“A Cesspool in the Palace”: Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark

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London Bridge, from Southwark facing north. Southwark Cathedral is in the foreground. Claes Van Visscher, 1616.

Prostitution flourished in medieval London, and in the 12th century, Southwark became the city’s official red light district by order of Henry II. His ‘Ordinances touching the gouerment of the stewhoulders in Southwarke under the direction of the Bishop of Winchester’ (1161) gave control of the Southwark brothels to the ecclesiastical authorities, which would allow the church to draw untold sums of money from them through the sale of licenses. At the time of the ordinance, there were eighteen licensed brothels in Bankside employing about a thousand prostitutes at any one time. As a result of the church taking control, most of London’s churches built during this period were largely financed by prostitution.

Why Southwark? By the 12th century, Southwark had already been a hot spot for prostitution since the Romans built the first known brothel in England at what was then an obscure military outpost. Southwark itself grew out of a brothel. More than that, Southwark had been a privileged borough for most of its history, its many churches creating a place of asylum that extended to protecting criminals and prostitutes from the full extent of the law. Southwark served as a “bastard sanctuary,” offering a kind of asylum to those rejected by society: prostitutes, criminals, lepers, and the poor lived among brothels, jails, rubbish tips, and the smellier trades, just far enough away from London that they could not be seen without a boat ride or a long walk across London Bridge.

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The Last Hour. Florence Harrison.

While the church officially condemned prostitution and sexual promiscuity, they had no reservations about profiting from it. St. Thomas Aquinas himself compared it to “a cesspool in the palace; take away the cesspool and the palace becomes an unclean evil-smelling place.” Southwark already smelled pretty evil; it was the perfect place for a ‘cesspool.’ Prostitution was accepted as a necessary evil, and from the end of the 12th century onward, regulated to maximize revenue for the church.

As E. J. Burford explains:

“By this act of recognition, the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury gave certain advantages to the licensed brothelkeepers or stewholders. It was much easier for them to carry on business in a protected premises in a protected area. The regulations and penalties, although set out in great detail and with seemingly terrifying (or at least terrifyingly expensive) punishments, were of little practical consequence. Most infractions would be hard to prove, and all could be nullified with a little judicious bribery.”

Brothels or “stews” had been traditionally run by bawds, but Henry’s ordinance put their management into the hands of (mostly male) brothelkeepers licensed by the church. Single women were not allowed to own brothels with exceptions being made for those who had inherited one from a relative or left one by a husband.

The ordinance was devised both to protect the women employed in the sex trade and to limit certain behaviors. One of these protections was freedom from accusations of consorting with the devil. It sounds obvious to us (and convenient for them), but at the time, witchcraft and prostitution had been almost synonymous in the public mind since King Edward the Elder linked them in the 10th century.

Prostitutes were no longer individually licensed as they had been in Roman times and did not have to wear special clothing to set themselves apart. They could not be bound to or enslaved by bawds or brothelkeepers, with limits placed on how much they were allowed to borrow from their employers at any one time (six shillings and eightpence) to prevent them from being imprisoned for debt or obliged to remain in the employ of their moneylender.

Brothels became boarding houses that rented rooms to prostitutes without board. Like the provisions preventing women from borrowing large sums of money from the brothelkeepers, this was designed to protect them from those looking to take advantage of them through inflated food prices, keeping them in poverty and confined to the precinct where they worked. Brothels were closed on holy days to encourage the women to attend services. They were refused Christian burial, but could still receive Holy Communion.

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“No grabbing!”

In return for these protections, prostitutes were ordered to refrain from aggressive soliciting on penalty of imprisonment. They were not allowed to grab or call out to potential customers, or curse or throw rocks at them if refused or cheated. As Burford puts it, Southwark “was a dockside area with dockside manners” and prostitutes were known not only to throw stones but chamber pots at any customers who thought to make a run for it without paying their fee.

Quarterly inspections were ordered to ensure no women were working unwillingly and to reduce the spread of venereal disease. Gonorrhea and “burning sickness” (likely chlamydia) were common and even expected; those found to be infected were fined twenty shillings and sacked. Symptoms were treated by washing in white wine, animal piss, or a mixture of vinegar and water. Many cases of gonorrhea are asymptomatic in women, so it would have been impossible to remove all infected parties, as evidenced by the epidemic of 1160.

In his Compendium Medicine (1190), physician Gilbert Anglicus described another kind of sexually transmitted disease resembling leprosy. If what he saw was syphilis, this would have been one of the earliest documented cases of it in Europe, three hundred years before Columbus is thought to have brought it back with him from the Americas.

