Harlots, Night Moths, Huntresses of the Tombs: The Enduring Legacy of Rome’s Bustuariae

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Street of Tombs, Pompeii. From the Handbook of Archaeology by H. Westropp (1867)

By the first century AD, there were more than 32,000 sex workers registered in the city of Rome. There were likely just as many who were unregistered in the city, and countless more worked throughout the empire. To get an idea of their popularity, you only have to look at how many words they had for the profession. Meretrices were regulated and paid taxes, prostibulae were free agents, ambulatae walked the street, delicatae were high-class courtesans, and famosae were daughters of the patrician families who did it more for fun than anything else. Most operated within the cities, but a select few worked just outside.

The bustuariae worked out of cemeteries, catering to mourners and those with darker desires. By day, they were professional mourners and were known to write their services and prices on the tombstones in chalk. They would meet their clients at the cemeteries again at night, sneaking into mausoleums or using the graves as beds. Also known as noctilucae (night moths*), they cultivated a certain look. Known for pale skin and severe expressions, they themselves appeared to be dead.

As it so happens, that was part of the appeal. Some widowers sought them out, working out their grief through sex. Others paid the bustuariae extra to pretend to be dead. Questionable kinks aside, working in cemeteries may have been as practical as fanciful. The women knew the cemeteries better than anyone and could entertain in any number of concealed locations, and they were guaranteed a steady stream of new clients.

Mentioned with a certain degree of derision by Martial, Juvenal, and even Catullus, bustuariae were considered to be among the lowest of the sex workers, and some seem to have lived in the cemeteries as well. While there are legends of ghoulish bustuariae (such as Nuctina, a woman who apparently slept with coins over her eyes in a grave with her name on it), they appear to be just that–legends. Nevertheless, the trade thrived. Bustuariae could be found throughout the empire as far as Roman Londinium to the north, but their true legacy extended further still.

19th century mournerThe connection between sex and death endured long after Rome fell, and the bustuariae survived as well. Writing in the 1880s, Guy de Maupassant describes an encounter with one in Montmartre Cemetery in his short story, Graveyard Sirens**. Montmartre, of course, is the exact place you’d expect to find one. (See also Ghouls’ Night Out: Sex, Death, and Damnation in Fin de Siècle Paris)

Encountering a beautiful young woman in deep mourning with a ghostly pallor, the hero begins an affair with her after he goes to visit his late mistress’s grave. Even after he ends it, he remains obsessed with the unnamed woman:

“I did not forget her. The recollection of her haunted me like a mystery, like a psychological problem, one of those inexplicable questions whose solution baffles us.”

Finding her a month later with another man in mourning in the same cemetery, the hero asks himself:

“To what race of beings belonged this huntress of the tombs? Was she just a common girl, one who went to seek among the tombs for men who were in sorrow, haunted by the recollection of some woman, a wife or a sweetheart, and still troubled by the memory of vanished caresses? Was she unique? Are there many such? Is it a profession? Do they parade the cemetery as they parade the street? Or else was she only impressed with the admirable, profoundly philosophical idea of exploiting love recollections, which are revived in these funereal places?”

Guy de Maupassant, we suspect, already knew the answer.

Jessica Cale

Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London. 
Catullus. Poem 59, Rufa Among the Graves.
Gill, N.S. Prostitution Notes from the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. 
Juvenal. Satires, Book XXII.
Martial. Epigrams, I: 34,8 and III: 93,15
Maupassant, Guy de. Graveyard Sirens.
Roberts, Nickie. Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society.

*Noctilucae. Now defined as any creature that shines in the dark. 

**Sometimes called “Tombstones” in English

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The Courtesan and the Abolitionist: The Real-Life Love Story of Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox

 

honorable mrs fox by joshua reynolds

The Honourable Mrs. Fox. Joshua Reynolds, 1784-9. Note that they were officially married in 1795, and the marriage was not made public until 1802.

Of all the great love stories in history that ought to be made into movies, Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox must be near the top of the list.

Elizabeth was born in Greenwich in 1750. By the age of twenty-one, she was working at a high-class brothel in Soho run by the infamous Mrs. Mitchell. Her first known patron was the Viscount of Bolingbroke, known to his friends as “Bully,” and it was through him that she met her future husband, Charles James Fox.

Though only a year older than Elizabeth, Charles had had a very different upbringing. His father was Henry Fox, Baron Holland, and his mother, Caroline, was the daughter of the Duke of Richmond. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he got an early start in politics when his father bought him a seat in Parliament at the age of nineteen. It wasn’t long before he made waves. Critical of George III, Charles opposed the American War of Independence and even showed his support for the colonists by wearing the colors of Washington’s army to Parliament. By the time he met Elizabeth, he had already developed a reputation of his own.

Elizabeth and Charles moved in the same circles and became fast friends. They remained close as their respective careers progressed. Elizabeth became an actress, and her considerable success as a courtesan was noted in Town and Country in 1776, when they reported that she had made conquests of two dukes, a marquis, four earls, and a viscount.

