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Life of a 17th-Century Prostitute - Guest Post by Paul Rushworth-Brown

It was Rudyard Kipling, who first coined the phrase ‘the world’s oldest profession’ in his short story, On the City Wall (1898). The tale opens with the immortal line “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world”. Since then, the expression has fallen into common parlance as historical truth.

A 17th-century prostitute might have been a wretched streetwalker, marred by the tolls of venereal disease, alcoholism and physical abuse. The driving force behind most women selling their bodies was poverty especially if the woman was unmarried childless and unable to work. Government officials at the time considered her responsible for her own well-being and unwilling to help therefore, prostitution became the only option for lower-class women.

Historical investigations into early modern prostitution come from church and court records and these streetwalkers serviced as many men as possible and received payment solely for their participation in the sexual act. Some of these women plied their trade at fairs while others stationed themselves at the docks awaiting the arrival of willing sailors returning from sea.

Streetwalkers plying their trade at the lower end of the market often rented cheap rooms in slum lodging houses and endured filthy living conditions often confined in damp and miserable rooms. They were often mistreated by landlords who would often demand a large percentage of their earnings. Some lodging houses also operated as taverns, with the owner taking rent and a percentage of takings from as many prostitutes he could manage to squeeze into spare rooms. Other prostitutes called penny rent streetwalkers chose to hire a room for a few minutes or hours. Taking a room on this basis was often cheaper and meant that they didn’t have to live and work in the same place. Even worse off were women who not only picked up men on the streets but also carried out their transactions in the darkness of back alleys, streets and city parks.

Streetwalkers ’ slang referred to the game while identifying one another members of the sisterhood. They had their own street vocabulary that was a mixture of criminal and vulgar slang many of whom were familiar with other sections of criminal society. They used terms like diving, foyling, and lifting to mean pickpocketing and stealing and likely customers were nicknamed rumpers and dicks.

‘Six-penny whoredom’ was a common phrase used at the time but half-a-crown (two shillings and sixpence) seemed to be the set price by the 1690s. Once a woman was perceived as having started to lose her looks, it was usually only a matter of time before her days in the trade were numbered or, should an alternative not present itself, she was obliged to increasingly lower her price. Those streetwalkers reduced to offering brief gropes in back alleys for a few pennies were victims of a life ruled by fear, suffering.

Life as a 17th-Century prostitute meant they often suffered from consumption, sexually transmitted infections and amateur abortions where they were at risk of infection and haemorrhage. The life span was very short for these women and premature deaths from disease, violence or even suicide were common. The women that did endure probably had the toughest attitudes or simply were lucky enough to find other work.

At a time when contraception was rudimentary, pregnancy was an occupational hazard and one that most prostitutes avoided at all costs. Remedies consisted of various mixtures of herbs and powders which could be used in a vaginal douche, available from an apothecary if they could afford it. These remedies were designed to bring on a miscarriage.

Frequent sexual activity meant prostitutes were vulnerable to contracting gonorrhoea and syphilis sufferers were given mercury in oral doses or had it applied directly to rashes, scabs and ulcers. Patients endured the pain and indignity of a mercury ointment being injected into their genitals, its side effects worse than the symptoms of the disease. Many prostitutes believed that urinating as much as possible prevented syphilis, gonorrhoea and even pregnancy.

Early modern women who engaged in prostitution were categorized and largely condemned by their society. Life was difficult and often they permanently balanced on the edge of destitution. Some were lucky enough to use the trade as a springboard for more financially rewarding ventures, such as becoming a long-

Paul Rushworth-Brown

Author of Skulduggery and Winter of Red


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