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Sex Work and its Relationship with Local Authorities

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During the Late-Medieval period, London was established as a “leading commercial city in Europe” due to its dominance as a trader of wool, distributor of fine goods, and, increasingly, as a producer of luxury items. The capital also benefitted economically from a period of great military success under Henry V in the context of the Hundred Years War. Following a decisive victory at Agincourt, England exerted political control over the duchy of Normandy and entered into a considerably pro-English alliance with the French in 1419 following the murder of the Dauphin. Indeed, the city became increasingly dominant on the international stage under Henry V, placing female Londoners in a “unique” position of increased economic responsibility wherein “the transmission of wealth through women and particularly through their marriages” posed more significance. A married woman became more valuable to local government by encouraging a greater circulation of wealth and, therefore, increasing cashflow within different economic sectors. European Christian culture “assumed” that these women looking to marry should not have already engaged in sexual activity. Simultaneously, however, evidence demonstrates that there was also a popular belief that the male sex drive was something that was considered natural to expel: a “necessary evil”. Thus, the societal role of the sex worker was established. These women acted as human “safety valve[s]” in order to protect other women, and their economic value as wives, from being “corrupted” when the “dam” of male sexuality burst and men were supposedly driven to “seduction, rape, adultery and sodomy.” Indeed, as the thirteenth-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas is quoted to have said, “if prostitution were to be suppressed, careless lusts would overthrow society.” There is ample evidence to suggest that this was a commonly held view – most notably: the establishment of London prostitution on an institutional level in the Southwark borough. However, despite this, it was in the interests of lawmakers to conspicuously regulate the sex industry and maintain a critical stance towards these women in order to maintain credibility.

This chapter is based on the argument that the relationship of authorities and sex workers resulted in the title of ‘sex worker’ becoming more prevalent as a definer of identity, rather than simply as an occupation. In order to protect the moral integrity of women looking to marry, and consequently transfer wealth, laws sought to humiliate perpetrators in order to disenchant any woman looking to engage in casual, part-time sex work. Laws highlighted women who offered sexual services by only allowing them to work outside the walls of London and specified what clothing they were allowed to wear. It became more difficult to be a woman who sold sex without being labelled as an outright sex worker. By attempting to create this binary between women who were and were not, it seems that authorities sought to provide stability to the moral structures of the city. In their ideal world, a man could expel his desires without corrupting the economic value of a woman looking to marry with an easily identifiable “already corrupt woman”.

In order to conduct a case study of the legal context and treatment of sex work in Late-Medieval London, I will be examining the 1419 Liber Albus: The White Book of the City of London (“Liber Albus”) custom compilation. Composed of city archives, the Liber Albus was compiled under the patronage of mayor Richard Whittington in 1419: the year of his election into his fourth term as Lord Mayor of London. It is important to not only consider how local governments sought to regulate ‘whores’, but why they did so in relation to the economic and political context. The reputation of a local mayor was reliant on his policy towards brothels and the regulation of sex work both in the interests of maintaining local public order and the support of citizens, but also in the interests of maintaining royal favour. Whittington understood the potential consequences of governing a city that could be perceived as being morally mismanaged after Richard II seized the liberties of London in June 1392 on grounds of “misgovernment” after an inquiry in Nottingham – an inquiry at which Whittington was present. Resultantly, Whittington was forced to walk a difficult line between the demand for sex work amongst citizens and its financial benefits, and the need for his city to appear well-governed. This moral dichotomy seems to have translated into a dichotomy of policy in the Liber Albus with which local government attempted to conspicuously condemn sex work on a public stage whilst tolerating sex workers in specific locations.

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The Liber Albus text is especially illuminating when discussed in comparison to another legal compilation Memorials of London and London Life (“Memorials”) which spans the city’s legal history from 1276 to November 1419 – the same month during which the Liber Albus compilation was concluded. As outlined in Riley’s introduction of Memorials, they served different purposes despite both being compiled from the London archival Letter-Books. Memorials was compiled to “illustrate the local history of London in the latter part of the Middle Ages”, whereas The Liber Albus was constructed to record the “then existing City laws, observances, rights, and franchises”. Therefore, by discussing the differences of the customs included in the two texts, it is possible to observe how Whittington wished to distinguish his own social policy towards sex work from previous mayors.