The truth was a bit more impressive. Elizabeth was indeed popular among the nobility, and her patrons over the next few years included the Duke of Dorset, the Earl of Derby, Lord George Cavendish, the Earl of Cholmondeley, and the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. She was known for her good nature and intelligence as much as her beauty–she was tall and statuesque, with a strong physique and large bust. She had a sharp wit and a talent for languages that gentlemen found as fascinating as the rest of her.

Elizabeth knew exactly what she was doing. By the time she was thirty, she had a fortune of her own that included at least one residence, carriages, and several servants. Never one to be taken advantage of, she moved from patron to patron as effortlessly as she lived, and she never fell in love.

Unless, of course, she’d been in love all along. In the early 1780s, Elizabeth and Charles became lovers after a decade of friendship. It’s unknown whether it was out of the blue or if they’d had feelings for each other from the start, but they quickly became inseparable. Charles was a rake known for drinking, gambling, and womanizing–he had even been involved with Elizabeth’s rival, actress Mary Robinson–but he soon realized Elizabeth was the only woman for him. He treated her as an equal, encouraging her interest in politics by writing to her about his position and concerns as well as pledging his undying love on a regular basis.

The feeling was mutual. Elizabeth wouldn’t see anyone other than Charles and quickly fell into debt because of it. Their relationship meant the end of her career and may have posed a threat to his. She tried to call it off, but Charles made it clear he was serious about her. In one of his many letters to her, he wrote:

“You shall not go without me, wherever you go. I have examined myself and know that I can better abandon friends, country, everything than live without Liz. I could change my name and live with you in the remotest part of Europe in poverty and obscurity. I could bear that very well, but to be parted I cannot bear.”

In spite of his status, Charles was no longer wealthy. He had gambled away most of his money, and he refused to use his political office for profit. Elizabeth didn’t mind. She sold the properties given to her by her former lovers and bought a house in St. Ann’s Hill, where they lived together happily for years. Still unmarried, Charles was considered quite a catch. When Charles was offered the chance at an advantageous marriage with the daughter of wealthy banker Thomas Coutts in 1795, Elizabeth knew it would be better for Charles. She offered to leave, but Charles refused. He wrote:

“I cannot figure to myself any possible idea of happiness without you, and being sure of this, is it possible that I can think of any trifling advantage of fortune or connection as weighing a feather in the scale against the whole comfort and happiness of my life?”

Not only would Charles not consider it, but he married Elizabeth instead. Marrying her was considered more of a scandal than living openly with her as his mistress, so Charles reluctantly agreed to keep the marriage secret for a time. Elizabeth knew that it would hurt his career, but Charles–a radical politician accustomed to doing and saying exactly what he wanted–was less concerned. He made their marriage public in 1802, and although it caused a bit of scandal, Elizabeth was ultimately accepted by society due to her kindness and charm.

When Charles passed away of liver disease in 1806, his last word was her name. He was fifty-seven, and he and Elizabeth had been together for twenty-five years. After his death, Elizabeth remained close with their friends and devoted the rest of her life to charitable works. Though they never had children of their own, Elizabeth supported a school in the nearby parish of Chertsey. By the time Elizabeth passed away in 1842 at the age of ninety-one, her background as a sex worker had been conveniently forgotten. Her funeral was attended by scores of people from all classes who remembered her for her kindness and good works.

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Charles James Fox memorial. © 2019 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Charles was buried in Westminster Abbey. His monument is one of the most impressive there, which is no small feat. Completed by sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott in 1822, it shows Charles being mourned by a slave–he was a fervent abolitionist–and another figure representing Peace. He is held in the arms of Liberty, who looks just a little bit like Elizabeth.

Jessica Cale

Further reading

Davis, I.M. The Harlot and the Statesman. The Kendall Press, 1986.

Hickman, Katie. Courtesans. Harper Collins, 2003.

Les Scandaleuses: Histoire d’alcôve. Elizabeth Armistead, Mrs Fox (1750-1842). June 29th, 2013.

Rendell, Mike. In Bed With the Georgians: Sex, Scandal, and Satire in the 18th Century. Pen & Sword, 2016.

Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden Ladies. Tempus Publishing, 2005.

“The Most Kissed Face in the World”: The Curious Case of l’Inconnue de la Seine

l'inconnue de la seine albert rudomine 1927

La Vierge inconnue du canal de l’Ourcq. Photo by Albert Rudomine, 1927

In the late 1880s, the body of an unidentified young woman was pulled out of the Seine at the Quai du la Louvre, not far from the museum of the same name. While the Louvre houses the Mona Lisa, the river offered up an enigmatic smile of its own, and the woman—only the latest in a string of presumed suicides—became a beauty icon in her own right.

Dubbed l’Inconnue de la Seine (the Unknown Woman of the Seine), her body quickly became the star attraction of the already popular public morgues in Paris. People turned out in droves to see her, moved not only by her young age—she was thought to be about sixteen—but by the curiously peaceful expression on her face. She was beautiful, yes, but what struck them was that she appeared to be happy.

A wax plaster death mask was cast so early, it faithfully reproduced her wet, matted hair and the droplets of water in her eyelashes. Her death was a mystery that remains unsolved to this day, and she was never identified. It has been argued that no one who had drowned—let alone a suicide—could have died with such a relaxed, almost joyful look on their face, leading many to speculate that her cause of death was not drowning at all.

