were banned from the City of London, and so set up shop across the Thames in Southwark.
Considerable evidence survives about life in the Southwark stews because of a remarkable document, drawn up in the 15th century, which allowed the Bishop of Winchester to sanction and profit from sex work in his jurisdiction.
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This is impossible as there was no parliament at this time, but the document itself has been dated to the 15th century. Naughty bishop.
Pastries aside, many of the regulations were deed to protect sex workers from being exploited by the stew owners. For example, A3 stipulates that any stewholder forcibly detaining a woman will be fined shillings. And item B4 forbids any house from allowing either married women or nuns to work there fine: 12 pence. One of the harshest punishments was reserved for women who had a lover who they supported financially otherwise known as a pimp.
There were also regulations to protect customers from being fleeced by the wily geese. The voices and experiences of the sex workers themselves are frustratingly absent from surviving records, and we have no way of knowing how the geese themselves felt about the Ordinances.
Perhaps I am wrong. The geese simply packed up and moved to new areas of the city. They moved to Cokkes Lane, Petticoat Lane and Gropecunte Lane in Cheapside; the names alone are testament to the prevalence of sex work in medieval London, and a reminder that abolition tactics have never worked.
A lesson we seem to be taking a painfully long time to learn. Kate Lister is the creator of the award-winning online research project Whores of Yore, which seeks to build public engagement and disseminate research on the history of sex and sexuality through social media.
She also lectures at Leeds Trinity University, and is widely published on the sex trade. We use a third party provider, dotdigitalto deliver our newsletters. For information about how we handle your data, please read our privacy notice.
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The best and worst rooms in the winchester mystery house to have sex in
Stories Part of The Rules of Sex. A prostitute leading an old man into the bedroom and taking money from him. Source: Wellcome Collection.
Attribution 4. A 15th century Bathhouse. A 15th-century bathhouse.
The geese that laid the golden eggs Considerable evidence survives about life in the Southwark stews because of a remarkable document, drawn up in the 15th century, which allowed the Bishop of Winchester to sanction and profit from sex work in his jurisdiction. An offender of prostitution exposed to public shame.
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