Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England

Article excerpt

Ruth Mazo Karras, Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England, Studies in the History of Sexuality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). x + 221 pp. ISBN o-19-512498-7. L15.99.

This is a useful and perceptive addition to the ever growing collection of works on medieval sexuality. Ruth Mazo Karras places the issue of prostitution in later medieval England in its larger cultural context, by examining the attitudes to prostitution and sexuality reflected in medieval law, theological writing, and literary texts. The study illustrates the ways that prostitution was condemned yet accepted, regulated rather than banned altogether, and elaborates the fact that prostitution was not understood in exclusively commercial terms; rather, commercial sex represented one aspect of `wanton' sexual behaviour (p. 12). Karras explores the continuum between female sexuality and prostitution (not itself a medieval term) to demonstrate how the label `whore' was often applied to single women `not under the dominion of one man' (p. 3).

Laws against prostitution tended to focus on maintaining social order through the marginalization of common women, and to address the reputations rather than actions of such women; those classed as whores might be banned from a town and punished by public shaming. Whereas Southwark, Sandwich, and Southampton had official brothels, other towns tended to have privately owned `stews', but in both cases the emphasis was on regulation and the delineation of whores and bawds; men received no punishment. …

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