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Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England.

Ruth Mazo Karras, Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England

New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. viii + 221 PP. $35. ISBN: n.a.

In recent years, numerous studies have appeared on the history of medieval and early modern prostitution. A pioneer of this work, whose articles have offered new insights into the "harlot saints" and attitudes to gender and sexuality, is Ruth Karras. In Common Women, which builds on but goes beyond her previous work, Karras has put together a definitive study of prostitution in late medieval England.

The defining feature of a "common woman" was "not the exchange of money, nor even multiple sexual partners, but the public and indiscriminate availability of a woman's body..." (10). Karras contends that these women, "entirely defined by their sexuality; provide the extreme case that helps define views of feminine sexuality in general" (3). Avoiding the problems inherent in many other studies, Karras treads a careful and well-articulated path between seeing prostitutes only as victims or describing them as agents in control of their own destiny.

The first chapter examines the legal foundations and practical applications of statutes in England concerning prostitution, and looks at how the law changed over time. Karras convincingly establishes that the public shaming or labeling of women as whores threatened every woman who did not conform to the existing moral standards of her community. Officially-sanctioned prostitution, based on a consensus from Augustine to Aquinas and beyond, was required as a safety valve -- a "hydraulic model of male sexuality" (6). A means of social control, it primarily controlled women; only when control of male sexuality in

the sixteenth century became desireable did legalized prostitution become unacceptable.

In chapter 2, Karras explores "Brothels, Licit and Illicit." Unlike the municipal brothels that existed in almost every European city, most English towns did not have official brothels. The differences did not end there. While frequent attempts were made to "convert" prostitutes to a "decent" life in Europe, and halfway houses or convents for repentant women provided a haven, no such provisions existed in England. The statutes of the few official brothels did offer some protections for women against financial and physical abuse, but Karras argues that the regulations were intended primarily to control women while making them available to men. Thus the very women who provided recognized benefits to society were stigmatized. Moreover, violence was a pervasive aspect of a prostitute's life.

Chapter 3 explores why and how a woman became a prostitute. Seduced by masters, poverty-stricken, procured by a bawd or simply needing to supplement the household income, prostitutes in England seem to have practiced more informally than elsewhere. Karras suggests this may have been due to greater job opportunities, meaning that many women worked as prostitutes only when the need arose. The author offers a compelling explanation for the dramatic changes in attitudes to prostitution that occurred everywhere in the sixteenth century. While syphilis, the "family values" promoted by both Reformations, and an increasingly repressive moral outlook all played a part, she believes that "... as population rose, and with it unemployment and the fear of disorder ... the elites felt sufficiently threatened to suppress prostitution, at least at the level that catered to the lower classes" (53). Chapter 4, "The Sex Trade in Practice," gives a fascinating insight into the lives of the practitioners. Interestingly, the most well-documented case involved a transvestite male prostitute. Karras provides detailed information about venues, fees, and customers. The fifth chapter deals with how the prostitutes fit (or did not fit) into their communities. The author believes that "prostitutes who operated independently or on a more casual basis were perhaps less offensive to and more integrated into their community than those who worked in brothels. They interacted with other women" (96).

In chapter 6, "Saints and Sinners," Karras examines the portrayal of prostitutes in sermons and other religious literature. In another striking contrast with continental attitudes, Karras points out that "[t]here are no examples of English clergy who took it upon themselves to preach to and convert prostitutes ..." (102). Unlike the French and German pre-Reformation preachers I have studied, the English preachers seem to have been "far more concerned with the danger prostitutes posed to others ... than they were with the condition of the prostitutes themselves" (102). While misogyny was not the only attitude English churchmen expressed towards prostitutes, it was the prevalent one.

In her conclusion, Karras summarizes her findings, which point clearly to legalized prostitution as an aspect of society tolerated because of the need to find acceptable outlets for male sexuality. Yet at the same time as legalized prostitution solved a problem, it created another -- "a group of women beyond male control" (137). While some women apparently chose to pursue this line of work, virtually all women who did so were "regarded as the dregs of society. Providing a socially necessary service did not earn one society's respect" (142). Karras has written an original, stimulating, and important book that will become a standard text on the history of prostitution.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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