Bizarrely, the harshest punishment was reserved for prostitutes who had lovers on the side. Men were permitted to whore out their wives and married women could sell themselves to their hearts’ delight, but any prostitute discovered to have a lover not paying for her services would be fined six shillings and eightpence, imprisoned for three weeks, and subjected to the humiliating punishment of the cucking stool – being tied to a chair and publically immersed in filth. Naturally the woman’s lover would not receive any punishment for his involvement with her; the rule would seem to have been in place to maximize profits while cutting down on her leisure activities.

Another interesting rule is that for the last customer of the day, once the woman had taken his money, she was obliged to lay with him all night. Brothelkeepers were prohibited from keeping boats and the boatmen that worked the Thames were not allowed to moor their boats on the south side of the river after dark. Once customers were in Southwark for the night, there was no leaving until morning. Burford suggests the reasoning for this is that political plotters or criminals were easier to monitor with reduced traffic on the river. Anyone needing to cross would have to go via London Bridge and they would be seen on the way.

While the Bankside brothels flourished with Henry II’s statues, Southwark’s reputation for vice was cemented when Edward I cracked down on those he deemed undesirable* a century later. He believed that these “women of evil life” attracted criminals, so prostitutes were no longer allowed within the city of London at all. Any woman found breaking this rule was subject to forty days in prison. This effectively forced any and all prostitutes well south of the river where they would stay for centuries. Although Covent Garden became something of a red light district with Harris’ List in the 18th century, the vast majority of London’s prostitutes lived south of the river through the 19th century.

Jessica Cale

* Prostitutes, Jews, the Welsh, the Scottish…how long have you got?

Further reading
Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London. St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
Burford, E.J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. Peter Owen, 1976.

Saints and Whores: Thaïs, Mary, Pelagia, and Mary of Egypt

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Saint Thais. Jusepe de Ribera

Between 303 and 311CE, the Roman Emperors Diocletian and Galerius masterminded the last Great Persecution, a final attempt to exterminate Christianity altogether. It failed. By 322, Christianity had successfully transitioned, thanks to the conversion of Constantine, from being a hunted sect to becoming the undisputed state religion of the Roman Empire. The dizzying speed of this change, of Christians moving from being hunted down and burned at the stake to being installed in the corridors of power, had a vast effect on the history of the Catholic Church, the history of Europe, and on the imagination of countless people.

As a persecuted people, Christians had developed a mythology where the martyr was the ultimate heroic figure. But now it was easy to be a Christian, and no more martyrs were appearing. In the Middle East, particularly, where Christians had always been persecuted the hardest, Christian hardliners began to isolate themselves in the wilds as the first Christian hermits, monks and nuns. A literature began to spring up around them.

The Lives of the Fathers (Vitae Patrum) was collected in 1602 by Heribert Rosweyde, but it compiles texts written between the fourth and seventh centuries about these lonely desert saints. Book One ends with the biographies of eleven women. Four of these Latin stories, the lives of Saints Thaïs, Mary, Pelagia and Mary of Egypt, have the suffix meretrix.

It means whore. The word gets translated in Latin dictionaries as “prostitute” or “harlot” or “courtesan” even, but in Latin it is a swear word. It’s a slur. Men throw it at women from the classical period on. For example, in 54 BCE it was one of the slurs addressed to the Roman socialite Clodia by the lawyer Cicero in his speech Pro Caeliohe used it nine times, but then Pro Caelio is the quintessential text of Latin misogyny. Meretrix has that exact force that the more polite translations of words like it just don’t. It is an insult. It is a blot on the language. And part of the business of translation is to translate things with their appropriate force.

But what does it even mean? What did they do to cause the label to be applied to them, even after they were saints, so that through posterity, in the Catholic and Orthodox calendars, they would continue to receive the name: whore, meant as an insult?

The story of Thaïs appears to have been written at some time in the fifth century, but is set in 350s, since it features Paphnutius, a real figure active between the 320s and the 350s. Paphnutius visits Thaïs, reputedly the most beautiful of Alexandria’s courtesans, and pretends to buy her for sex. He browbeats her into repenting and publicly humiliating herself; he takes her to a convent where he seals her in a cell with her own effluent and orders her to pray a simple mantra of repentance; three years later he comes back and lets her out.

He tore down the threshold that blocked her in, but she insisted that she remain

imprisoned there, even though the door was open.
“Come out!” he said. “God has forgiven your sins!”
“I bear witness to God,” she said, “because of whom I am in here, that all of my sins appear to me as if on a tray before my eyes, and I can’t stop seeing them.”
“It wasn’t your punishment that removed your sins,” Paphnutius cried, ” but the fact that you always have the guilt of them in your mind.”

– Anon, The Life of Saint Thaïs the Whore. 3

He lets her out and she refuses, until he tells her she has been saved by her own self-loathing, and then she comes out, and, broken, she dies shortly afterwards.  

