The Bankside Stews: Prostitution in London 1161-1546

The Bankside Stews: Prostitution in London 1161-1546

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The Bankside Stews: Prostitution in London 1161-1546

By Michelle Laughran

Undergraduate Honors Thesis, College of William and Mary, 1989

Introduction: Although historians frequently associate prostitution with a number of social, political and cultural concerns, including society’s attitudes toward both women and sexuality, and the spread of venereal disease, remarkably few have made it the central focus of their inquiries. Social historian Vern L. Bullough conjectures that research is lacking because:

…prostitution not only deals with sex, but it is a type of sexual activity which western society has officially condemned. Any kind of sex has been almost a forbidden subject for scholars, especially historians, until comparatively recent times, and prostitution, a deviant sexual behavior, has been even more tabooed.

As a result, an ever-present influence upon city life has been neglected, much to the detriment of a complete understanding of urban society.

Researchers like Leah Lydia Otis, Jacques Roussiaud, and Elizabeth Pavan have recently been concentrated specifically on prostitution in medieval France and Italy, respectively, but no systematic investigations have yet been published regarding English prostitution during the Middle Ages. This lack of study regarding medieval prostitution in England is surprising and disappointing, as the English treatment of the phenomenon was, especially in medieval London, both unique and innovative in Europe.

Generally speaking, medieval governments responded to prostitution in one of three ways: repression, or the definition and enforcement of prostitution as a punishable offense; tolerance, neither condemning nor encouraging its occurrence; or institutionalization, active regulation of its existence. The choice of policy toward prostitution ultimately had little to do with the phenomenon itself, but depended instead on associated concerns. Governments’ course of action changed as circumstances caused one of three main considerations – financial motivations and concerns for public peace and health – to gain priority.

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