‘Ill-Liver of Her Body:’ A Legal Examination of Prostitution in Late Medieval Greater London

‘Ill-Liver of Her Body:’ A Legal Examination of Prostitution in Late Medieval Greater London

By Lauren Marie Martiere

Master’s Thesis, Clemson University, 2016

Drawing by Antony van den Wyngaerde View of London - The Tower of London - 16th century
Drawing by Antony van den Wyngaerde View of London – The Tower of London – 16th century

Abstract: The following study endeavors to synthesize and enhance knowledge of what has previously been an under-represented field in the study of English medieval prostitution. It examines a variety of primary sources documenting the laws, punishments, and regulations concerning sexual commerce and reaches conclusions about the marginalization of prostitutes and the diverging systems of prostitution control implemented in the City of London and the Bishop of Winchester’s manor in Southwark.

First, women, especially prostitutes, were marginalized in medieval English society. The prostitutes’ inability to play an active role in either the secular or religious life of English communities cemented their position as outsiders. A lack of legal definition for prostitution placed all women’s sexual reputations in vulnerable positions; therefore it was necessary to place women under male authority. Those who lacked husbands, fathers, or spiritual vows were placed under male authority via civic or ecclesiastical authorities. Since prostitution was illegal, but tolerable under certain circumstances, by the Roman Catholic Church, male authority came in the form of laws, punishments, and economic regulations.

Second, in London, the municipal heart of England, civic authorities implemented a prohibitive system to target prostitution. As sexual commerce proliferated throughout the city and unguarded female sexuality increased, city officials enacted numerous laws aimed first at the toleration of prostitution, to a degree, but progressed to the complete eradication of the trade. Londoners used the burgeoning English common law system to enact, enforce, and convict those working within sexual commerce. Through an analysis of cases that relied upon communal law, we can see the marginalization of prostitutes in the medieval capital. Londoners attempted to promulgate a vision of London as a bulwark for morality and urbanization, through their laws and punishments.

In contrast to the City of London, the Bishop of Winchester in his Southwark Manor, which was located across the Thames from the City of London, enacted a regulative-system of prostitution control. Consecutive bishops took that stance of the Catholic Church that prostitution played an important function in the moral and public safety of the community and therefore should be tolerated. In doing so, the bishops wrote and implemented a customary that governed the sanctioned brothel-system that flourished in the manor. The regulations placed strict economic and private restrictions on all those employed in the sex trade. Through an examination of the customary regulations and the ramifications of an ecclesiastically sanctioned brothel-system, I have found that prostitutes were not only marginalized in Southwark, but were also exploited.

Click here to read this thesis from Clemson University

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