15(2) Aspects of the Social Context

In order to understand 1 and 2 The Honest Whore it is essential to know something about the social environment from which it sprang, notably London at the beginning of the seventeenth century. This section will consider matters particularly relevant to these two plays, namely the nature of, and developments within, the society of London and its ‘suburbs’ (the important areas lying outside the city walls); the phenomenon of prostitution within metropolitan London; and, connected with that, the issue of sexual disease.

London and Its Social Classes

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the city went through vast changes. One of the most important breaks with the past was Henry VIII’s determination to make England independent of the Pope, to claim for himself the right to be the Head of the Church of England, and to open the way to such protestant reforms (although only to a limited extent) as had been occurring in continental Europe. Although this was a revolutionary step, and Edward VI took his father’s cause further, Catholicism again officially held sway under Mary Tudor. When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, England, though once again now protestant, had clearly gone through radical religious changes, and a more questioning – indeed in some ways a more secular – attitude had been the result, even though church attendance was compulsory. England had also become markedly less insular, and at the time when Dekker wrote his plays, trade and exploration outside Britain were increasing at a daunting rate. London grew apace, and a number of people of comparatively humble background succeeded in becoming rich.

Nevertheless, it was still possible to recognise conventional structures as operating within society. England had not yet become anything like a democracy. Indeed, it was not yet a developed industrial power by any means, and although the emergence of what we vaguely call a ‘middle class’ was a significant feature, particularly in London, we should recognise that most people not only viewed the monarch as unquestionably the leader of the country, but saw the hierarchy of society still in essentially feudal terms. Paul S. Seaver seems to me to have produced a very valuable essay recently, called ‘Middleton’s London’,[10] but to present a picture of the city as more modern than in fact it was, or certainly would have seen itself as being. For one thing, he is disinclined to make a clear distinction between the city proper (within the walls), and the ‘suburbs’ outside them. The actual city was, as Seaver says, on a day to day basis ‘ruled by its court of aldermen, twenty-six men representing the twenty-six wards of the city, who once selected were expected to serve for life.’[11] What should be added is that this court (the Common Council) did not have jurisdiction over the suburbs, where about half of metropolitan London lived: the monarch did.

Seaver also writes: ‘Elizabethans who attempted to map their society tended to see urban populations as an undifferentiated mass. William Harrison, despite having been born in London, spent pages (twenty in a modern edition) in his Description of England [1577] on a detailed anatomy of the major and minor nobility, that social pyramid that stretched from dukes and earls down to knights, esquires and mere gentlemen, but devoted scarcely two paragraphs to the “citizens and burgesses ... who be those that are free within the cities and are of some likely substance to bear office in the same”.’ Seaver adds, by way of criticism of Harrison’s view: ‘In fact London society was both stratified and complex. At its apex were the rich merchants and financiers.’[12]

But Harrison’s traditional, hierarchical view of English society as a whole appears to have been widely shared by his contemporaries, and included London, where the aristocracy – notably the monarch – was still seen as highly important. It is reflected in the dramatic literature of the Renaissance, whether concerned with town or country, and it remains helpful for our understanding of the world of the dramatists and their audiences. For that reason, I believe that Andrew Gurr is right in attaching considerable importance to Harrison’s account which, moreover, in Gurr’s rendering of it sounds more comprehensive than Seaver makes out. Gurr states: ‘William Harrison’s four classes were, in order of income and status, first the nobles and gentlemen, next citizens and burgesses, thirdly yeomen, the rural smallholders, and finally artisans and labourers.’[13]

20In the world of 1 and 2 The Honest Whore, at any rate, Milan (very similar to London in most ways) is not represented as having at ‘its apex’ the ‘rich merchants and financiers’ whom Seaver mentions. Indeed, they are simply not found at all. Candido is a successful retailer (a ‘free’ citizen), and as such he is logically enough a member of Milan’s Senate (the equivalent of London’s Common Council) which concerns itself with day-to-day urban affairs (1 The Honest Whore, TLN 1389-95). However, central control and power resides entirely with the Duke (the top-ranking aristocrat in Milan), who in both plays does not hesitate to take decisions in just such a way as an English monarch might. For example, he imitates Henry VIII, who suppressed the Bankside brothels in 1546, in deciding to ‘purge our city Milan, and to cure / The outward parts, the suburbs’ (2HW, TLN 2151-52).

