Common Woman to Commodity: Changing Perceptions of Prostitution in Early Modern England, C. 1450-1750

Common Woman to Commodity: Changing Perceptions of Prostitution in Early Modern England, C. 1450-1750

Sydney, Houston-Goudge

Master of Arts, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia December (2011)


The study of prostitution in early modern England is often informed by incorrect terminology. The modern historiographical use of the term “prostitute” is misleading, as the term did not appear until the sixteenth century, and the act of selling sex did not come to dominate understandings of whoredom until many years later. This thesis examines the etymological history of the term “prostitute” and its cognates, and their changing legal, economic, and cultural meanings. This thesis investigates the intersection of late medieval and early modern conceptions of illicit sex with the rise of commercial capitalism to track the conceptual development of transactional sex as a commodity. Despite the influence of commercial capitalism on aspects of sexual immorality and developing conceptions of difference between paid and unpaid illicit sex, the primary division remained between chaste and unchaste women throughout the whole of the early modern period.

The terminology and language surrounding sexual deviance and immorality are never static. Modern efforts to legitimize prostitutes and their trade, particularly by those activists working toward the legalization of prostitution and the protection of prostitutes’ rights to safety, deploy terms like “sex worker” strategically. While lacking an interest in the well being of sex workers, a similar shift in language can be seen in early modern English descriptions and definitions of those working in the sex trade. The modern historiographical use of the term “prostitute” is itself misleading, for modern historians regularly apply it to individuals who contemporaries described through a variety of different names and understood in different ways. The term “prostitute” did not actually appear until the sixteenth century. The definition for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary assigns different dates for the use of the term as both a noun and a verb. The word “prostitute” was used as a verb before its use as a noun, listed in the OED as recorded first in 1530 by J. Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement as “I prostytute, as a comen woman dothe her self in a bordell house, je prostitue.” Its use as a noun is dated to 1607, used by F. Beaumont in Woman Hater: “My loue and dutie will not suffer mee To see you fauour such a prostitute … The woman you saw with me is a whore.”

Click here to read this thesis from Dalhousie University

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