This review was done by Elaine E. Whitaker, Dept. of English, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Karras, Ruth Mazo. Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England. Studies in the History of Sexuality. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. viii + 221. ISBN 0-195-06242-6.
Reviewed by Elaine E. Whitaker Department of English University of Alabama at Birmingham email@example.com
This aptly-titled study focuses on women's sexuality apart from marriage in England from approximately 1348 to 1500. The title foregrounds Karras's finding that the distinguishing feature of whoring in medieval England was not payment for sex, though this did occur, but rather the availability of a given woman to any interested male. This property of being "common" -- held in common by all men -- was so defining that these women were not allowed to have exclusive relationships with their clients. Rather than freeing these women at the price of their reputations, prostitution affirmed patriarchy by protecting the investment value of virgins and faithful wives while simultaneously meeting (to borrow language from college financial aid offices) the full extent of demonstrated need. The word "sexuality" in the subtitle introduces the continuity between perceptions of a whore (L. meretrix, Fr. putain) and of medieval women generally.
Acknowledging her scholarship to have been inspired by the late John Boswell, Karras crafts definitions that emerge from medieval records rather than from late-twentieth-century perceptual categories. Whoring here is the expression of "feminine sexuality . . . outside of marriage"; prostitution is "the exchange of sex for money." At the end of her introduction, Karras reminds us that people in the Middle Ages "identified people by behavior rather than by desire or orientation" (12). In the body of the text, she describes
whores, priest's whores, stewhouses, and their keepers. (Among a plethora of memorable details is, for example, the story of a young woman who had come to London seeking honest work only to find herself rowed haplessly to Southwark, where her virginity was protected by the intervention of a Southwark waterman's wife .) Just as John Boswell's scholarship led to a revisioning of homosexuality in the ancient and medieval worlds and ultimately to queer studies generally, Ruth Mazo Karras's investigations point toward another valid alternative perspective, that of women whose business was sex.
In an interestingly complicated and nuanced argument, Karras reconstructs the roles of "common" women from legal records, penitentials, and contemporary fiction. Of special interest to her is the question of the degree that these women could be said to be full participants in society rather than (to use our present category of perception) marginalized. In six chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion, she describes a society that tolerated prostitution in order to meet the sexual needs of unattached men who might otherwise have become violent and might have violated the property rights that other men held in wives and virgins. Intrinsic worth and self-esteem are not factors in this calculus; civil order is.
In Chapter 1, "Prostitution and the Law," Karras justifies her use of law because it is carefully-worded language delineating
a society's values. Although medieval English law did not define the terms under consideration, the law's application in borough, manorial, and ecclesiastical courts indicates society's need to constrain but not obliterate whoring. Prostitutes wore striped hoods and were subject to other sumptuary legislation. London's prostitutes were restricted to Cock Lane or to the then-suburb Southwark. A statute in Coventry required that no single woman could live alone -- an illustration of the way that the presence of whoredom furnished a rationale for regulating women generally.
In Chapter 2, "Brothels, Licit and Illicit," Karras shows how the condoning of brothels -- either as cottage industries or as officially sanctioned institutions -- did not work to condone the behavior of the women involved. The beginning of this chapter departs from the English focus to include three pages summarizing what is known about institutionalized brothels in Europe (32-35 and passim later in the chapter), where institutionalization of prostitution was more common than in England. Karras then fully describes official brothels in Sandwich, Southampton, and Southwark. Interestingly, since Southwark was under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Winchester, the bishop was -- at several removes -- a brothelkeeper. As to brothelkeeping in England generally, Karras considers it "an important area for female entrepreneurship" (44).
In Chapter 3, "Becoming a Prostitute," Karras asks why medieval women became involved. As the use of the word "prostitute" indicates, this chapter argues from economic evidence, concluding that women usually had some degree of choice about entering prostitution, even if their alternatives were limited. Factors involved are an average age for first marriages in the mid-twenties, the high (by our standards) number of people who never married, and the need for dowries. Most prostitutes were single, and a good proportion seem to have been foreigners. An interesting sidebar is the connection of laundresses with prostitution. Quoting Karras in order to let you sample the elegance of her prose, "[t]he equation of laundress and whore was clearly made. Both the prostitute and the laundress had some connection with filth, but laundresses most likely acquired a reputation for prostitution because they were among the few women who frequently came and went from all- male households" (54). The chapter concludes with legal records of bawds recruiting young girls, where the bawds -- and female bawds in particular -- received blame.
In Chapter 4, "The Sex Trade in Practice," Karras analyzes prostitution as one among many trades in medieval England with trade practices marked by "transience, variation, and adaptability" (66). First, Karras traces the careers of a handful of women whose prostitution appears repeatedly in English records. Her next section concerns the ways in which more casual prostitutes might pick up their customers. She then turns to the categories of men who were considered appropriate customers and with the range of fees a common woman could expect from them -- "from less than a penny's worth of food to several pounds" (79). The fees on the high side apparently resulted from long-term relationships or bribery; the lowest decently acceptable fee seems to have been a penny. Finally, Karras finds evidence that some prostitutes ultimately married and that some bore children either while common or subsequently.
In Chapter 5, "Marriage, Sexuality, and Marginality," Karras explores possible discrepancies between the ideals expressed by civil and ecclesiastical law and the day-to-day lives of medieval people. Using literary evidence, Karras concludes that the "line between a respectable woman and a whore was a vague one" (88) in practice due to the level of exchange in both cases. Karras marshals the fabliaux generally as well as the <i>Roman de la Rose</i>, <i>Piers Plowman</i>, the <i>Canterbury Tales</i>, and the <i>Book of Margery Kempe</i> to support the view that both marital and extramarital sex were medieval commodities. Karras devotes the later pages of this chapter to speculation on the degree to which individual common women were integrated into society. Although the evidence is scant and mixed, some prostitutes on some occasions were accepted even when the concept of prostitution was condemned.
In Chapter 6, "Saints and Sinners," Karras details the church's condemnation of prostitution. She concludes that the church's position, as it was expressed in vernacular preaching manuals and other works of religious instruction, vilified women generally. The deadly sin of lust was women's special province. Karras ends this chapter with summaries of the lives of harlot saints such as Mary Magdalen.
The book's conclusion, "Sexuality, Money, and the Whore" (131- 42) is an admirably concise summary of Karras's findings. Over forty pages of notes collected at the end of the text not only fully document Karras's evidence but also provide additional historical context, as well as further glimpses into Karras's thinking as she teases underlying principles from fragmentary records. Her bibliography (189-213) is also a treasure. Divided into manuscript sources, published primary sources, and secondary works, it furnishes at a glance the lists of materials analyzed and synthesized to produce this book. While earlier postings to <i>TMR</i> have rightly noted occasions when books omit entire countries or periods of the Middle Ages from consideration, Karr