The Wandering Whore

Today’s snippets come from a very popular early modern text on prostitution, but in order to give it some context, here is a little overview of the history of brothels in London from John Stowe, whose survey of London in 1598 describes the history of Bankside stews:

Next on this bank was sometime the Bordello, or Stewes, a place so called of certain stew-houses privileged there, for the repair of incontinent men to the like women.

Under Henry II parliament ordained certain rules for the maintenance of these brothels:

That no stew-holder or his wife should let or stay any single woman, to go and come freely at all times
No stew-holder to keep any woman to board, but she to board abroad at her pleasure.
To take no more for the woman’s chamber in the week than fourteen pence.
Not to keep open his doors upon the holidays.
No single woman to be kept against her will that would leave.
No stew-holder to receive any woman of religion, or any man’s wife.
No single woman to take money to lie with any man, but she lie with him all night till the morrow.
The constables, bailiff, and others, every week to search each stew-house.

These brothels were subsequently closed down by the authorities under Henry VIII, but were once again legalised under Edward VI. By the reign of James I, Bankside in Southwark was an area known area for its vice and crime. The theatres had been established here since it was outside the jurisdiction of the City Fathers, and brothels and stew-houses flourished alongside the bear-pits and numerous taverns. Whorehouses were also prominent in other areas of London, most notably Westminster, Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Whitefriars.

A popular text which was translated from the Italian in the 1570s, and had been in heavy circulation ever since was Arentino’s The Wandering Whore. Pornographic and entertaining, it takes the form of a dialogue between a pimp and a whore, and sheds light on the practise of prostitution in early modern London:

Betty Lawrence… will serve the Cure [for the 'standing ague']; suffering you to whip the skin off her buttocks, onely paying her Crowns apiece for her patience and punishment.

A list of ‘Common Whores’ includes the names:

Green Moll, alias Joan Godfrey, Toothless Betty, Shards wife in Dunning Alley, Long-haired Mrs Spencer in Spittle-fields, Taylor the Prigg, Dutch Whore, Wilkins a weaver’s Wife at Smack Ally End.

Male names feature too, including: Little Taffy, Dick Steckwel, Ned Brooks, Green by Newgate, Frank Ashburn, and the alluringly-named ‘Ralph Asbington, alias Shitten-arse.

The young Gallant in the text discusses this list of names, claiming ‘I’ll visit their Quarters one after another, though I’m clappt three times over with the Pox.’ He enquires about a prostitute in Moorgate, ‘a teasing Girl with Silver-lace upon her Petticoat a Quarters bredth, with Lemmon-colour’d Ribbons a-la-mode-france, with Pendants in her eares, neck-lace of counterfeit pearl, and dres’t with a Caul in her hair.’

There is a description of a prostitute who ‘stood upon her head with naked breech & belly whilst four Cully-rumpers chuckt fifteen Half-crowns into her Commodity.’

Prostitutes are advised to be clean. They need to ‘paint, powder, and perfume their clothes and carkasses’ and have ‘fine clean Holland-smocks’. Descriptions of typical acts between prostitute and client include kissing with their mouths open, putting their tongues into his mouth, and putting their ‘left hand in his Cod-piece, the right hand in his Pocket.’

But perhaps the most moving aspect of Aretino’s tract is the description of the fate of many children born as a result of prostitution:

what children are got in Bastardy amongst us, are educated, if you are but minded to go to a certain stately building, where there is a grate, and one continually there placed to receive it [the baby], the Priests have a place peculiar to themselves, for what Brats they get are carried, where on the outside of the wall hangs a rope with a basket at the end on’t, where they are drawn up in a basket if you ring the bell which hangs close by.

For more on seventeenth century brothels see here or search the tag Prostitution.

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2 Comments

  • September 30, 2011 - 2:37 pm | Permalink

    It’s from the BPI1700 collection, undated, and engraver unknown.

  • Steve Morgan
    September 30, 2011 - 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Great entry – where’s the picture from?

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