The secrets of Magpie Lane: prostitution in medieval Oxford

Helen Kavanagh

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This essay was the winner of the British Association for Local History ‘Medieval and early modern essay prize’ for 2014. It begins by considering the terminology of prostitution and ‘sex trades’ in medieval England and links this with the colourful nomenclature of streets, lanes and ‘red light districts’ of a variety of medieval towns and cities. In Oxford what later became (decorously) Magpie Lane was known in the Middle Ages as ‘Gropecunt Lane’ (or variants on that theme). Kavanagh therefore considers the topography of prostitution, looking at possible reasons why areas such as this were so favoured for illicit and nocturnal activities, and identifies that in the special circumstances of Oxford the proximity to colleges and to religious houses was certain to have been a powerful determinant. She then assesses the attitudes of the Church towards prostitution and sexual activity, including contemporary examples of incontinence among the clerics of Oxford, and then turns to the abundant evidence for similar irregularity among the students of the university, its colleges and halls. Examples of specific cases are given, and there is discussion of the punishments which were meted out to women who offended. The inquisitions conducted by the chancellors of the university give further evidence, and Kavanagh makes comparisons between Oxford and other towns and cities, and between England and Continental Europe. Her concluding argument is that prostitution in English towns and cities was not necessarily similar – and that in particular the attitudes of the authorities varied from place to place. In places such as Southwark and Sandwich there were licensed brothels, whereas Oxford, for example, had no such facility.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)40-54
Number of pages15
JournalThe Local Historian
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015

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