Thus the aristocracy (collectively referred to as ‘lords’, and including bishops) remains a very significant force in Dekker’s dramatic world, and not just the Duke. The status of Hippolito, who is a count, is duly acknowledged as that of a nobleman – one reason why ultimately he is a suitable enough husband for the Duke’s daughter.

A knight, like Lodovico, though belonging to ‘the lesser gentry’ rather than the rank of the proper nobles, is of a higher rank than a simple ‘gentleman’, the designation applicable to most of the other high-ranking males in the plays. ‘Gentlemen’ were originally often thought of as a lower order among the aristocrats, but this view was on the wane, and although they generally led similar lives, they were nevertheless increasingly seen as a separate class.

Traditionally the major members of the ‘landed gentry’ had always based their wealth on the ownership of land rather than on working with their hands, and, whether in the country or in London, a hallmark of a gentleman was, and remained, that such a person could live without doing manual labour. Their whole way of life (often lavish), and their identifiable deportment, also tended to set them apart. A person seen to qualify could actually buy himself, as a sort of badge, a coat of arms. Thus in 1596, with the help of his son, Shakespeare’s father became a ‘gentleman’. Gentlemen also had the right to wear a weapon (usually a sword). It was characteristic of the sixteenth century that people sought to move from being mere ‘citizens’ to ‘gentlemen’, and often money played a large part in their succeeding. Far more frequently, however, it was – at least additionally – education which brought with it the much sought-after new status. Therefore lawyers (especially), doctors, and other highly educated people, increasingly also became members of the new-style class of gentlemen. Many of the gentlemen found in London around 1600 had moved to the capital from the country, having sold their land or living on its proceeds. Those sons who came to London, with wealth, to study law at the Inns of Court automatically were accepted as gentlemen.

In the Honest Whore plays, the typical gentlemen whom we see are people like Castruccio, Sinezi, Beraldo, etc., who are usually strongly associated with the world of the court. Dekker generally presents them as men who do not do any work (whether manual or intellectual), but concentrate on ‘having a good time’. We are made to think of them as eating, drinking (especially imported wines), smoking (a new habit), dressing extravagantly, gambling, mixing with prostitutes, etc., and as often possessing ample money for the pursuit of such pleasures. These individuals seem to have been fairly common, and certainly were much noticed; they were usually described as ‘gallants’, who were keen to stand out from the crowd. They attracted attention by wearing enormously expensive, ostentatious clothes (made of imported materials and heavily influenced by foreign fashions), spending extravagantly, and displaying affected mannerisms. Very often these people, with their idle and luxurious ways, drew on (and might fairly quickly waste) vast fortunes. Although they did benefit the London economy by doing so, they also make us understand why their world would to an extent eventually make way for those who did work and who actually earned money.

25The main category of people doing this, and the most highly regarded, certainly by Dekker, were the ‘citizens’. These were not, as we might now think, merely people who happened to live in a place like London, but a distinct part of society. Above all the word refers to those who were ‘free’ within their cities, where ‘free’ means that they were members of a city guild who were employers, not employees. Candido is the prime example in our plays, though in some ways eccentric. Citizens were engaged both in retailing, and, particularly, in manufacturing – a major component of the London economy. These people were generally sober in their habits and clothes, even if they might look quietly opulent. Merchants were included among the citizens, though on the understanding that they could also rise to become gentlemen. The richest merchants, who were small in number, certainly aspired to be seen as gentlemen or even to become noblemen, and earned far more than someone like Candido, thanks to growth in large-scale trading, not least internationally, with results boosted by the activities of several organisations such as the Levant Company, which became the powerful East India Company in 1600.

The yeomen mentioned by Harrison were something like the country equivalent to citizens in also being ‘free’, though many of the more humble folk working in the country would not reach this status. However, a successful yeoman might work for a gentleman as a farmer, or even ultimately become a gentleman himself, or at least ensure that one or more of his sons would: a son might become a lawyer, or live upon the land without doing manual labour, and thus qualify.

The next group, Harrison’s artisans and labourers, was very large and fairly varied. It included, in the country, people who owned no land at all, and, in the city, people who were, most significantly, employees. Citizens, themselves free, employed others, such as skilled artisans, and they trained their apprentices to become day labourers, and ultimately to become citizens. Apprentices were ‘bound’ for seven years to their masters, and received board and lodging during that period before they could become wage earners. While relations between citizens and their apprentices were often (though certainly not always) harmonious, the social gap between them was actually very considerable. At a lower level, servants also formed part of this social group. Both apprentices and servants are, of course, found in 1 and 2 The Honest Whore.