Finding a young woman in the river was a heartbreakingly common occurrence. Bodies of sex workers were pulled out of the Seine almost daily, all of them assumed suicides unless there was clear evidence to the contrary. Because no injuries could be found on her body, l’Inconnue was presumed to be another sex worker who had tragically taken her own life.

The mask of l’Inconnue became an obsession of Bohemian Paris, inspiring art and literature for decades after her death. Albert Camus pointed out the parallel to the Mona Lisa, and women were all too happy to emulate her. While her life was presumably difficult and tragically short, she was a muse in death, and bizarrely, an erotic ideal. Copies of the death mask were mass produced and sold as spectacularly morbid household decorations through the early twentieth century, and there is a workshop that still makes masks from the same mold to this day.

Even if you haven’t heard of her before today, chances are, you’ve kissed her yourself. In the 1950s, Norwegian company Laerdal Medical gave l’Inconnue a new life that would become her most enduring legacy. When they were developing the first CPR doll, they decide they needed a non-threatening face people wouldn’t mind kissing. L’Inconnue was perfect—beautiful, widely known, and there was already a mold of her face. As Resusci Anne (CPR Annie), the face of l’Inconnue reached an even wider audience as a staple of CPR courses around the world. Though most don’t know about the macabre origins of the doll, it’s a fitting legacy for the Unknown Woman of the Seine that in death, she saves others from drowning.

Jessica Cale

 

Sex and the Asylum: Imprisoning Inconvenient Women

f95ddecebd8d712ca785b34b065d7231Nymphomania, masturbation, sexual derangement: just some of the reasons a nineteenth century—and indeed twentieth century—woman could find herself locked away in a lunatic asylum. In fact, many of the reasons women were incarcerated were related to their sex or sexuality. Around one third of female patients were diagnosed with nymphomania. Some had born illegitimate children, been engaged in prostitution, or been raped or sexually assaulted.

For others, being deemed promiscuous or flirtatious was enough to seal their fate. In both Great Britain and the United States, it was perfectly legal for a husband or father to have their wives or daughters committed to an asylum without any right of appeal. Cures for nymphomania included separation from men, induced vomiting, leeches, straitjackets, and, in some cases clitorectomies.

In 1867, seventeen-year-old Alice Christina Abbot was accused of poisoning her stepfather after he threatened to send her to a reform school. At her trial, Abbot claimed that her stepfather had put her through years of sexual abuse, and that she had told other people, but they had mostly considered her mentally deranged. The court rejected her allegations as singular, and in August of that year she was committed to Taunton Insane Asylum, where she seems to have vanished into the dark realms of history. Whether or not Abbot really was a murderer, or whether she saw poisoning as the only way of freeing herself from her stepfather, we shall never know. The fact remains that she was treated neither as a victim of sexual abuse, nor a sane woman who had committed murder. Instead, she was labelled as insane, and her identity was effectively erased.

Edna Martin was fifteen when her grandfather saw her going to the pictures with a sixty-two-year-old married man. He called the police, and Edna was taken to juvenile court. The judge asked her whether they’d had intercourse, but she had no idea what that meant. Her grandfather said he never wanted to see her again, so she was taken to Parkside Approved School, where she was diagnosed as an imbecile, mentally defective, and feeble-minded, and transferred to Calderstones Asylum. Edna described twenty years of hell moving between various asylums:

They kicked the chamber pots into you . . . they also kicked in your food on a tin plate and you had to eat it off the floor. They used enemas for punishment . . . they thought nothing of giving you a cold-water bath, or they’d get a wet bath towel, put it under a cold tap, twist it, and hit you with it.

In the wider community, asylums were used as tools to control large numbers of women who were considered a threat to the status quo. Prostitution was seen as a social disease, and those fallen women associated with it needed to be shut away for the greater good, until such time as they were fixed. Correcting women who had taken the wrong path was the main idea behind three different kinds of establishments: Magdalene asylums, benevolent societies, and lock hospitals.

Magdalen-asylum

A Magdalene Asylum in Ireland, early 20th century

Madgalene asylums were established by the Catholic Church for sex workers, as well as other women who had deviated from sexual norms, for the sake of penitence and redemption. Life in Magdalene asylums was grueling: the women were given new names, forbidden from talking about their past or talking to their families, and had to work (usually doing laundry) in complete silence.

In London, any sex worker found to have a venereal disease could be forcibly put in a lock hospital for up to a year, while benevolent societies gave the women huge amounts of religious instruction, and then retained them as seamstresses and servants.

Many lesbian women were also labelled as mentally ill, with doctors claiming that life without continued male interaction could cause anemia, irritability, and tiredness. Women who had chosen alternative lifestyles and defied accepted gender norms were considered a threat to the patriarchal society. In asylums—supposedly places of safety— they could face sexual abuse under the care of doctors, who believed that repeated sexual activity with men could cure them.