It’s only a page long. I close my eyes and I see Thaïs kneeling in her own piss and shit, blank-eyed, head-lolling, starved, only kept alive by the mantra she is forced to repeat to such an extent that when the ritual is broken, she dies in two weeks. It’s a legitimate horror. 

While (although she’s still on the calendar, 8th October) authorities think she’s fictional, of all the stories in the Lives of the Fathers, this is the one that could happen, and the one that most captured future imaginations. Anatole France’s novel Thaïs approaches the story critically and was adapted for stage and film. Michele Roberts’s account of her in her novel Impossible Saints is as bleak and brutal as the source material.

The story of Mary dates to about 370. Mary is the niece of a hermit called Abraham, orphaned, who lives with him in his little house in the desert. Mary is pestered into having sex with a nameless monk and is so consumed by guilt at having sex once that she thinks she might as well just go and do it for money, so she runs away and goes to work in a brothel. Abraham goes to get her back and they tearfully reconcile; he forgives her for everything. Saint Mary is also remembered on October 8th.

The account of Pelagia comes from the fifth century, but is again set in the fourth. A bishop sees an actor pass in the street.

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Saint Pelagia

As all of us were admiring his holy teaching, look, all of a sudden the most famous actress of Antioch passed us by, the best of the ballerinas and comediennes. She was riding on a donkey, and she was dressed so ostentatiously that you couldn’t see anything of her beneath all the gold and gems and pearls. Even her feet were covered in gold and pearls. She had a train of boy and girl slaves with her, all dressed in expensive clothes, each with a golden collar, some in front and some behind. No one could ever have enough of her loveliness. She passed by us, and the air was filled with musk, and some of the sweetest fragrances in the whole world.

–Jacob the Deacon, The Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 2

She is specifically what the Romans called a mima. Now in ancient theatre of the respectable kind, the comedies and tragedies, all the actors were men. Female actors did the mimes, the sacred fertility shows, and these were bawdy, and had nudity, and included simulated sex acts. Writers of antiquity tell us that these shows included actual sex acts, and that the women who performed in these shows were sex workers too, but we don’t know if that’s true. This story assumes that being an actor makes her a stripper and a porn star too. The title, added later, just labels her a whore and is done with it.

The actor, Pelagia, converts to Christianity; Satan visit her and tries to get her to recant.

He said, “Why are you doing this to me, Lady Pelagia? Why are you playing the part of my personal Judas?”

Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 9

She refuses, and runs away in one of the bishop’s cloaks. Three years later, the narrator asks to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Nonnus asks James to send his regards to a hermit who lives nearby called Pelagius.

I found the hermit on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus had prayed, in a modest little shack, closed off on all sides, except for a little window in the wall. I banged on the shutter of the little window, and she opened it and at once recognised me, but I didn’t recognise her. How could I have possibly recognised her since when I saw her before she was indescribably beautiful, and now her face had wasted away from her starving herself? Her eyes looked like ditches in her face.

Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 14

It is of course Pelagia. Shortly after she dies. When it’s discovered that the miracle-worker was in fact a young woman, the assembled people marvel, and the moral is that she’s saved because she became a man. Her day, again, is October 8th.

Mary of Egypt’s story, written by Sophronius, probably in the 630s but is again set some time in the late fifth century. Zosimas of Palestine, supposedly the world’s best monk, meets a naked old woman in the desert, who, although reluctant initially to speak, tells her story.

Her skin was completely black, all tanned by the heat of the sun, and the hair on her head was white like the clouds, and short, and like wool. And it fell no farther than the nape of her neck.

-Sophronius, Life of Saint Mary of Egypt the Whore, 7

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Mary of Egypt. Jose de Ribera

She says she’s from Egypt. She was promiscuous from a young age. That’s it. She slept with anyone who asked.

I took nothing from anyone for it; now that I was mad with passion… I fulfilled my sexual needs for free. I was evil! And don’t think I took nothing because I was rich – no, I lived by begging, and sometimes working as a weaver.

-Life of Saint Mary of Egypt the Whore, 13

So in fact, she was explicitly not a sex worker. She just liked sex.

She one day decided, she says, to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and worked her way across by sleeping with all the men on the boat. At Jerusalem, she found herself barred from the temple by an invisible wall. She prayed for forgiveness and a vision of the Virgin Mary told her to go to the desert. She bought three loaves of bread and retreated into the desert. The bread miraculously kept her going for fifteen years.

Illiterate, she now knows the Bible by heart. She levitates, walks across rivers. Zosimas visits her a couple more times and on the second time finds her dead. An angelic lion appears and writes her name on the ground: Mary of Egypt. The lion buries her.

The Orthodox church in particular honours Mary of Egypt in the week before Easter. They say the moral of her story is that even the greatest of sinners can become miracle workers.

But what was her sin, exactly? She liked sex. She slept around. In the society I live in, it is no big deal. But back then, that made her the worst. It earned her the label, whore.

