Were Medieval Prostitutes Marginals? Evidence from Sluis, 1387-1440
By Erik Spindler
Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, Vol.87:2 (2009)
Introduction: This article poses a question that seems, at first sight, to require an obvious answer: yes, most historians would agree, medieval prostitutes were marginals. In fact, prostitutes provide a convenient example to explain the very idea of marginality. However, this requires considering prostitutes to be a homogeneous group – which can, collectively, be labelled ‘marginal’. How convincing is the idea that all prostitutes had common, inalienable characteristics? How convincing is the view that prostitutes formed a distinct and clearly identifiable group? How convincing is a model in which an individual’s place in society is determined principally by membership of a loosely structured group?
Recent work has tended to draw into question the usefulness of simple groups and categories, and to emphasise instead the different personal circumstances and social networks within a single group. The result of such work has generally been to emphasise variety, to demonstrate that groups seem less cohesive when studied closely than they do from afar. Joel Rosenthal’s exploration of old age, for example, showed the diversity that existed among English bishops, that is to say within a loosely structured group whose members shared a similar legal and social status. Senescence prompted some of these men to seek retirement, that is to say that old age impacted on the activities of some members of the House of Lords in a manner that was independent of their place within that group.
Let us accept this idea, that a group of persons might share a status, but that their activities and identities as members of that group might be determined by individual circumstances. If this is true at the top of society (as Rosenthal has shown), there are no logical grounds to suppose that the same is not true at the bottom of society. Must we not expect a broad range of identities, experiences, activities and degrees of marginality within so large and ill-deﬁ ned a group as late medieval prostitutes?