The Stews

The salacious bath picture that shows a king and a bishop holding the keys to 'the stews' was not far wide of the mark.61 Hot baths never lost the taint of the brothel pinned on them by puritans for the good reason that they were the favourite— indeed licensed—places for sexual seduction, sanctioned by the elders of the community. The medieval municipal bathhouse shared this job with the medieval municipal brothel (in Germany the Frauenhaus, in France the maison des fillettes), where the public women based their trade. The town authorities seemed to have regarded both the baths and the brothels as a necessary outlet for the energies of the town's young men, and simply tried to control them. According to one recent history of prostitution: 'Everywhere that their operation can be clearly ascertained, the etuves [stoves] served both the honest purpose of bathing and the more ''dishonest'' one of prostitution. This continued to be true in spite of innumerable regulations against receiving prostitutes in the bathhouses or specifying hours or days... '62 Bath prostitutes and bath-keepers were thus as firmly regulated as brothels. In medieval London the city's main eighteen hot baths in Southwark were on land owned by the bishop of Winchester, instantly giving the prostitutes who traded there the name Winchester Geese. In 1161 the Southwark stews were newly regulated—not closed (for they were an 'old custom used for times out of mind'), but reorganized to ensure fair trading and orderliness. The women were to be free to come and go; they were not to open on Sundays;no more than 14 shillings'

rent for each women's chamber;no nuns;money to be paid for the full night;no women with venereal diseases—and no food on the premises. This last must have been a great blow, precisely calculated to send the party trade elsewhere, but was probably not observed for long.63

By the fifteenth century, bath feasting in the many town bathhouses seems to have been as common as going out to a restaurant was to become four centuries later. German bath etchings from the fifteenth century often feature the town bathhouse, with a long row of bathing couples eating a meal naked in bathtubs, often several to a tub, with other couples seen smiling in beds in the mid-distance. In one well-known version, the bathers sit in curtained-off, two-seater baths, being served their food on a cloth-covered table alongside the bath. Guests enter, and waiters scurry to and fro.64 The illustrations show the high-waisted, low-cut, breast-exposed styles for women that had become fashionable, with the men wearing very short doublets and hose, with buttocks and codpieces exposed. The medieval bathing party was then very nearly at its height. 'Twenty five years ago, nothing was more fashionable in Brabant than the public baths,' said Erasmus in 1526;'today there are none, the new plague has taught us to avoid them.'

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