Finally, there was a remarkably big group which had no official place in Harrison’s ranking. These were the vagabonds, who actually were, or were seen as, unemployed. They included both males and females. The evidence appears to suggest that the males were most often ‘vagrants’ who generally had no real work to do, while many of the females became whores who in their own fashion usually worked very hard. This enormous number of people, who had no real status in society, were to be found especially in the ‘suburbs’, i.e. the areas of metropolitan London outside the city walls, where the city itself traditionally had no jurisdiction.[14] As it seemed to city-dwellers, unemployed vagabonds, whores, thieves, and other undesirables populated the suburbs, which were however additionally known for various dubious activities which also entertained people from the city itself, such as gambling, bear-baiting, performing plays, etc.

Demographic, Economic, and Social Changes

The previous section offered a rough overview of the social classes in England generally and London in particular, as people viewed the matter around 1600. What we must now consider is that the seemingly static picture presented was in fact greatly affected by sweeping developments.[15]

30For one thing, there were vast demographic changes. There seems to be fairly widespread – though not unanimous – agreement that London had some 200,000 inhabitants in 1600, and that the population almost doubled to 375,000 or more by c.1650. Obviously, the number for 1605 would already have exceeded 200,000 by thousands (some believe possibly by as many as 25,000). The growth from 1600-1650 is impressive, but it was even faster before 1600. Usually it is believed that around 1530 the population may have been about 50,000, but it appears to have reached 100,000 by about 1570-80 at the latest, which would mean that by 1605 the population had more than doubled within just a few decades – a truly stupendous growth rate.

The size of the growth, and its nature, can however easily be misjudged unless we form an idea of just how it came about. For example, ‘natural’ growth counted for little in the process. An outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1603 by itself killed some 30,000 people or more, and although this was a major instance of the disease, it was not the only one. As well, several other diseases, malnutrition, and other causes of death reduced the size of the adult population, while the rate of infant mortality was extremely high. All of which means that the true source of London’s growth was immigration, so that Seaver’s estimate of an (averaged) inflow of over 10,000 people per year is probably not too high if we take into account the large number of deaths.[16]

Immigration was largely from within England, but the inflow from abroad is often underrated, especially a factor mentioned by David Bevington, namely that perhaps ‘as many as one-third of Antwerp’s merchants and artisans settled in London, bringing with them their expert knowledge of commerce and manufacture’: these were people moving to London because of Spanish attacks on Antwerp in 1576 and 1585.[17] The choice of London would have seemed quite logical to them because of the close commercial contact that these two cities had traditionally enjoyed. There were also other foreign immigrants, but the major source of London’s growth lies undoubtedly in the fact that it appealed to English people, both well-off and (far more often) very poor, who wished to move away from rural life.

Traditionally the English economy had been based on the land: hence the role of the feudal gentry as so prominent in English society. However, during the sixteenth century London came to be a centre for manufacturing and trade, both economic activities of the future. By contrast life in the country offered fewer and fewer opportunities and, proportionately, became more a thing of the past. One vital change in particular dwarfed rural employment, namely the practice of ‘enclosure’: landowners converted the traditional croplands (which required large numbers of workers) into pasturage (for which few workers were needed). Pasturage was attractive because the production of wool, and hence the manufacture of woollen cloth, proved highly profitable. Thus many tens of thousands of people who had been agrarian workers found themselves without a financial future on the land, and moved elsewhere, usually to London. A great many of these were young.

For those wealthier people who could sell their land or live on the profits in London, that city offered an attractive prospect, but the vast majority found the going tough. While London was certainly growing wealthier and in theory provided chances of work, this did not mean that the generally youthful rural immigrants necessarily had good prospects. The figure of 200,000 inhabitants does not immediately reveal the harsh truth that only about half of these lived in the city proper, while the other half, often from the country, lived in the so-called ‘suburbs’ outside its walls. Many of those people were extremely poor: often beggars, or otherwise unemployed, whether male or female. The females, if they were simple and uneducated girls (as many were), had little chance of ever gaining respectable employment. While some of them might be lucky enough to become servants, for example, a very large number turned to prostitution, or were in effect compelled to do so – partly because they had little alternative, and partly because, in theory at least, that ‘profession’ (as it was named) offered a lucrative income. Bawds and others readily offered their services to steer the newcomers into ‘the trade’, as it was often called. There were, of course, also whores from good families, such as Bellafront. In the Honest Whore plays Dekker gives an indication as to how a girl like her might become a prostitute. She was seduced by Mattheo, a gentleman who promised to marry her but did not. Instead, he encouraged her to become a whore, and as she had lost her virginity and was not married, that ‘profession’ became in effect a not illogical choice for a woman no longer respectable within her social sphere.