This put women in an incredibly vulnerable position: those who refused to obey their husbands or fathers, behaved in a manner which was deemed immodest or unwomanly, or refused to submit to their husbands’ demands faced being torn away from their children and families, and were often subjected to the most brutal conditions.

Asylums became a convenient place to put society’s inconvenient women. These stories are more than just reminders that we’re lucky not to have been born two hundred years ago—they are also reminders of how much people in the past were entrenched in ideas of feminine norms, and the lengths they would go to in order to preserve patriarchal dominance.

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Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham—a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son. Emma left school at sixteen and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has had a variety of jobs including chocolatier, laboratory technician and editorial assistant for a magazine, but now works part-time as an interpreter.

Emma writes historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction with FIVE GUNS BLAZING in 2014. Her novella THE WOMEN FRIENDS: SELINA, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori was published in 2016 by Crooked Cat Books, and was shortlisted for the Goethe Award for Late Historical Fiction. Her third novel, DELIRIUM, a Victorian ghost story, will be published in 2018, also by Crooked Cat Books. It was shortlisted for the Chanticleer Paranormal Book Awards in 2017.

Follow Emma Rose Millar on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads. Her new book, Delirium, is out now.

A Secret Gay Brotherhood at the Court of the Sun King

Louis,_Count_of_Vermandois

Louis de Bourbon, by Pierre Mignard

Philippe de France, brother of Louis XIV, was always known to have a preference for men. It was no secret. Although the king’s brother was married twice and fathered plenty of children, his real love was a man three years younger than him. In 17th century France, homosexuality was a crime and Louis XIV himself was no fan of men loving men, yet had to tolerate it due to his brother. After all, if he were to punish the men of his court who openly showed off their male lovers, he would have to start with his own flesh and blood.

It was not just his brother Philippe who loved men. Their father, Louis XIII was rumoured to have preferred men, there was also their uncle César de Vendôme, whose Parisian town-house was nicknamed Hôtel de Sodome, and even Louis XIV’s son, the comte de Vermandois. Named Louis after his father, his mother Louise de La Vallière retired to a convent in order to repent for her previous sinful lifestyle as mistress of the king. Little Louis de Bourbon was sent to live with aunt and uncle afterwards. There he met Philippe de France’s favourite, the Chevalier de Lorraine, and was introduced to a secret brotherhood of gay men both belonged to.

It was founded somewhen between 1680 and 1682, its members the crème de la crème of the French court. Philippe de France and the Chevalier de Lorraine were founding members. This brotherhood was led by four Grand Masters and had a set of “outrageous” rules such as “wearing a cross between vest and shirt, which displays a man kicking a woman with his feet into the dust, just like the cross on which Saint-Michel kicks the demon”. The society met at various Parisian higher-class taverns, brothels and country-houses to engage in bed sports with each other or sex workers, some of them women. If women were present, they were not treated kindly by the men and were apparently even abused.

This order had plenty of novices eager to take part, one of them being Louis de Bourbon. He was a teen of fifteen and rather handsome to behold. His mother did not want to hear anything about him anymore and his father did not care much, either. Louis was introduced into the brotherhood by the Chevalier de Lorraine himself, who ordered him to sign a statement in which he swore obedience to the rules and absolute secrecy. Said paper was not to be signed with ink, the Chevalier told him, it must be signed with his semen. The Chevalier then assisted in acquiring it, making the boy faint in delight.

Although secrecy was sworn by every member, the brotherhood did not stay a secret for long. Rumours of their meetings and stories of their wild orgies circulated swiftly in Paris. Soon after, Louis XIV got wind of it himself.

He ordered his son to him. All of Louis XIV’s children had a lot of respect for their father and even feared him to some degree, Vermandois was no exception. He was eager to gain the love of his father and hoped that he might gain it by showing his loyalty to the king he was. It did not take long until he spilled the beans to his royal father. The Sun King was outraged as Vermandois told him all about the brotherhood and its members. Members nobody wanted to speak up for once the story made the rounds.

Louis XIV wanted to exile his son to the Normandy, but due to the intervention of his aunt, he was sent to Flanders as soldier instead. The Chevalier de Lorraine was ordered not to appear at court for a while. Other members, like the prince de La Roche-sur-Yon, the comte de Marsan, the chevalier de Saint-Maure, the chevalier de Mailly, the comte de Roucy and the vidame de Laon, were exiled. Louis de Bourbon died a drunkard after a short illness, aged only sixteen, in Flanders. He never managed to gain his father’s love and his mother did not mourn him.

Aurora von Goeth is a historian specialising in 17th century France and writes on www.partylike1660.com about Louis XIV and his court, with a special focus on its members and little-known stories of the time. Her first book Louis XIV and The Real Versailles will be published by Pen & Sword in spring 2018.

Sources

Barker, Nancy. Brother to the Sun King.

Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality and Civilization.

The letters of Madame de Sévigné.

I Thought they Had Been Nuns: Great Wine and Failed Sexual Transactions

DSH Zante 1810s William Turner

Zante, 1810s. William Turner.

