Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Women at Sea: Medieval England's Legal Stews

In Roman influenced countries of the Middle Ages such as Spain, France and Italy, prostitutes were considered a necessary evil. No doubt due to actual experience to some degree but also due to the legacy left by the Romans, the officials of these Latinate countries feared that men who did not have legal access to women would turn to rape and sodomy. This was probably overstating the case since most people have a moral compass that prevents them from doing violence and then, as now, homosexuality was a “born this way” issue more than an “any port in storm” sort of thing. That having been said, legalized prostitution in the form of regulated brothels was common on the Continent by 1300.

Not so in England, where the Roman ethic that kept women as prisoners of their fathers, brothers and husbands did not quite saturate into the soil. While women were not “free” per se they were certainly less restricted in society than they were in Europe. Legalized, regulated brothels were uncommon enough to be nonexistent in 1300. But that changed mid-century and, though the institutionalization of prostitution was not far reaching at the time, it did seem to have a very specific reason for appearing. The so called “stews” sprang up in port towns that welcomed and catered to the newly successful merchant Leagues such as the Hanseatic League and the Cinque Ports conglomerate. Sailors and merchants drove the trade in places like Southampton, Sandwich and especially Southwark across the Thames from London.

In Common Women, Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England, Ruth Mazo Karras makes a good argument for the influx of seamen of all kinds being the main reason for the opening of legal brothels in England. Authorities saw a chance to not only regulate a booming trade but to profit from that regulation as well. Southwark is a particularly interesting case as its two dozen or so stews were within the jurisdiction not of secular authorities but of the Bishop of Winchester, who technically owned the land upon which they were built.

This mixture of the sacred and the profane led to particular regulations within the so called Winchester liberty that did not necessarily apply in Southampton and Sandwich. The prostitutes were expected to live off the premises of the brothel but to nonetheless pay rent to the brothel keeper for a room and victuals. The keeper, who was called a “bawd” regardless of their gender, could collect an average of 14 pence per week from the girls according to Karras. As she points out:

[compare] the sixty shillings eight pence paid annually by each prostitute for her room to the twenty shillings per annum for tenements owned by Sir John Fastolf in Southwark.

And the ladies, at least on paper, still had to rent a place to sleep. This particular regulation was meant to ensure that the prostitutes made themselves scarce on holy days and Sundays, but it seems that this was not generally the case. The disregard paid by both prostitutes and bawds to this law meant that the Bishop could collect fines when it was broken; another hefty expense that the working girl had to pay via the bawd.

Regulations also existed to keep bawds and customers from doing violence to the prostitutes and to keep bawds from forcing women into prostitution, either by the threat of violence or debt or by out and out kidnapping. The latter seems to have happened with a frightening regularity that brings to mind the human trafficking extant in the modern sex trade. A specific complaint from the Court of Aldermen in London and quoted by Karras has a distinctly current feel:

John Barton, tailor, confessed that on Thursday last, in the highway coming from Our Lady of Willesden, he faithfully promised to one Joan Rawlyns… to bring her to a good and honest service in the city. Whereupon she, putting her trust and confidence in him, went with him throughout the city until he, unknown to her, brought her to the Stews side and there left her in a waterman’s house, and then went immediately to a bawd there and made covenant with her to set the said maiden with the said bawd

Essentially, Barton sold Rawlyns into prostitution. It was only through the sympathy of the unnamed waterman’s wife that Joan Rawlyns managed to escape becoming a sex slave.

This later example – the case came to court in 1517 and resulted in Barton’s conviction, imprisonment, pillorying and banishment – came at around the time that the legalized brothels were being reconsidered. Despite continued and increasing merchant trade, the Protestant Reformation in England seems to have disavowed the regulated sex trade. Henry VIII issued proclamations against the stews of Southwark. Though they decreased in number, their location in the Winchester liberties meant that they did not shut down all together.

Organized brothels, whether actually regulated or simply a house where prostitutes shared rooms, continued with different levels of acceptance in Southwark into the 19th century. From famous houses like the Holland’s Leaguer to forgotten sites of assignation, London would continue to have a place for the wayward sailor to find companionship with a “common woman”.

Header: A Medieval Stew from a contemporary manuscript via Historum History Forums


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Legalization and regulation has always made more sense to me... Kind of like the senseless "war on drugs" our government is constantly engaged in... But, that's just my opinion.

Pauline said...

I agree, especially in the modern era. Corruption and trafficking will always exist under the broad heading of "sex work", but legalization and regulation would certainly help to curtail much more of that than is being so much as touched on now.