35With the young men drifting into London matters were often different. If their parents were rich enough they might proceed to become lawyers by studying at the Inns of Court, where between 1590 and 1639 more than 12,000 young men were admitted.[18] These students usually became wealthy. Others whose parents were well-off enough could become apprentices. There is general agreement that around 1600 some 4,000–6,000 young men per year were ‘bound’ (for seven years) as apprentices. But even among the men, unemployment (hence, usually, life in the ‘suburbs’) was highly common, and enclosure was not the only cause. For example, soldiers, once they had done their work in Europe, were simply dismissed and frequently joined the ranks of those without work. In essence, the opportunity to become wealthy in London presented itself generally only to those who were already fairly prosperous to begin with. Those who were needy were hardly helped by a series of Poor Laws and Vagrancy Laws introduced during the Tudor period from 1495 on. In essence these generally tended to treat the poor, and vagrants, as criminals rather than people in need of help. For example, in 1547 a law was passed which punished vagrants harshly: servitude and branding with a ‘V’ was the penalty for the first offence, and death for the second. Later there were some attempts made to recognise that ‘the deserving poor’, an expression used in the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, should be treated more humanely, but in practice those who were poor could do little to better their lot given their place in a harsh and difficult social and economic environment.

Even so, those who did have the opportunity to make money often did very well indeed. Some of the merchants, especially those dealing in expensive materials like silk (very often mentioned in 1 and 2 The Honest Whore), were able to build up vast wealth. Manufacturing was often very profitable for those involved in it. ‘What data we have suggests that a majority of Elizabethan Londoners were engaged in one or another form of production, and that in the early Stuart era manufacturing remained the dominant occupation of Londoners.’[19] This would certainly have been true in the city itself. Most of the ‘manufacturers’ were those who worked in small shops presided over by a master and including that master’s journeymen (‘free’ men working for wages) and apprentices.

A significant number of Londoners were citizens, free to earn a living, and usually therefore engaged in either manufacturing or retailing. Candido, a linen-draper, is a good example of a successful and dignified citizen, with loyal apprentices. The citizens were the most important group in creating the profile of London as essentially a middle-class, bourgeois city. However, it also had, within its walls, very wealthy ‘gallants’ and exceptionally prosperous merchants. And in the suburbs it contained a huge number of people who were either unemployed men, or women who were employed (in the sense that they worked) as whores, but who were generally treated, like the unemployed, as having no rights and no status as members of the community. It is to a consideration of this group of women and their fate that I shall now turn.

Whores and Their World

To understand the position of prostitutes at the time when 1 and 2 The Honest Whore were written we need to have some knowledge of how it had become what it was. The history of the sex trade in London goes back at least as far as Roman times. The Romans imported their own practice of using public bath-houses as meeting places for prostitutes and their would-be clients, and this was continued after they left. The Bankside (south of the Thames), which the Romans had established as the red-light district, continued as such, and the use of the word stews in English to indicate brothels came into being on account of ‘the frequent use of the public hot-air bath-houses for immoral purposes’ (OED stew sb.2 4).

Dekker, along with several of his contemporaries, wrote about prostitution with great concern for the moral and social problem it posed, and also as an interested observer. Among his pamphlets, Lantern and Candelight is most frequently referred to for its comments, especially Ch. IX, ‘The Infection of the Suburbs’.[20] Valuable though that work is, the far less frequently mentioned The Dead Term (1608) is important for showing what solution Dekker favoured, and that he had some grasp of how prostitution in London had developed – as he saw it, certainly for the worse. He reveals his awareness of a better time, namely 1161, when Henry II had officially licensed the stews, but also introduced a set of regulations for them. Like Thomas Nashe (whom he often followed) Dekker argued in favour of a similar arrangement for the present. It is interesting to note that Dekker, although a protestant, praised the policy of a Catholic king as more enlightened than the chaos which, as we shall see, was in part introduced by Henry VIII.