On January 31, 1599, John Chamberlain wrote a letter to his friend and relative Dudley Carleton. There, sandwiched between the Duke of Florence complaining of English piracy and poor Sir Henry Poore’s non-life-threatening shot in the head, were the following words: “Here is a great and curious present going to the Great Turke, which no doubt will be much talked of, and be very scandalous among other nations, especially the Germans.”

This “great and curious present” departed England on The Hector in February of 1599, bound for the court of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed III. It went as a rather overdue acknowledgment of his becoming Sultan upon the death of his father in 1595, and it was to be presented by the English representative, Henry Lello, so that he could kiss the hand of the Sultan and be recognized as England’s ambassador. The gift was a magnificent clockwork organ, sadly smashed just a few short years later, and its maker, who travelled with it on The Hector, was Thomas Dallam.

Dallam is a fascinating figure. He was no sailor, soldier, diplomat, or spy; he seems never to have even left England before. But from February 1599 to April 1600, he’d journey to and from the city he mostly called Constantinople (and once or twice Stamboul), and he’d write all about it. He’d write about encounters with Dunkirker pirates shortly after departure, his annoyance at the captain’s behaviour, “an infinite body of porpoises,” and the behaviour of Turks. He runs for his life on a few occasions, notes as the ship passes the birthplace of Pythagoras or of Saul, and eventually gives an incredibly stressful solo performance for the Sultan and 400 of his attendants.

DSH zante1678pieter-schei-engraver-daniel-stopendaal

Zante. Pietr Johan Schei, 1678. 

One of the aspects that is most interesting about this unlikely Elizabethan diplomat and world traveller, is how strikingly he sometimes resembles the modern tourist. He grumbles at the greed of foreign officials. He wonders at the climate off the shores of southern Spain, struck by the difference from England in much the same way that many, many, more English travellers would be in centuries to come. Most amusingly, he hammers off for himself a little piece of the walls of Troy, an apparently timeless inclination to possess a bit of history.

For all of Dallam’s adventures, and his generally naive role in some rather important diplomatic dealings, one of the episodes that he gives the most attention to in his writing is an adventure of a different kind: an unsuccessful attempt to pay for sex in a hilltop house, on a Greek island he identifies as Zante, in the month of April, 1599. Zante, now known as Zakynthos, was a possession of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, but our narrator tells us that tribute was paid for it, yearly or quarterly, to “the great Turk,” the Ottoman Sultan.

Dallam and the other men of The Hector had sat at anchor for 6 long, dull days. Having most recently left Algiers, and with Turkish goods and men aboard, they were waiting out the quarantine required of a ship arriving from any part of the Ottoman domain without a Venetian letter of health. These days, tantalizingly close to shore but denied access to its pleasures, gave Dallam time to admire a little mountain. It was close to the sea, he wrote, very green, and promised to be excellent spot from which to view the whole island and the waters around it. Trapped as he was, Dallam’s liking for the little mountain swelled until he had made vow to himself: he would climb that mountain as soon as he set foot ashore, before he’d even paused for food or for drink, in fact.

Dallam’s fellows aboard the boat seem to have been less keen, but he worked on them; he had days to do so after all, and eventually he’d extracted commitments from two of them: Michael Watson, Dallam’s joiner, and Edward Hale, a coachman (The Hector was also carrying a coach as a gift for the Sultan’s mother, an immensely powerful figure in her own right), would be joining him on his little hike up the hill, and Dallam would not let them forget their promises.

The day came, and a small payment to some of the ship’s sailors secured their passage in a little boat to near the foot of the hill. It was early in the morning, and the trio began their climb. Having received stern instructions while aboard that they were not to carry weapons, they had only “cudgels in [their] hands,” and perhaps that helps account for Watson’s apprehensions.

Dallam describes their first encounter on the hill:

“So, ascending the hill about half a mile, and looking up, we saw upon a story of the hill above us a man going with a great staff on his shoulder, having a clubbed end, and on his head a cape which seemed to us to have five horns standing outright, and a great herd of goats and sheep followed him.”

The “great herd” gives a pretty clear indication of the man’s real business there on the green slopes, but it was still all too much for Watson: the clubbed staff, the horned cape, their lack of weapons. Watson fearfully complained that surely these were savage men on this island, men who would certainly do them wrong. He was convinced to go a little higher, high enough to convincingly identify the herdsman as, in fact, a herdsman, but that was it. Michael Watson, if our narrator is to be believed, spent the remainder of the morning hiding in a bush, and Dallam and the coachman carried on, Hale saying “something faintly that he would not leave [Dallam], but see the end.”

A little way up the hill, and the now-duo came upon another local inhabitant, and he also did not strike them down, only bowing towards them with a hand on his breast and smile to his face. This, Dallam seems to have taken as solid proof “of what people they be that inhabit here,” but Edward, who Dallam at this point in the story began to call Ned, was less confident. He was all for going back at once. Dallam, however, asserted that his oath to himself would allow nothing less than as far as they might possibly go. So, go they did, all the way up.

DSH Zante map engraving

Map of Zante

The top of the hill was not only a very pleasant place from which to view the island and the sea. It was also occupied by at least two buildings. The first one, Dallam tells us, was small, square, and made of limestone. It had housed an anchorite (a religious devotee bound by oath to an enclosed space) until only recently, and Dallam writes that she had “died but a little before [their] coming thither, and that she had lived five hundred years.” At the other, across the green, a man inside passed a copper kettle to another outside.

