The Topography of Illicit Sex in Later Medieval English Provincial Towns

Helen Kavanagh

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This dissertation seeks out the locations of illicit sex and punishment in later medieval English towns. This thesis will look at all types of illicit sex, including prostitution, adultery, concubinage, premarital sex, rape and incest, and will attempt to determine if there were certain areas within towns where these types of sex took place. Further, this thesis will look at who punished sexual transgression, and where punishment took place, to assess whether topography played a part in deterring non-marital sex.
This thesis looks at a representative selection of Southern English towns, organised by type. In chapter 1, I look at the university town of Oxford, and in particular focus on Gropecunt Lane. Chapter 2 is also focused on a university town, Cambridge, and questions how university Chancellors dealt with prostitution. Chapter 3 will then concentrate on the cathedral towns of Norwich and Hereford, and investigate clerical sex. Finally, chapter 4 looks at the market towns of Bury St Edmunds, Shrewsbury, Great Yarmouth, Gloucester and Colchester, and evaluates how the layout of the market encouraged illicit sex in certain areas, a theme which also arises in earlier chapters. Throughout the thesis, questions will be asked about sexualised street names, and whether these were a clear indication of illicit goings-on.
The primary conclusion drawn in this thesis is that illicit sex was (or was seen as), taking place in specific areas in towns, within the town walls, near the main market or busiest areas, and was not ‘marginal’. Furthermore, illicit sex was often punished in these areas, presumably to act as a deterrent to perpetrators, and these punishments were usually in the way of fines or public humiliation.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Horden, Peregrine, Supervisor
  • Burgess, Clive, Supervisor
Award date17 Mar 2020
Publication statusUnpublished - 2020


  • Medieval History
  • Prostitution
  • sex
  • medieval, tudor, early modern, gender, women, church, chastity, widows, parish, convents, religion

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