40The set of rules introduced by Henry II was extensive,[21] but Dekker in effect paraphrases the shorter version which he and his contemporaries knew from John Stow’s impressively informative A Survey of London, which had been published in 1598 and 1603.[22] The regulations are all in all commonsensical and decent, which is no doubt why Dekker liked them. For example, in Dekker’s words, ‘no stew-holder or his wife was to compel any single woman to stay with them against her will, but to give her leave to come and go at her pleasure’; brothels were ‘to be searched weekly by constables and other officers’; and no ‘stew-holder should lodge in his house any woman that had the dangerous infirmity of burning [probably gonorrhoea].’[23] As the Danish scholar Johannes Fabricius explains in his specialist study Syphilis in Shakespeare’s England (1994):

For the first time in Europe, licensed brothels were here established under royal sanction with a prelate [the Bishop of Winchester] to manage them. In this way a steady revenue was guaranteed to both Church and State while venereal disease was brought under loose or tentative control. The moral qualms about such an arrangement were not too severe among the clergy because of the ambivalent attitude of the Church towards prostitution.[24]

Despite Henry’s good intentions, prostitution naturally enough continued to be a problem, and increasingly so. For example, probably as a result of the emergence of a vigorous outbreak of syphilis in England just before 1500, Henry VII closed the eighteen stews on the Bankside in 1506. Curiously, he re-opened twelve of them soon after. The effect of the action was not positive: during the period of closure, many women moved to the other side of the Thames, and thus, although they generally settled in the suburbs there rather than the city itself, prostitution was spread more widely than before.

The many country women (often girls) who moved into London during the sixteenth century and became prostitutes there could hardly have been properly controlled anyway, but Henry VIII made matters far worse by abandoning the licensing system put in place by Henry II in 1161. He decided by royal proclamation in 1546 that the ‘dissolute and miserable’ agents of prostitution had created by their ‘abominable and detestable sin’ not only dangerous ‘enormities’ in the Commonwealth but also a ‘corruption of the same along with the spread of theft and crime’. Therefore, he banished all bawds from their brothel-houses and all whores to their home parishes.[25] The result was totally counter-productive, and soon prostitution flourished more than before and over a wider area, with much diminished supervision. Private brothels replaced the now unlicensed public ones, and were much harder to police. More whores also managed to find their way into the city proper. In the 1550s Bridewell (given to the City of London by Edward VI) became for one thing a prison for whores, and the City gained some right of control over Bankside events, but the evidence appears to indicate that Henry’s action had been catastrophic and irreversible. The problem of prostitution did not improve under the Catholic Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth in practice did not take much interest in it.

James, not long after his accession in 1603, called on 16 September for demolition of the worst slum quarters of the capital, objecting to ‘the great confluence and access of excessive numbers of idle, indigent, dissolute and dangerous persons’. The reference to ‘dissolute and dangerous’ persons makes plain that his decision was not inspired solely by the outbreak of the bubonic plague, but no doubt both by it and the virulent, widespread presence of syphilitic infection.[26]

The actions of both Henry VIII and James, in trying to suppress whoredom by demolishing buildings and purging sinful areas, foreshadow those of Angelo, acting on the Duke’s behalf in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and of the Duke in 2 The Honest Whore. These real historical events must have made a huge impact on many people in London, and were no doubt on the minds of many. They fit in with the fact that George Whetstone, in his treatise A Mirror for Magistrates of Cities (1584), presents to us an emperor, Alexander Severus (Whetstone’s mouthpiece), holding forth against and closing down all taverns, dicing houses and stews.[27] Thus there was more than one reason why both dramatists and their audiences would have been interested in the idea that stews might in theory be eradicated, while knowing that in practice they would not be.

45While all whores were of course affected by significant political, social, and economic changes, it is nevertheless important to realise that there definitely were distinctive classes among them. At the bottom of the social ladder were those who were doomed to be streetwalkers. They suffered from poverty, often disease, and probably as a rule were not the most favoured choice of the customers they sought. Those who were sexually appealing could often overcome poverty, and as many whores were diseased, that factor by itself did not necessarily spell economic disaster.

