In the second part of her ‘Sex at Court’ series, Laura Slater looks at the phenomenon of prostitutes at court, and the various measures – including licensing, imprisonment and taxes – that were taken in order to try and regulate them.
The late medieval court was an overwhelmingly male place to be. Apart from laundrywomen, almost all of its menial household staff were male. The queen usually lived in a separate household from the king, as did their children. Female servants and ladies-in-waiting would attend these courts. But the vast majority of the courtly ‘staff’ around the ruler: courtiers and counsellors, clerics and bureaucrats, soldiers and bodyguards, diplomats and visitors, musicians and entertainers…were all going to be men. This image of courtly feasting from the Très Riches Heures shows us the all-male world of the court very clearly.
The assorted hangers-on following in the train of the court would also usually be men: hopeful petitioners, messengers, spies and noble retainers. Most of these people had no official place in the royal household. Efforts were made throughout the Middle Ages in European courts to try and clear these people away from the vicinity of the court, and stop them eating, drinking and travelling at the ruler’s expense. But they invariably came to nothing. People needed to be at court: to get charters witnessed or marriages agreed, to get licenses and permissions for things, and generally just do business- sometimes with the king himself, but as often with his officials, or some of the great nobles in attendance on him. Other people’s business was the court: making a career in royal service, joining the royal household, or supplying the king and his household with the vast quantities of food, wine, clothes and jewels that courtly splendour required.
In this all-male world, prostitutes were perennial, ever-tolerated (or at least, pragmatically accepted) court followers. During the reign of Henry II of England, one Ranulf de Broc held the office of ‘marshal of the whores of the royal household’. As Ruth Mazos Karras’s study, Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1998) shows, this legal regulation of prostitution was not unusual. Seen as a necessary outlet for otherwise unruly male desires, licensed brothels or ‘stews’ could be found in England, just as they were established across medieval Europe- especially in port towns such as Sandwich in Kent, or Southampton in Hampshire. In London, the red light district area was the suburb of Southwark, within the legal liberty of the bishop of Winchester. Prostitutes in Southwark were known as ‘the bishop of Winchester’s geese’.
Regulation went hand in hand with ‘crackdowns’ and exclusion. In 1318, Edward II issued ordinances against prostitutes at court. A ‘bawd’ caught a third time within the legal vicinity of the court (known as ‘the verge of the court’) would be imprisoned for forty days. Yet the rulings had little effect- in 1370, a marshal of the court prostitutes was again appointed. He was licenced to take four pence in ‘tax’ a week from each whore following the court.