Ah, the wicked Middle Ages. If you’ve ever read the works of the English 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer you’ll know that medieval England was full of naughty behaviour and loose morals. There are descriptions of lewd acts in Chaucer that you would never get in Shakespeare 200 years later.
And that lewdness was a feature of life in London when Chaucer was writing. If you were a young man who wanted some fun – you would probably take a stroll across London bridge (the only bridge in the city at that time) and enter the borough of Southwark on the south bank of the river Thames.
This was where all the good bars, theatres and “stews” (brothels) could be found. But you didn’t have to look too hard. The moment our young medieval chap set foot off the bridge jingling the change in his pocket – he’d have been assaulted by prostitutes from all directions – and at all hours of the day.
Their competitive screeching gave them the name “geese”. But why “Winchester geese”? The reason was that the brothels and their female workers fell under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester. He was the local landlord.
Far from being displeased by the presence of these licentious houses, the good bishop taxed them with gusto – as recorded in the court rolls.
You can still see remains of the 12th century Winchester Palace today in Southwark. The bishop took his title from the city of Winchester, which had been the capital of England during the Saxon and early medieval period.
London, however, emerged as the top city and the bishop’s most impressive residence was what we see a sad remnant of today. Southwark cathedral, which was part of a large complex of religious buildings, is still there – though heavily restored. There is also the notorious Clink – the bishop’s prison, which continued to serve as a criminal lock up till the eighteenth century. Worth a visit!
But back to the ladies!
They plied their trade and unfortunately, on occasion, contracted and spread venereal disease. Syphilis, in particular, was a killer in those days. In fact, a Saxon graveyard has just been unearthed in Ipswich, Suffolk and among three hundred skeletons, many been found bearing clear signs of the disease.
Getting a dose of the clap was referred to as being ‘bitten by a Winchester goose’ or getting ‘goose bumps’. The humour, no doubt, intended to detract from the sometimes dire consequences. There was no effective treatment and death was long and slow – often leading to insanity.
Medieval attitudes to prostitution seem to be mixed. Sex was clearly for procreation but these fallen ladies seem to have been viewed as a way of preventing good Christian men falling into even worse practices – like sodomy or masturbation (seen as mortal crimes by the church).
From Saint Augustine onwards, there’s a tradition of fulminating tracts about the evils of sex in quite prurient detail. So, prostitution was a kind of safety valve for wicked desire and it had the added benefit of filling the bishop’s coffers.
When these geese died, they suffered the final indignity of being buried in unconsecrated ground. The Cross Bones graveyard in Southwark has been preserved by local residents and a little memorial set up to commemorate the Winchester Geese.