More successful was in general the public whore who operated particularly from alehouses (always busier when brothels were closed), taverns (of a higher status than alehouses), or brothels. Whores might act very much on their own if they did not work for brothels, which provided something like an ‘ordered’ existence, the nature of which could vary: usually a female bawd was in charge and was paid a substantial fee by the whore. In most brothels the bawds were the women who really prospered if any of them did. Males, acting as pimps or panders, could also earn significant money. The main task of those who were not whores was to attract customers and to exercise overall supervision. The standard of brothels varied greatly, as did their economic success. The most prosperous ones not only offered beautiful women for hire, but tried to be disease-free, and would offer a high standard in matters such as bedding, wines, and appetising food.

The very highest social level was reserved for a small number of whores who became the exclusive mistress of a very wealthy aristocrat, bishop, or merchant. Below them were those whores who catered for affluent and upper class clients, but not just one person. It is notable that in 1 The Honest Whore Bellafront confesses to Hippolito: ‘ ’T has never been my fortune yet to single / Out that one man whose love could fellow mine’ (TLN 1023-24). While she is partly speaking about affection, she nevertheless also has a specific financial arrangement in mind which has not come her way (although ironically Hippolito offers it to her in 2 The Honest Whore). Nevertheless, she is an upper class prostitute. She comes from a good background to begin with: her father, who is a gentleman, refers to his own ‘wealth’ in a soliloquy (2HW, TLN 427). Professionally Bellafront is in principle a ‘court-mistress’ rather than just any whore. It is significant that in essence she operates, in a state of considerable material comfort, from a private residence, with Roger in her service as her own pander. She additionally appears to get the odd client through a bawd (1HW, 3.2 ). Her clientele clearly belongs to the upper echelons of society. She herself in principle re-gains a respectable place once she abandons her immoral role and gets married to Mattheo (a gentleman). We should realise that she is by no means representative of the majority of whores – undoubtedly totalling some tens of thousands – who populated the suburbs and to an extent the city itself.[28]

Venereal Disease

Unlike Bellafront, most prostitutes would not have been able to choose a different life for themselves, or necessarily have thought of marriage as an attractive alternative. The evidence is certainly that the sex trade was highly active, and as the population of the city, and of whores, increased, the risk of sexual disease inevitably appears to have done the same. The abundance of sexual word-play in 1 and 2 The Honest Whore is a particularly striking feature, and not only must Dekker have felt that his audience was interested in sex generally, but allusions to sexual disease are remarkably frequent in these plays.

The thrust of Fabricius’s book is that syphilis grew at a tremendous rate from about 1500 on, and was still doing so in the early seventeenth century. Dekker’s word-play appears to bear witness to this development. Indeed, it seems that his characters find it genuinely amusing to joke about what we recognise as symptoms of gonorrhoea and syphilis, which suggests that the two plays reflect, and are written for, a society so familiar with these diseases that it regarded them as a very ordinary part of life. Perhaps it needed – or found it possible – to make fun of horror exactly because that was so prevalent. Of course I hasten to add that at times the horror is also fully acknowledged as appalling. In 1 The Honest Whore, both Hippolito and Bellafront see its presence in the life of a whore as a good reason for abandoning the ‘profession’: in Bellafront’s words, sexual disease provides ‘Misery. / Rank, stinking, and most loathsome misery’ (TLN 1123-24), and she appears to believe that a whore will almost inevitably be afflicted.

50For prostitution to flourish, and for sexual disease to do so as well, one needs a set of circumstances such as London offered. There were plenty of women prepared to sell their bodies, and plenty of men willing to pay. In addition to the women themselves, certain groups of men, Fabricius suggests, were particularly at risk of infection, and thus also became a risk to others. Sailors, soldiers, and vagabonds very actively sought the company of whores wherever they went. Once infected, they were also in turn themselves highly instrumental in the spread of disease, both coming into London from elsewhere and vice versa. Other high-risk groups were apprentices, students at the universities and the Inns of Court, members of the Royal Court (noblemen and gentlemen), and ‘the leading members of London’s literary and dramatic Bohemia’.[29]

Further risk factors were the growth of private enterprise in the ‘trade’ and the removal of regulations, as well as the absence of an effective police force. In many plays, though not in 1 and 2 The Honest Whore, constables are presented as bumblingly stupid: Dogberry, in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, is the most famous but by no means the only example. It must be acknowledged that an organised, professional police force, such as London has now, did not exist in Renaissance London. The city was also notoriously crowded and filthy. Contraception would not even today effectively protect one against syphilis, and c.1600 the primitive forms of ‘condoms’ used were of low quality and unpopular. The object employed, if any protection against sexual disease was sought at all, was a linen sheath (an Italian invention), which was not particularly effective, as well as being cumbersome and rough. Even this was not generally used in England until much later, and was subsequently replaced by a far more purposeful sheath utilising the intestines of a sheep or a lamb, a type which had been used in the Middle East for centuries.[30] Furthermore, around 1600 many people in London lived without husbands or wives, and even those that did might have sought sexual pleasure elsewhere instead.

