Thursday, December 18, 2014

What’s in a Name? Prostitution in Shakespeare’s England, a guest post by Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas is back with a yet another entertaining post marking the paperback release of The Harlot’s Tale, the second book in the Midwife Mystery series. This essay, the second of two, deals with prostitutes in Shakespearean times; his first post, from Tuesday, detailed how he researched their trade in early modern England.

The first book in the series, The Midwife’s Tale is currently available as an E-book for $2.99. (The link is to Amazon, but it’s available in other formats as well. Click here for more buying options.)


What’s in a Name? Prostitution in Shakespeare’s England
Sam Thomas

As in so many matters touching on the darker side of human behavior, the language of prostitution included all manner of synonyms and euphemisms for the simple word “prostitute.” There was meretrix (from the Latin), putain (French), strumpet, whore, stew (from the infamous brothels, known as “stews of Rome”), quean (or, in many cases, abominable quean!), and harlot.

When I started writing The Harlot’s Tale, I had no idea what I would call it. It was pretty clear that it would be Somebody’s Tale, but whose? I ran through a number of possibilities, most of which had the down-side of hinting at (or announcing!) the identity of the killer. I didn’t want to do this, because Rule #1 of Mystery Writing is: “Do not give away the identity of the killer in the title of your book.”

I ultimately settled on The Harlot’s Tale, both because I liked the Biblical feel of the word, and because the book is set in the aftermath of the Puritan capture of the city of York, when the godly were riding high. But as I did more research on prostitution in medieval and early modern England, names for individual prostitutes came to light, and it turns out that these individuals could be quite creative in establishing pseudonyms.

The first I discovered was "Spanish Jane," who – you will not be surprised to learn – was in no way Spanish. More alarming was "Claire Clatterbollocks." (If you are unfamiliar with the term ‘bollocks’ they are a rather coarse term for a man’s delicate bits.) Finally, there was a sex-worker whose given name was John Rykener, but worked under the name "Eleanor." The historical record is regrettably silent on the question of what John/Eleanor’s clients thought they were getting for their money! 


Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife Mysteries.  To win a copy of The Harlot’s Tale, leave a comment on this page, head over to his Facebook page, or send him an email. For more information on the history and mystery of midwifery, visit Sam’s website.


  1. Fascinating look at prostitution in Shakespeare's world,

  2. What fun it must have been to come across the unique and interesting pseudonyms used by the "harlots" !