Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Brothels and Bawds in Shakespeare’s England: A guest post by Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas is visiting Reading the Past with two linked guest posts to celebrate the paperback release of The Harlot’s Tale, the second book in the Midwife Mysteries series. This essay covers brothels in Shakespearean England, and on Thursday, Sam will have a second post about the women who worked there.  As it happens, the first book in the series, The Midwife’s Tale (a book I very much enjoyed reading), is currently available as an e-book for $2.99 (see the author's website for some buying options). The Harlot's Tale is published in paperback today by Minotaur ($16.99, 336pp).


Brothels and Bawds in Shakespeare’s England
Sam Thomas

When I began work on the second book in the Midwife Mysteries series, I needed a hook. It would be a mystery, it would feature Bridget Hodgson and her butt-kicking assistant Martha Hawkins, but what would it be about?

As the title indicates, The Harlot’s Tale focuses on sex and sin and is thus right up Bridget’s alley: When it comes to these subjects, who knows more than a midwife?

The next step in writing the book was to learn as much as I could about the business of prostitution in early modern England – and what a fascinating world it turned out to be! In a few days I’ll have a post about bawds over on English Historical Fiction Authors, and here I’d like to share what I learned about the brothels.

Despite their (deservedly!) seedy reputation, many English brothels had wealthy and respected owners behind the scenes. Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Hunsdon, owned several brothels, as did several well-known actors from the Elizabethan stage. This is not terribly surprising given the links between prostitution and the theatre; as we shall see, theatres and brothels lived cheek by jowl! More remarkable was that for centuries brothels outside London were under the control of the Bishop of Winchester. This was so well known that prostitutes became known as “Winchester geese.”

Many of London’s brothels were found not in the city itself, but across the Thames in the Southwark neighborhood. For centuries, Southwark operated as a sort of Las Vegas, satisfying Londoners’ less acceptable desires, and existing just beyond the reach of city officials. The south bank of the Thames features both brothels and theatres, cementing in many minds the connection between the two. Some brothels also doubled as alehouses, and one in Essex featured a common drinking vessel crafted to look like – er, there’s no good way to say this – a man’s sexual organs.

The question this raises is why brothels were tolerated at all. Other than rank hypocrisy, why would the Bishops of Winchester put their imprimatur on such a sinful business? It turns out that in the early modern world, brothels – and places like Southwark more broadly – were seen as necessary outlets for London’s sins.

Many commentators compared brothels to sewers and cesspools, but not in an entirely negative way. We may not like the smell of sewers, but they do us a service. In the same way, places like Southwark drew sins away from the city, and without them the city would become contaminated. They were, in short, a necessary evil.

The Harlot’s Tale is set in York rather than London, so I could not send Bridget off to Southwark – Spoiler alert: that will be in a later book! – but I did my best with the history I had at hand, and hope you will enjoy reading about it!


Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife Mysteries from Minotaur/St.Martin's. The third book in the series, The Witch Hunter’s Tale, will be released on January 6, 2015. For more on midwifery and childbirth, visit his website.


  1. I loved this post! It definitely seems like the brothels would be difficult to research but really interesting!

    P.S. I am also excited to see that the next book in this series comes out so soon!

  2. Great post! I love this series and am very happy to learn that the third book will be published next month :-)

  3. LOVE this series and thanks for the post! I am on pins and needles waiting for the next.

  4. Fun post! I look forward to reading this series.

  5. It's a great series - and I need to do some catching up with Bridget and Martha.