When Medieval Prostitutes, Harlots, and Strumpets dressed as men

When Medieval prostitutes broke the laws regulating clothing, they often dressed as men. Perhaps this is because male fashion was both titillatingly outré and more form-fitting?

In the 14th century, men began to wear daringly short doublets, tights, and codpieces. Women with their full skirts were a mystery below the waist.

In Italy, dressing as a man certainly seems to be a signal that the lady is “up for anything”. By the time one could browse books on fashion (c 16th century), the typical Venetian courtesan is shown wearing men’s breeches beneath her womanly skirts.

In the century after 1450, thirteen women were accused of sexual misconduct by London’s governors for cross-dressing as men.

Their punishment was to marched through an angry city, shamed at Cornhill, and exiled forever.  They sometimes carried signs (H for ‘harlot’) or wore a striped hood and were required to carry a mysterious “white rod”.  In what must have been quite a scene, they were escorted by minstrels and the “music” of basins and pans. Perhaps, sometimes, they danced.

This was the common punishment for a Medieval prostitute or bawd (pimp). Only a token penalty was added for the extra offence of cross-dressing. Bizarrely, the badge of shame was often a man’s hat!

Medieval Prostitutes, Strumpets and harlots

Elizabeth Chekyn was caught wearing a priest’s gown in 1516. Probably, she was having sex with priests. The court preferred the version in which she was mocking the priesthood. Her attire offended on two fronts- status as well as gender.

Margaret Cotton allegedly obtained her man’s gown from a tailor and her hat from a servant. Her manly hat ticked two boxes. It hid her long hair and conferred masculinity.

Margery Brett, Margery Smyth and Margery Tyler were more direct or perhaps daring. They cut their hair short in 1519, an action deemed a ‘lewd pleasure’ and ‘a great displeasure of God and an abomination to the world’.

Brett, Smyth and Tyler were indicted, along with Elizabeth Thomson, as ‘strumpets and common harlots of their bodies’ during a crackdown in 1519. The only difference from a common prostitutes’ punishment was the men’s bonnets they were forced to adopt.

 

Badges of dishonour

In various places, the law decreed that Medieval prostitutes were:

  • Not allowed to wear jewels, embroidery, or other finery
  • Required to wear striped hoods (English cities)
  • Explicitly and repeatedly banned from wearing fur-lined hoods (also England), or fur-lined clothing (France, 1360)
  • Forced to wear types of badges or decoration on their dress (Provence, Burgundy) or cloak (various Italian cities)

Requiring prostitutes to wear striped hoods to mark themselves was partly to discourage other women from trying prostitution as a way to make money, and to remind everyone that prostitutes were lower status.

Southwark’s brothels had a particularly odd rule : no aprons allowed. Aprons might have been a indication of respectable traders. And even in the 15th century, aprons may already have been the “uniform” of a good wifey.

They could have been a satirical dig at the bishop of Winchester, whose ecclesiastical outfit included an apron. The good bishop owned the brothels in Southampton, and gleefully taxed the prostitutes known as the “Winchester Geese”. Heaven help you if you were “bitten by a Winchester goose” or suffered from “goose bumps”. These are better known as “the clap”.

London banned whores from dressing like “good and noble dames or damsels”. Specifically, prostitutes couldn’t wear fur-lined hoods. Striped hoods became a symbol of prostitution, so much so that Bristol issued a law that proclaimed “Let no whore walk in the town without a striped hood.”

Gloves and Bells

Cities enforced their own quirky badge or symbol for Medieval prostitutes.

Beaucaire: a mark on the left arm

Berne: red cap.

Bristol: striped hoods.

Castres: a man’s hat and a scarlet belt.

Florence: gloves and bells on the head (in the hair?) and high-heeled slippers.

Languedoc: a cord belt.

Leipzig: yellow cloak trimmed with blue.

London: striped hoods.

Mantua: white cloak and badge on chest

Marseilles: striped tunic.

Milan: black cloak.

Nimes: a sleeve of a special colour.

Pisa: a yellow headband.

Strasbourg: black and white sugarloaf hat.

Toulouse: a mark on their sleeve.

Venice: yellow scarf.

Vienna: yellow scarf.

Zurich: red cap.

 

The gloves and bells of Florence sounds jolly, until you remember: oh, yeah, leprosy.

 

Click for more on Medieval cross-dressing, sex with clergy, and prostitution.

 

Sources

Early, Erotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London

The oldest profession: Prostitutes of medieval England

Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England

Prostitutes’ Symbols

 

Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.