Ned saw no reason to go closer, but Dallam, as you might have gathered, was not the sort of tourist who retreated to the comforts of his hotel room and locked the unfamiliar world outside. He seems to have been driven by the confidence of a craftsman whose organ had, he will sometimes mention, been approved of by Queen Elizabeth herself, and also by a tremendous curiosity. During this voyage, he’d try to speak with Syrian soldiers, wonder at his first sight of carrier pigeons at work, and find occasion to peer in at the Ottoman Sultan’s concubines as they played with a ball. Here, after a morning’s uphill walk in hot weather, he was also driven by thirst.

Waving aside Ned’s protests, he went forward (“boldly,” he says), and by gestures made it known to the man with the kettle that he wanted to drink. The stranger did not offer him water though. Instead, he pulled up a carpet that lay against the wall and produced 6 bottles of wine and also a silver bowl which he soon filled with red wine and handed to Dallam. Ned was still questioning the wisdom of all of this from a little ways off, but Dallam drank from the bowl and found it to be “the best that ever [he] drank.” The bowl was refilled, this time with white, and this wine, Dallam pronounced, was even better than the first.

Now, Dallam wondered how he might repay the man for his hospitality. The cautious Ned consented to come forward and take a little water, and Dallam brought out the only money he had on him, a silver Spanish coin; it was not accepted. Then, he produced a decorative knife he had in his pocket. It was gilded, graven, and sheathed, and the man was very pleased with this. Dallam and Ned were promptly ushered round the corner and into what they realized was a chapel, complete with a priest giving mass, candles burning, and strange and unfamiliar decorations all about. The service made no sense to either Englishman, but soon it was over and they were brought into another space:

“… he led us through the chapel into the cloister, where we found standing eight very fair women, and richly apparelled, some in red satin, some white … their heads very finely attired, chains of pearls and jewels in their ears, seven of them very young women, the eighth was ancient, and all in black. I thought they had been nuns, but presently after I knew they were not.”

There in the cloister, the two were settled down to a meal of “good bread and very good wine and eggs.” Ned still would only drink water, but Dallam indulged himself fully, and wondered at the women, three of whom were standing very close now, looking on. He “knew they were not nuns,” but he wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed. He offered one a bowl of wine, but she would not accept it. He tried again with his Spanish silver, but this too was rejected. He produced another of the decorated knives and pressed that on the older woman who at first would not take it, but then did. The group of women gathered around it, seeming to admire it, he thought, and then bowed towards him in thanks. He was no closer to a successful transaction.

Shortly after, he and Hale left in good spirits, doubtless energized by the turn the day had taken. They collected an indignant Watson from his bush, likely quite sore and badly in need of refreshment, and they went down into the town, finding others from their ship in a house marked with a white horse. Their friends within were at first angry, saying they’d looked everywhere and thought the worst, but then, Dallam writes, “When [he] had told them all the story, they wondered at [his] boldness, and some Greeks that were there said that they never heard that any English man was ever there before.”

So interested was Dallam’s audience, that nine of those present decided to go immediately up for a look themselves. Their storyteller being too tired to make the walk again that day, they hired a local as a guide, and so they came to the house on the hill with information he had lacked. The thing to do, he later learned, was to go first into the chapel and to make an offering of money there, “as little as they would,” and then “they should have all kinds of entertainment.” Despite their guide, the party missed the easiest path up, and some fell and “broke their shins.” However, the whole thing seems to have been a tremendous success, enjoyed by all despite the shin breaking (which was perhaps not as bad as it sounds). Dallam wrote that, “very late in the evening, they returned safely again, and gave [him] thanks for that which they had seen.”

It’s an odd little story, one in which the narrator is ultimately unsuccessful, but also entirely unbothered by his failure. He seems to absolutely delight in showing his comrades to be buffoons (“… and laughed at him – as indeed they might, for he behaved himself very foolishly.”), or cowards (“Michael Watson, for shame, would not go in with us.”), or both. He seems to equally enjoy portraying himself as boldly venturesome, the first Englishman up the hill, a trail-blazing tourist who left his trembling companions behind to clasp hands with the locals and drink their wine. However, we also see him at a loss, unsure of what was to be done, first in payment for the wine, and then in the question of the women, stumbling where his shipmates would later succeed.

He doesn’t seem to overly regret his missed sexual opportunity, though. He’d enjoyed his little adventure on the Greek hilltop that day, with its thrill of the unfamiliar and the best wine he’d ever tasted. He’d enjoyed it enough to devote an unusually long passage of his writing to the day. We don’t know what Dallam intended to do with this writing; despite the apparent interest in all things Ottoman at the time, he did not publish after returning from his very close encounter with the Sultan. But he seems to have wanted to remember his morning in the unfamiliar house, and his glee at the discomfort of Michael and Ned.

Sources
Dallam, Thomas, John Covel, and James Theodore Bent. Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant. London: Hakluyt Society, 1893.

