Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

History of Lust

A review of The Orrible Synne: A Look at London Lechery from Roman to Cromwellian Times by E. J. Burford
(Calder & Boyers, 1973)

Our forefathers (and foremothers as well) called a spade a spade. The elegant euphemisms of the Norman court never quite displaced the coarse vulgarisms of the English tongue: terms such as cunt, fuck, piss and shit were commonplace, and E.J. Burford is at great pains to document their usage – and the behaviour they describe.

But his book is primarily a study of prostitution, and one of Burford's most interesting methods of research is his focus upon the street names which clearly identify the ancient red-light districts. Maiden Lane and Petticoat Lane are dead giveaways. So also are Codpiece Lane (which became Coppice Lane), Shiteburnelane (which became Sherborne Lane), Sluts' Hole (which became Sluts' Well, then disappeared), Cocks Lane, Brothel Lane, and the ubiquitous charmer Gropecuntlane – first mentioned in 1276, then going through a long and varied history in many red-light districts until its last survivor, as time refined manners, became split into Grape Street and Grub Street. This is the kind of history I cherish.

Unfortunately Burford never refers to the possible existence of a homosexual side to this prostitution coin. He does not note, for example, that in the Cripplegate bawdy house area, not far from Gropecuntlane, just below Love Lane, just across from Maiden Lane, is a street by the intriguing name of Lad Lane! Now surely this must be significant. Robert Greene in the 16th century referred to "male stews" in London, and it grieves me that Burford hasn't investigated them.

He gives merely token references to Henry VIII's law against buggery, to Edward II's awesome fate (murdered with a red-hot poker thrust up his bum), and to an occasional effete courtier, and one common man hanged for sodomy in 1613, but Burford seems not to have found much evidence of gay lechery. Alas.

Nevertheless Burford's book is an immensely informative and amusing study of erotic manners in the streets of London. Or, more accurately, most of the book is a sexual survey of Southwark, for the Borough for most of its history was not subject to the laws of the City, and prostitution thrived in the Clink and Bankside, well before the Elizabethan playhouses brought even more customers to the houses of ill fame. The great irony – nay, the great hypocrisy – is that the brothels were owned by the monarch, the Bishop of Winchester, and not a few aldermen and sheriffs who were responsible for making life miserable for their female employees through harsh legislation and taxation. It's a shameful story, a story of women caught between commercial greed and moral Puritanism.

But, to be fair, Burford avoids the sentimental view of prostitutes, and does not ignore the fact that for every harlot with a heart of gold there were several vicious sluts and vulgar thieves. Many were shores because no other occupation was open to women of their rank; many more knew this was the quickest way to make a great deal of money. The story of prostitution is too complex for glib theories about the exploitation of women. Exploitation by women more accurately describes the situation in which even the commonest whore fleeced upwards of twenty men a day; and the real profiteers were not the pimps and panders but the brothel madams.

But this goes beyond Burford's purpose; essentially the book is meant to amuse. The "social context" is not something he is particularly strong on; indeed, he has been so industrious in gathering his documents on lust that little space is left for exploring its wider social and political implications. He is something of an antiquarian dilettant in bawdiness, and leaves the philosophizing to his readers. At times I found his quaintness cloying: the title and chapter headings are printed in Old English script, the list of illustrations at the back is incorrectly called an Iconography, some chapters have cute and unhelpful titles such as "Hwilc Weig Horthusweard, Brothur, An Godes Naman?", and the documents are quoted with their original spelling not for the sake of precision but because, for example, "synne" is more visually amusing than "sin". Such striving after entertainment value is a bit amateurish.

This is a book of "local colour", particularly about the underside of civilization, and its range of subjects is vast, and impeccably researched: from a history of privies to biographies of notorious bawds; from a hundred royal proclamations against vice to accounts of riots and rebellions; from medieval remedies for gonorrhoea to regulations for the stews (for example, a woman may not demand payment for favours rendered unless she lies with her client all night); from public whippings and pillorying to grand orgies at Paris Gardens Manor House; from brief mentions of bear-baiting to the longest essay on shit I have ever read. An absolute must for any lover of the city of London.

Rictor Norton


(This review was originally published in Gay News many years ago. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)


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