The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyard: Time, Ritual, and Sexual Commerce in London

The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyard: Time, Ritual, and Sexual Commerce in London

The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyard: Time, Ritual, and Sexual Commerce in London

The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyard: Time, Ritual, and Sexual Commerce in London

Synopsis

Every month, a ragtag group of Londoners gather in the site known as Crossbones Graveyard to commemorate the souls of medieval prostitutes believed to be buried there--the "Winchester Geese," women who were under the protection of the Church but denied Christian burial. In the Borough of Southwark, not far from Shakespeare's Globe, is a pilgrimage site for self-identified misfits, nonconformists, and contemporary sex workers who leave memorials to the outcast dead. Ceremonies combining raucous humor and eclectic spirituality are led by a local playwright, John Constable, also known as John Crow. His interpretation of the history of the site has struck a chord with many who feel alienated in present-day London. Sondra L. Hausner offers a nuanced ethnography of Crossbones that tacks between past and present to look at the historical practices of sex work, the relation of the Church to these professions, and their representation in the present. She draws on anthropological approaches to ritual and time to understand the forms of spiritual healing conveyed by the Crossbones rites. She shows that ritual is a way of creating the present by mobilizing the stories of the past for contemporary purposes.

Excerpt

So keep on playing those mind games together
Doing the ritual dance in the sun
Millions of mind guerrillas
Putting their soul power to the karmic wheel
Keep on playing those mind games together
Raising the spirit of peace and love

John Lennon, “Mind Games” (1973)

On November 23, 1996, a London playwright and performer by the name of John Constable had a shamanic vision. in it, a totemic Goose appeared to tell him her tale. She was the spirit of a particular Goose, one who hailed from the jurisdiction of Winchester. in fact, she identified as a Winchester Goose, argot for a medieval prostitute. She and her fellow Winchester Geese had been sex workers in what were called “stews” (or “stewes”) or brothels—or, in later colloquial accounts, “nunneries” —on London’s South Bank, in what is now the Borough of Southwark, a mere five hundred years ago.

It is impossible to establish exactly when these Southwark stews were first set up, but we know they operated at least from the late fourteenth century to the mid-sixteenth century. Prostitution in the area very likely preceded this date, however, and we know from court documents intending to bring offenders to trial that it continued long after. Sex work, lest we forget, is the world’s oldest profession, and places on the periphery—where Southwark once was—are likely to be the host . . .

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