At any time, factors such as these would have produced venereal disease. But around 1500, when its incidence began to soar, there was one special impetus that deserves particular attention. The city was hit by a devastatingly strong form of syphilis. While it is a matter of current dispute whether a weaker form of syphilis existed in Europe prior to this time, it is certain that what was unleashed was something not experienced there before. It is widely accepted that this happened because Columbus and his men brought with them from the New World the disease, a strain of Treponema pallidum, that was soon to be called ‘the French pox’ on account of its manifestation in the French army during its siege of Naples early in 1495. The idea that the disease was ‘French’ was readily accepted in a country like England, although it appears to have been transmitted to the French by Spanish mercenaries in the French army. From 1495 the disease very quickly spread throughout Europe, which was overpowered by its unknown vigour. Although probably introduced earlier in 1496, it was first officially recorded in Britain in 1497.[31]

The disease owes its ‘official’ name to the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro, who in 1530 published a poem, in Latin, of which the English title is ‘Syphilis or the French Disease’. Syphilis is a shepherd supposed to be the first patient.[32] I add here that while the word syphilis has wide currency, English playwrights from the early modern period commonly refer simply to ‘the pox’. That name in the event came to be used in the main for just one disease (syphilis) among several (such as chicken-pox and small-pox) which had as their chief visible symptom the presence of ‘pocks’, eruptive pustules on the skin. The first unmistakable reference to the new disease listed in OED is to be found at ‘pox’, sb., 1e(b): ‘1503 Frenche pox’. It is significant that no clear designation for syphilis existed in English at an earlier date.

The Renaissance term pox covers a wider range than does syphilis in modern English. It was used not only to refer to the symptoms of syphilis, but also those of gonorrhoea (or ‘the clap’), which causes confusion among modern readers who may too readily associate ‘burning’ with ‘syphilis’ without realising that technically speaking the reference actually may be to ‘gonorrhoea’, which certainly does often cause a burning sensation. The OED describes gonorrhoea as ‘an inflammatory discharge of mucus from the membrane of the urethra or vagina’, as a result of which the patient frequently experiences pain in urinating. Admittedly, syphilis may produce painful nodes in the groin, and presumably this may also have been experienced as a form of ‘burning’. In what follows, however, I shall address the question why Renaissance texts like 1 and 2 The Honest Whore so often refer to ‘burning’/‘burn’ in relation to syphilis even when the most likely allusion is in fact to gonorrhoea.

55Henry II’s regulations of 1161 spoke of ‘mulieres habentes nephandam infirmitatem’ (‘women having a sinful infirmity’). The explanatory gloss issued for the benefit of the English population at large spoke of ‘any sikenes of brennynge’ (‘any sickness of burning’).[33] Such a sinful sickness characterised by a sensation of burning (frequently associated by Christians with lust) is often most likely to be gonorrhoea, but in 1161 the more so because there are no unambiguous references to ‘the pox’ in the sense of ‘syphilis’ before 1503. However, as both Fabricius and Gordon Williams in his Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery (1994) argue, the word ‘burning’ which was used in 1161 came to acquire a different meaning in the sixteenth century, especially as a slang expression which referred to syphilitic infection – one person ‘burning’ another – but also in the sense that, even more widely, the term pox came to include the sensation of ‘burning’ in gonorrhoea.[34]

It is observable that the word ‘burn’ became associated with the pox rather than just gonorrhoea, and also that the word ‘pox’ was increasingly used to include gonorrhoea as well as syphilis. But this was not due to a loose usage of slang whereby the application of the word ‘burn’ was extended from the one disease to the other. There was a more important factor at work. Increasingly, during the sixteenth century, the two diseases had come to be seen as just one, though not at all times, or by everyone. For example, as Gordon Williams points out (see ‘burn’ in his Dictionary), the two diseases are clearly kept apart in a passage that appears in Simon Fish’s Supplication for the Beggars (1529) which he cites: in it, a distinction is made between rakes ‘that catch the pocks of one woman and bear them to another’ and those ‘that be brent [= burnt] with one woman and bear it to another’. The first group is what we call syphilitic, and the second suffers from gonorrhoea.

