Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England

Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England

Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England

Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England

Synopsis

"Common women" in medieval England were prostitutes, whose distinguishing feature was not that they took money for sex but that they belonged to all men in common. Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England tells the stories of these women's lives: their entrance into the trade because of poor job and marriage prospects or because of seduction or rape; their experiences as streetwalkers, brothel workers or the medieval equivalent of call girls; their customers, from poor apprentices to priests to wealthy foreign merchants; and their relations with those among whom they lived. Common Women crosses the boundary from social to cultural history by asking not only about the experiences of prostitutes but also about the meaning of prostitution in medieval culture. The teachings of the church attributed both lust and greed, in generous measure, to women as a group. Stories of repentant whores were popular among medieval preachers and writers because prostitutes were the epitome of feminine sin. Through a sensitive use of a wide variety of imaginative and didactic texts, Ruth Karras shows that while prostitutes as individuals were marginalized within medieval culture, prostitution as an institution was central to the medieval understanding of what it meant to be a woman. This important work will be of interest to scholars and students of history, women's studies, and the history of sexuality.

Excerpt

A "common woman" in medieval England was one who had many sex partners, often for money. Any woman not under the dominion of one man--husband, father, master--ran the risk that her independent behavior would lead to her being labeled a whore. Medieval society attempted to control such women by treating them as though they belonged to men in common (though they were not legally property). These women were also "common" in another sense: they were working women trying to make a living. Yet, though taking money for sex characterized their behavior, what defined their nature in the eyes of their contemporaries was their indiscriminate sexuality.

Since sex constitutes an important way in which men and women relate to one another, the history of sexuality forms a significant part of the history of gender relations. Norms about sexuality govern, and are governed by, gender roles, and behavior deemed inappropriate for one gender is often denigrated as immoral. The history of sexuality is also peculiarly relevant to women's history. Sexuality is an important part of the way society constructs masculinity as well as femininity, but in medieval culture women were more closely connected than men with the body and sexuality, and their sexual behavior identified and defined them much more than was usually the case with men. Attitudes toward sexuality were intimately tied to the structure of the family and the economy. "Common women," whores, or prostitutes, as women entirely defined by their sexuality, provide the extreme case that helps define views of feminine sexuality in general. Money, power, and sexuality were closely intertwined in the Middle Ages, as they are today, and prostitution was a key point of contact.

In recent years, as the history of sexuality has become a respectable subdiscipline, both feminist and nonfeminist scholarship on prostitution has begun to explore the fundamental questions of the place of sexuality in human societies and its determination by economic, political, and religious structures. This book is concerned both with the practice of commercial prostitution in medieval English society and with the way the idea of prostitution affected the construction of feminine sexuality. I argue that prostitution deeply affected gender relations because its existence fostered the connection of feminine sexuality with venality and sin, and thereby justified the control of all women.

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