Chamberlain, John. Letters Written by John Chamberlain During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1861.

Devon Field is a history podcaster with a Humanities M.A., telling the stories of lesser known historical figures and, through their narratives, exploring their context and place in larger events. Particularly, he’s interested in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods and their travellers, figures that passed between cultural worlds and revealed sometimes surprising connections. You can hear more about Thomas Dallam and others like (and unlike) him on the Human Circus podcast.
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Sex, Contraception, and Abortion in Medieval England

617px-Artemisia_absinthium_(Köhler)

Artemisia absinthum (Wormwood)

Centuries of nostalgic medievalism have given us some funny ideas about sexuality in the Middle Ages. We know religion ruled, no one married for love, and sex was for procreation only…right?

Not so much. When studying the Middle Ages, you need to consider the sources. Every author had a bias and could only write what they saw. Most of our modern ideas about sexuality come from Canon Law, but people did not obey all of the laws of the Church in the Middle Ages any more than they do today. To get a better idea of what life was really like, we have to draw on other sources as well.

Today we’re going to jump into the deep end with medieval contraception and abortion. The popular assumption is that contraception did not exist and abortion must have been a serious crime, if it happened at all. The issue with this argument is that we take for granted that they must have had a similar understanding of pregnancy and a greater sense of religious morality when it came to the issue of contraception and abortion. To get to the bottom of this, we have to throw out these assumptions and start at the beginning.

Sex

Fornication was still a sin, but it was one most were guilty of. When primogeniture became the rule in the eleventh century, it created a whole class of people were unlikely to ever marry. Noble families with multiple children could only pass on their property to the eldest. The rest of the children would remain in the household even as adults until they married other property-holding people or until circumstances changed. Many entered the Church, where marriage and concubinage among the clergy was still common until the twelfth century. Wealthy families might equip younger sons as knights. Knights could not be expected to marry until they inherited property or came by it through other means; most younger sons never married at all. As for daughters, the pool of landed noblemen to marry was pathetically small. With larger families and fewer opportunities for marriage, much of the nobility never married. To assume they all remained celibate in a culture that all but deified love and had a popular handbook for conducting romantic, sexual, and frequently extramarital relationships is naïve at best. (1)

As for the lower classes, marriage was almost a fluid concept. It was common for people to marry in secret, and these marriages were every bit as valid as any performed outside a church. According to Gratian’s Decretum, all it took to make a marriage legal was three things: love, sex, and consent. As long as the love and consent were there, sexual relationships including those with concubines could be considered informal marriages.

Because the line between fornication and legal marriage was a bit blurry, fornication was more or less accepted in practice. Who’s to say the consenting couple did not marry in secret? Many penitentials appearing during and after the twelfth century classified sex outside of marriage as only a minor sin. Members of the Synod of Angers in 1217 stated unequivocally that they personally knew many confessors who gave no penance for it at all. In practice, the Church tolerated fornication as long as there was no adultery being committed.

Prostitution was legal and common. Although the Church did not condone it, this did not stop it from regulating and profiting from it (see Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark). After all, someone had to see to the needs of the scores of unmarried men and those who had entered the Church out of necessity rather than desire. The Church viewed prostitution as a necessary evil. While active sex workers could not be viewed as respectable members of society, they nevertheless performed an important public service.

Outside of the Church, many medieval writers, such as Albertus Magnus and Constantine the African, viewed sex as a crucial component to overall health on equal footing with food, sleep, and exercise. Sexual release was believed to be the best way to get rid of toxic humors and abstinence could lead to weakness, illness, madness, and death. Sexual enjoyment was necessary for men and women, and was an essential component to conception.

Sex happened. Penitentials were distributed throughout the Church to prescribe penance for every vice we can imagine today (and a fair few we can’t). Troubadours sang about it in their filthy, filthy songs. Pregnancy was inevitable and dangerous. So how did they deal with it?

Menstrual Regulators

It sounds obvious, but people in the Middle Ages did not have the same understanding of pregnancy that we have today. As they could not pinpoint the moment of conception, there was no distinction between the prevention of pregnancy (contraception) and the ending of one (abortion). “Remedies to regulate the menstrual cycle” were common and arguably more widely accepted than they are now. Recipes were recorded in medical texts, shared between women, and they appeared in household handbooks. They could be made at home with a few ingredients most women would recognize.

This ninth century recipe appeared in the Lorsch Manuscript, a medical treatise written by Benedictine monks:

A Cure for All Kinds of Stomach Aches
For women who cannot purge themselves, it moves the menses.

8 oz. white pepper
8 oz. ginger
6 oz. parsley
2 oz. celery seeds
6 oz. caraway
6 oz. spignel seeds
2 oz. fennel
2 oz. geranium/ or, giant fennel
8 oz. cumin
6 oz. anise
6 oz. opium poppy

These recipes did not come out of the blue. There is evidence that similar abortifacients had been used as far back as ancient Egypt. Pepper had been used since the Roman period as a contraceptive, and fennel is related to silphium, the ancient plant farmed to extinction for its contraceptive properties. The other ingredients have been found to have antifertility effects, and the opium was used as a sedative. Other similar recipes were employed throughout the period and beyond; menstrual regulators using the same ingredients continued to be sold as late as the nineteenth century.