And in all of these stories, all of which are supposed to be about redemption, the slur sticks in the title (and I don’t think it’s an accident that the three of them share a feast day). In the same way that Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t remembered as a byword for the redemptive power of Christmas, these four women get “whore” attached on the top line of the permanent record. It never goes away.

Howard David Ingham is a writer, poet and artist. He has an MPhil in Late Latin Literature and once got hired by the British Government to do something secret. He writes regularly at Chariot. His book, The Age of Miracles is still funding on Kickstarter.

Magic and Sacrilege in the Court of Louis XIV

 

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Nicolas Regnier, Card Sharps and Fortune Teller (1620)

The belief in magic plays a large part in The Long Way Home. Many of the strangest things that happen to the characters are based on fact. Although the book takes place at the dawn of the Enlightenment, superstition and belief in magic was still common and in some cases, all-consuming. Let’s take a closer look.

In spite of the devout Catholicism of Louis XIV’s court, many courtiers not only believed in but attempted to practice magic, often with the intent of harming others, and usually with the assistance of a sorceress or renegade priest. While the courtiers attending the king were expected to attend mass every day without fail, business in spells, poisons, and magic charms was booming.

The Affair of the Poisons uncovered a thriving underworld of sorceresses and magicians trading in everything from cosmetics, love charms, and divination to demon conjuration, poisons, and even human sacrifice. The more potent the charm, the higher the price, and there were a number of ordained priests who were willing to assist with the most dangerous and powerful tasks: the conjuring of demons.

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Conjuring Demons: Sure, you *might* bend them to your will…or this could happen. Martin Schongauer, The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1470)

At best, magic could be dismissed as superstition, or worse, the serious crime of sacrilege. Admittedly, demon conjuration, murder, and human sacrifice don’t sound particularly Christian to the modern reader. So why involve priests?

As Mollenauer explains in Strange Revelations:

“Paris’ magical underworld exploited the practices, imagery, and sacramental of the Catholic Church to increase the efficacy of their magic. The composition of their spells and charms illustrates that the distinction between superstition and orthodox Christian belief was still very blurred in seventeenth-century France. The simple spells known as oraisons found in La Voison’s grimoires, for example, were made up of a linguistic hodge-podge of Christian imagery, ‘debased’ holy languages (Latin, Greek, or Hebrew), and simply alliterative nonsense.”

By involving priests and Christian rituals and imagery, they attempted to harness the power of the Catholic mass to serve their own ends. It was the idea of the priest as an intercessory between God and laymen which gave Catholic priests their power and their elevated status. The superstition could not be denied without also denying the priest’s divine power, or that of the devil on the other hand.

One way to guarantee the efficacy of a potion or charm would be to have a priest say a mass over it. Although the Council of Trent had advised against superstition and divination in 1566, there were some priests who were willing to accept to the freelance work as compensation for a life of poverty. It was believed to be a sin not only to have one’s fortune told, but to even believe that such a thing was possible.

Still, magic flourished. Along with cosmetics, fortune tellers and some midwives sold cures for ailments from headaches to leprosy, charms for love, luck, or impossibly long lives.

Gambling was very popular, and charms to bring luck at the gaming tables were prohibitively expensive and difficult to come by. With the huge sums of money won and lost often over single hands, many thought the spiritual and legal risks were worth it.

The list of charms is not for the squeamish, however. The preserved cauls of infants were popular charms, as were tiny miscarried or stillborn fetuses. Many sorceresses worked as or with midwives, so these could always be obtained for a price. The most expensive of the money charms was the main de gloire, which involved sacrificing a particular kind of mare, skinning it, and preparing its hide in an elaborate fashion for several days, after which point it was said to transform into a live snake that could double almost any amount of money put into its box…as long as you slept with the box.

Love magic was more popular than money magic, and many spells and charms were sold to inspire love in others, or to help one to gain the approval of troublesome relatives. If these didn’t work to remove impediments to love, there was always poison.

Poison was sold by sorceresses, magicians, fortune tellers, and sometimes even midwives. It was alarmingly easy to obtain and more common than one would think. The sale of arsenic had not yet been limited to those professions requiring it, so anyone without fear or moral compass could mix “inheritance powder”. Although arsenic is strong enough to cause death or serious damage on its own, it was believed that magic gave it its lethal power, and so renegade priests were often involved directly or indirectly in its sale.

The Affair of the Poisons exposed the activities of Paris’ criminal underworld and resulted in the arrest, imprisonment, exile, or execution of hundreds of people from all levels of society, including some within the king’s inner circle. As a result, the sale of arsenic was restricted and superstition was forbidden by law, but fear of death by poison remained a serious concern throughout the Age of Enlightenment.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Lynn Wood Mollenauer. Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s France.

Anne Somerset. The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV.