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Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England Hardcover – Apr 30 1999
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"Ruth Karras's new book will become a standard text on medieval prostitution, but it will also be required reading for anyone interested in gender, sexuality, and women in the middle ages. Drawing on literary texts, religious materials, legal documentation, and other sources, Karras places prostitutes--so often seen as marginal and atypical women--at the center of gender relations in medieval England. Her sophisticated and compelling argument is a major contribution to women's history, gender history, and medieval history."--Judith Bennett, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
"A study of prostitution should reveal the convergence of many social forces: fear of female sexuality and venality, the fine line between approved and condemned behavior, the regulation of commercial activity, the double standard, and the distinction between the moral economy of the neighborhood and that of the fathers of society. Ruth Karras touches all these points and also turns to the voice of creative and sermon literature, as well as case studies, to put flesh on the tale."--Joel Rosenthal, State University of New York, Stony Brook
"Ruth Karras here again displays her extraordinary ability to unpack the medieval meanings of twentieth-century terms that do not adequately describe medieval phenomena. Her study replaces the modern concept of prostitution with the more accurate and very wide-ranging term "whoredom", bringing to bear and synthesizing a vast array of sources, from the legal and archival to the literary, artistic, and theological."--Edward Peters, University of Pennsylvania
"A worthy addition to Studies in the History of Sexuality. In Common Women Ruth Karras argues that while it is clear enough that commercial prostitutes inhabited [late medieval English] towns, what marked these women was not "money for sex" but their general availability to men. Their behavior, viewed as both socially necessary and individually depraved, is examined in terms of law, society, the life course of a prostitute and prevailing ideas about sin. This thorough-going study yields valuable perspectives on women's position in medieval society."--Susan Mosher Stuard, Haverford College
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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
Karras gives a broad sketch of the prostitute by showing how they were affected by laws. The laws served a dual purpose. They seemed to try and protect prostitutes from beatings and coercion, but also tried to keep them in a restricted place in society, by isolating them to the outskirts of town, and regulating both what they could wear and how they conducted themselves in their personal relationships. The power structure, according to Karras, seemed to subscribe to the theory that prostitution was a necessary evil, in that men needed an outlet for their sexual energy. If this need wasn't met, the general belief was that these men would resort to rape and other unpleasantness against the other ladies of the town/city. So while prostitutes were reviled, they were also accorded a role in society that was seen to fill an important need.
There's lots of stuff I'm leaving out, of course. Some books always give a revelation of sorts that the reader remembers long after the book has been read, and this one has a good one. England had very few legal brothels, but one was on the outskirts of London, in Southwark. These brothels were referred to as "stews", and this stew was actually owned by the Bishop of Winchester! He made quite a profit off the ladies, too. He didn't run the house directly, but appointed brothelkeepers who did the dirty work. An interesting role for the Church, don't you think? Actually, it sort of makes since in light of the belief that prostitution filled a social role of sorts. The government sure wasn't providing any sort of programs or assistance. The Church was the closest thing to a social service system (I'm way out on a limb here, I smell a research paper!) so maybe bishops running houses of ill repute wasn't so spectacular after all.
Copious notes at the end of the book show the astonishing amount of primary and secondary sources that Karras scoured through to construct the book. I'm impressed. This book certainly has an interest to the historian, but the casual reader would get a kick out of it too, as it isn't overly scholarly, and it reads fast at 142 pages. Well done, Dr. Karras!
Karras argues “that prostitution deeply affected gender relations because its existence fostered the connection of feminine sexuality with venality and sin” which then justified the controlling of all women based on their sexuality. Karras conclusions are interesting as she asserts prostitution was a central pillar of medieval culture as it offered a necessary outlet for the sexual desires of men, which many people thought would undermine the social order if they were not relieved. She goes on to assert that the importance of the sex trade to our understanding of the medieval world is that understanding this phenomenon gives insight into how women responded to economic conditions by making choices for themselves whilst living in a system which afforded little opportunity to do so. Lastly, Karras says that, in a world which accepted the sex drive as natural, and yet, at the same time, set limits upon the fulfilling of that natural desire, prostitution was necessary development allowing society to function because it was central to the construction of gender in the culture of the time period.
Chapter one, “Prostitution and the Law” examines the legal understanding of what prostitution was and how it was regulated(as well as what law makers believed they were regulating). As the author notes, they understood prostitution as a commercial enterprise specifically but viewed these women as sexually immoral generally. Chapter two, “Brothels, Licit and Illicit,” discusses the brothel as an institution, one which sought to keep women sexually available for men while, at the same time, keeping these women under strict control. The next two chapters discuss the experiences of women who engaged in sex for money. Chapter three, “Becoming a Prostitution” deals with the things which influenced a woman to make the decision to become a prostitute. Karras notes that the economic structure did not favor women, and these were economic decisions. Chapter four, “The Sex Trade in Practice” is where Karras looks at the various ways in which prostitution is practiced and what types of clients came to them.
The last two chapters place prostitution into its social and cultural context. Chapter five, “Marriage, Sexuality, and Marginality” shows there is a difference between prostitutes and say a baker, in that the former comes with moral and ideological baggage attached to it in a way that no other “profession” does. Chapter six, “Saints and Sinners,” Karras says “the late medieval church’s teaching about prostitution and about whoredom must be seen against the background of a general hostility to sexuality and a widespread misogyny.” Having said that, she goes on to note the church’s view of women was not universally negative and that women did not internalize that view. Further, she notes that Medieval culture itself was not monolithically negative towards women as there were queens, holy women and other women who were both respected and revered. This is a somewhat more nuanced view offered than say Johnson, who sometimes comes across as seeing universal negativity whilst Karras sees various shades of grey so to speak.
As did the other historians discussed so far, Karras came out of the Vietnam-post Vietnam era, although she did so more to the tail end of the time period, having been a graduate student at the time of the “Reagan Revolution” of 1980 and the turn in American politics towards more conservative policies. Nonetheless, her work is still influenced by many of the trends started in the 1960’s including a desire to look at those people in history who were often ignored and a desire to insert women and their perspectives into the narrative. Thus her work is representative of subaltern studies while not being as theoretical as some of those works can be. Common Women also finds Karras using a gendered perspective and falls within the realm of women’s history. It also fits in well within the definition of social and cultural history. Finally, Karras uses some legal history, especially in the first chapter of the narrative.
This work is not only well researched but written in a very engaging and readable style, something which can be rare in the historical profession, especially when dealing with any sort of legal history. Karras does a remarkable job of not only crafting a narrative, but of questioning and commentating on the adequacy of the sources. The author also makes it clear that what is truly at stake is not the control of women’s sexuality, which is certainly important, but their overall independence. This work adds to our understanding of medieval social and cultural history overall, not just about prostitution, and is a significant contribution to the historiography of women’s medieval history.
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