Juniperus_communis,_Common_juniper_(3543483554)

Juniper

In addition to those mentioned above, artemisa and juniper were both known to inhibit fertility. Artemisia is a genus of plant in the daisy family asteraceae. There are more than two hundred types of artemisia, among them mugwort, tarragon, and wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe centuries later. In the twelfth century, Trotula recommended artemisia as a “menstrual stimulator” and in the thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova advised taking it with capers for maximum efficacy. Modern medicine has confirmed its use: artemisia inhibits estrogen production and can prevent ovulation much like pharmaceutical contraceptives today.

Artemisia was not without its side effects. Wormwood is a notorious toxin known to cause hallucinations and changes in consciousness. Ingested in large quantities, it can cause seizures and kidney failure. (2)

Juniper had been used as a contraceptive since the Roman period. Pliny the Elder recommended rubbing crushed juniper berries on the penis before sex to prevent conception. Its popularity continued throughout the Middle Ages; Arabic medical writers Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, and ibn Sina all list it as an abortifacient, and this knowledge was made more readily available throughout Europe when Gerard of Cremona translated their words in the twelfth century. According to ibn Sina, juniper produced an effect very similar to a natural miscarriage, and so it could be employed without detection.

Historian John Riddle argues that all women knew which plants inhibited fertility and how to use them effectively. They were under no illusions as to their purpose. Although most of what we know about medieval contraception and abortion does come from medical texts written by men, they would have come by the information from women who were using it on a regular basis.

Morality

In the ancient world and even the early Christian Church, abortion was not considered immoral. Although it is often interpreted differently today, the medieval church followed the guidelines of the Bible in believing that life began at birth (Genesis 2:7). St. Thomas Aquinas argued that souls are created by God, not by man, and that the soul did not enter the body until the infant drew its first breath.

Abortion or “menstrual regulation” was not explicitly mentioned in the Bible except to recommend it in the case of suspected unfaithful wives (Numbers 5:11-31) (3), and whether or not it was immoral in the Middle Ages depended on who was asked.

Burchard of Worms’ Decretum tackled the issue of abortion in the section titled Concerning Women’s Vices. Burchard unequivocally opposed it, but the penance recommended varied. To Burchard, the severity of the sin was not dependent on the act itself, but the status of the woman and the circumstances of conception. The worst crime was that resulting from adultery. For this he orders seven years of abstinence and a lifetime of “tears and humility.” Abortion stemming from fornication was also bad (penance for ten years on fast days), unless the woman was poor or a sex worker (statistically likely). If the woman was poor and acted because she would not be able to feed a child, it was understandable and no penance was prescribed.

Regardless of the Church’s recommendations, abortion was not actually illegal. In fact, the first law that made abortion illegal in the English-speaking world did not come until the Ellenborough Act of 1803, and even that only outlawed abortions obtained by taking “noxious and destructive substances.” It was not until 1869 that the Catholic Church decided that life began at conception.

Conclusions

If there is one thing we should take away from this, it is that when it came to sex, the Middle Ages were not as different from today as we often assume. People married for love, they had sex for fun, and family planning existed and was used more or less effectively. Due to centuries of literature and art portraying the Middle Ages as an idealized time of chastity and moral superiority, we have come to collectively accept a fiction that bears only a passing resemblance to a much more complicated truth.

Through this Contraception in History series, I have tried to show that although reproduction has been the primary purpose of sex throughout history, it was not the only purpose, and people have always found ways to take their reproductive destinies into their own hands.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Brundage, James. Sex and Canon Law. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 33-50.
Burchard of Worms. Decretum (c. 1008).
Burford, EJ. Bawds and Lodgings, a History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. London, Peter Owen, 1976
Cadden, Joan. Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 51-80.
Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Translated by John Jay Parry. New York, Columbia University Press, 1960
Gaddesden, John. Rosa anglica practica medicine. Venice, Bonetus Locatellus, 1516.
Gies, Frances and Joseph. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. New York, Harper & Row, 1987
Payer, Pierre J. Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 3-32.
Riddle, John M. Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities Volume 1696. Issue 1996: Pages 261-274.
Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. New York, Stein and Day, 1992

1. See The Art of Courtly Love.

2. Fun fact: Nicholas Culpeper claimed that wormwood was the key to understanding his 1651 book The English Physitian. Unlike the rest of the book, the entry for wormwood is a stream-of-consciousness ramble that reads like someone who was ingesting it at the time.

3. It is very possible the bitter waters in this verse refer to wormwood, a notoriously bitter substance known to induce miscarriage.

If you would like to know more about Contraception in History, see below for the rest of the series:

Contraception in History I. Aristotle, Hippocrates, and a Whole Lotta Lead

Contraception in History II. Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung. 

Contraception in History III. Ancient Birth Control: Silphium and the Origin of the Heart Shape

Contraception in History IV. Minos, Pasiphae, and the Most Metal Euphemism for V.D. Ever

Contraception in History V. “Love’s Pleasing Paths in Blest Security”: Seventeenth Century Condoms