The greatest indication into the aspirations of Whittington and his colleagues can be gleaned from what the Liber Albus says, or rather does not say, in regard to the borough of Southwark and its stew houses. The borough came under the jurisdiction of London in 1327, but legal brothels still flourished in specific “liberties”, such as the liberty of the bishop of Winchester. The Southwark stews are explicitly mentioned once within the Liber Albus in a law stating that boatmen may not “carry any man or woman, either denizens or strangers, unto the Stews, except in the day-time, under pain of imprisonment.” By barely acknowledging the brothels that existed to the south of the river, Whittington does not seem to acknowledge legal sex workers as a responsibility of London. Discussion of appropriate methods of punishment for promiscuous women is a key theme discussed in both of the sources. There are some significant similarities between the methods discussed. Memorials dictates that “common harlots, and all women commonly reputed as such, should have and use hoods of ray only” and gives “Sheriffs” the power to confiscate and keep the offending clothing items of any women seen to break this rule. Similarly, the Liber Albus decrees that a “common woman” wearing “minever [or cendal] on her dress or her hood” should forfeit them to the “serjeant who shall have […] taken her in such guise.” This punishment of confiscation seems to have been adopted due to fears within local government of sexually deviant and sexually obedient women being indistinguishable from one another – there was a fear of socially disrespectable women appearing “clad and attired in the manner and dress of good and noble dames”. It was in the interests of local government to “know and distinguish prostitutes from the rest of the female population” in order to prevent damage to the marriage prospects to other women. However, it seems unlikely that this punishment was necessarily aimed as professional, full-time sex workers themselves. Neither source calls for evidence of the financial involvement of these women in the sex trade before confiscation is undertaken. In addition, it is more convincing that a woman with a significant financial reliance on sex work would benefit from donning the “hood of ray” in order to attract customers. Instead, it should be noted how both compilations distinguish what women could fall victim to the punishment of confiscation based on their reputation, not their occupation. Memorials specifies that “all women commonly reputed as such” could fall victim and the Liber Albus utilises the umbrella term “common women” to distinguish those who were disallowed from dressing respectably. By instructing enforcers to pursue women based on how they were “reputed”, and providing them with the incentive of keeping the garment, this method of punishment encouraged a culture of harassment against women perceived to be unchaste. It became more important for ‘respectable’ women to pay attention to her sexual reputation in order to avoid this punishment and aided city officials in their pursuit of an easily identifiable binary between sexual saints and sinners through the implementation of clothing regulations.

However, the Liber Albus goes significantly further in its punishments that centred on the visible distinction of sex workers and includes methods of visible humiliation as punishment. The compilation orders that any woman “found to be a common courtesan” should be punished by having her “hair cut round about her head”. Much like any patriarchal society, the appearance of women in Late-Medieval London did much to determine their supposed societal importance and this is well documented in primary evidence. A popular poem from the early-fourteenth century ‘How the Goodwife Taught her Daughter’ provides ample insight into the how social tradition envisioned the appearance of the archetypal ‘respectable’ wife. The presumably male author required women to “be of becoming appearance” but emphasised that they should still remain “meek” and seemingly unremarkable. The decision of Whittington to include a punishment which directly attacked the female appearance by shaving the head appears to be another direct attempt to erase the possibility of sex workers being mistaken for ‘respectable’ women – their appearance had to be made something noteworthy. In addition, unlike the simple confiscation of clothes, head shaving was something that could significantly impact the ability of a sex worker to do her job. Long hair was often depicted in Christian artistic tradition as something innately sexual and seductive. The repentant prostitute Mary Magdalene was said to have dried Christ’s feet with her long hair after washing them and Suzanna, the woman accused of being involved with “two lecherous old men whom she had rebuffed”, is popularly depicted lounging in her bath combing “her long tresses”. By removing the long hair of women found guilty of illicit sexual actions, perhaps officials sought to prevent these women from embodying a similar sexual appeal. In addition, Medieval literary culture popularly presented women with long hair as being more susceptible to demonic intervention and attack. One chapter of the 1372 Book of the Knight of the Tower recounts how the long hair of a woman made her susceptible to an attack from the devil: “a deuelle helde her bi the tresses of the here of her hede, like a lyon holithe his praie […] putte and thruste […] brenninge alles and nedeles, into the brayne” (‘a devil held her by hairs of her head, like a lion holds his prey […] thrust […] hot burning awls and needles into the brain’). Women with long hair could be considered to be more susceptible to being overtaken by the devil and following a sinful way of life. Despite its French origin, the book and its teachings became influential enough across the European continent for it to be translated into both English, by William Caxton, and German, by Marquard vom Stein, later in the fifteenth century. Therefore, by shaving the heads of sex workers found guilty of operating within the city, Whittington sent a clear message to citizens: the interior of the city walls should not be a sexual environment and women who sought to oppose this should be made into spectacles and have their sexual appeal removed.

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Sex Work and its Relationship with Local Authorities. (2022, November 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/sex-work-and-its-relationship-with-local-authorities/
“Sex Work and its Relationship with Local Authorities.” Edubirdie, 25 Nov. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/sex-work-and-its-relationship-with-local-authorities/
Sex Work and its Relationship with Local Authorities. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/sex-work-and-its-relationship-with-local-authorities/> [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].
Sex Work and its Relationship with Local Authorities [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Nov 25 [cited 2023 Feb 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/sex-work-and-its-relationship-with-local-authorities/
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