Requesting money for [her] labour, Rykener consented,

Sex work is an ever-changing and amorphous term, created by sex worker and activist Carol Leigh to encompass all sexual labour performed in return for resources – whether that be rent, food, drugs, or money.[1] When applied to the medieval period, some of this meaning is lost, with no medieval equivalents to some occupations that would fall under this modern categorisation.[2] Despite this, I feel like this label has value beyond my desire to engage with modern discourse, experience and terminology. I wish to draw attention to the diverse range of situations women of this period would have found themselves in. There seems, for example, a distinction between those who entered into concubinage with one client, and those who had sex with many clients; not least in the way the two situations were discussed in law.[3] The label also draws a link between this form of labour, and the modern movement that would come to champion the rights of workers involved. One thing that particularly caught my attention was the ways in which sex workers in the 1970’s became involved with the ‘wages for housework movement.’[4] Thinking about the medieval ‘marriage debt,’ this link pushes me to appreciate the ways in which sex as labour would have been a fact of life for many women. While neither reproductive rights nor marriage seem directly applicable to this project, this remains a good example of how engagement with the modern can help reveal the medieval. 

I’m focusing specifically on this occupation of Eleanor’s, rather than any other, because of its relevance to the modern LGBT+ experience. Due to a variety of factors impacting all marginalised groups, LGBT people – especially trans women – are disproportionately represented in sex work.[5] Perhaps more practically, sex work is something that seems to have been an occupational constant for Eleanor in the years before the trial, more so than other work. In this, she seems typical of a single woman of this time period, especially one travelling in and around cities looking for work. Judith Bennett characterises women’s work  as “low-skilled, low-status, low-paid (…) and they also tended to be intermittent workers, jumping from job to job or juggling several tasks at once.”[6] In this uncertain world, sex work was often a reliable source of resources, without set hours. Women, like Eleanor, involved with alcohol and clothing were particularly implicated in sex work within popular understanding of the trade.[7] Even in choice of clients, Eleanor’s experience is standard. According to Jeremy Goldberg, “clergy appear to have formed a significant part of the clientele for commercial sex.”[8] As an aside here, and hopefully without sounding too much as if I have unfinished business,  having so vehemently argued for the satirical – and therefore fictional – involvement of the clergy in Eleanor’s confession, Goldberg seems remarkably willing to discuss clerical promiscuity and its relationship to sex work. While his conclusions surrounding clerical promiscuity may have changed in the years between these two publications, I wonder if Goldberg is as critical of sources that “[tap] into current discourse” when questions of gender are more clear cut.[9] 

In a similar vein, this week has pushed me to think more about context, wandering what sort of London Eleanor was living in. Most strikingly, she was working in a post-plague world, with the generation before her decimated by illness. I think it’s important to remember that the world was still rebuilding, accompanied by wave after wave of new plague in 1361, 1369, 1374, 1390, and 1400.  Population levels would only recover to pre-pestilence levels in the 16th Century.[10] This was a changed world for people like Eleanor, with labour in high demand, the number of women in urban centres increasing, and peasants were marching on the capital.[11] I’ve found less to talk about in this blog post than others, but this insight into the everyday work and patterns of medieval city life prove invaluable to understanding Eleanor Rykener. She lived in impossibly uncertain times, joining the many other single women travelling the country, making ends meet. Sex work can be a way of gaining resources for those with poorly paid jobs, a lack of family support, and those with disabilities. Without drawing too close a comparison, I don’t think these traits are confined only to the modern. Street-based sex work is a job that has a low bar for entry in any time period. It requires no immediate skill, no upfront payment of rent. It’s dangerous work, but it is a logical way of keeping afloat. For someone needing to supplement their income – as a means of survival, or to eek out a little more comfort from their lives – this form of work remains easily accessible. 


[1] Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (Verso: New York, 2018), 1 fn. 1.
[2] Ruth Mazo Karras, ‘Women’s Labors: Reproduction and Sex Work in Medieval Europe’, Journal of Women’s History 15 (2004), 153.
[3] James Brundage, ‘Prostitution in the Medieval Canon Law’, Signs 1 (1976), 829.
[4] Mac and Smith, Revolting, 8.
[5] Ibid., 50; quoting Amnesty International, ‘Amnesty International policy on state obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of sex workers,’ POL 30/4062/2016 (26 May 2016), 5-6, <; [accessed online on 12 July 2019].
[6] Bennett, ‘Medieval Women, Modern Women: Across the Great Divide’, in Culture and History, 1350-1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities, and Writing ed. David Aers (Harvester Wheatsheaf: New York, 1992), 158.
[7] Karras, ‘Women’s Labors,’ 153.
[8] Jeremy Goldberg, ‘Pigs and Prostitutes: Streetwalking in Comparative Perspective’, in Young Medieval Women eds. Katherine J Lewis, Noel James Menuge and Kim M. Phillips (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999), 176.
[9] Jeremy Goldberg, ‘John Rykener, Richard II and the Governance of London,’ Leeds Studies in English 45 (2015), 62.
[10] Christopher Dyer, Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain, 850-1520 (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2002), 275
[11] Stephen Rigby, ‘Gendering the Black Death: Women in Later Medieval England,’ Gender & History 12:3 (2002), 247.

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