However, already scholars of the time, such as Paracelsus, had begun to publish work in which they presented the so-called unitarian concept that syphilis and gonorrhea were part and parcel of the same disease, and this view was very widely accepted.[35] Probably one practical reason for the belief that someone suffering from the pox was plagued by what medical science today definitely knows to be two different diseases is that in practice many people would have been infected by both. As Fabricius puts it: ‘It is easy to see how in an age of great promiscuity a person contracting both gonorrhea and syphilis during one intercourse would consider them to be one disease. The victim’s only knowledge that he was ill would be the burning of gonorrhea after a few days and a syphilitic chancre after a few weeks.’ Moreover, he points out, we must remember that the key feature of syphilis, the symptom which gave its name to ‘the pox’, was the subsequent but later emergence of numerous lesions on the skin. Thus it is in a way quite logical if the surgeon Peter Lowe argued in 1596 that gonorrhoea is the first stage of the pox, after which pustules and other symptoms would often but not always follow. This kind of argument was popular and often espoused: according to it, ‘clap’ was the early stage and syphilis the later stage of ‘the pox’.[36]

It is tempting to think that many who suffered from venereal disease did, in fact, suffer from both gonorrhoea and syphilis, and in any case it is very clear from the many examples cited by Williams in his Dictionary (see ‘burn’) that the disease called ‘the pox’ was normally thought of, particularly at the time when 1 and 2 The Honest Whore were written, as combining the symptoms of the two diseases. It is in general helpful to think of ‘the pox’ in these terms, and not to see it as restricted to what we call syphilis. The wider meaning enables us more readily to understand why in many cases ‘burning’ was seen as a characteristic feature of ‘the pox’, and also why someone infected with it was so often described as ‘burnt’. It appears that in practice anyone suffering from venereal disease, whether gonorrhoea or syphilis or both, could be described as ‘burnt’, and that a patient who experienced a sensation of ‘burning’ in the genital area probably most often suffered from what we would call gonorrhoea, although, as stated before, the reference might also be to painful nodes in the groin produced by syphilis.

It will be obvious that it is actually not easy for a modern editor to gloss a word like ‘pox’ satisfactorily. A ‘safe’ solution might seem to gloss it as ‘venereal disease’. However, it does remain the case that, most definitely, the word ‘pox’ primarily referred to what we call ‘syphilis’, and I have therefore followed Williams and other scholars in using that term as sufficiently close in meaning to offer a reasonable enough translation. It should, however, be clearly understood that the symptoms of the pox could, in Renaissance usage, include those of gonorrhoea, and I state that here with some emphasis, as it would have been impractical to reiterate the point again and again in my commentary notes. As well, we must remember that pain (or rather different kinds of pain) in the genital area could be caused by either disease. Even from a modern point of view ‘burning’ may refer to the effects of syphilis, though probably more often the cause was the ‘clap’. In any case, however, words like ‘burn’ and ‘hot’ were very frequently used with reference to syphilis, even if only to indicate the presence of that disease as a result of infection. It would be wrong, therefore, to think of them as having to refer to pain.

60Syphilis was unmistakably the ‘new’ sexual disease which most seriously affected a very large number of people in early modern London, and it is the illness most frequently referred to in 1 and 2 The Honest Whore. A number of symptoms are tellingly mentioned, as my editorial commentary will make clear. For the outside world, and no doubt often the patient, too, the most obvious sign was the appearance of pustules or lesions on the skin. These ‘pocks’ gave the illness its name, though those of leprosy, for example, were similar and confusion of these two (and other) diseases was frequent. In primary syphilis, only a short time after intercourse, the appearance of a chancre was the first sign of syphilitic infection, but would often have gone unnoticed or been misunderstood, in contrast to the symptoms of gonorrhoea. The pustules which characterise syphilis appear later, in secondary syphilis, when the patient is highly contagious. Hair loss is another secondary-stage symptom that Dekker refers to several times.

In tertiary syphilis, which is highly serious, gummas, tumorous gummy balls, would appear, which c.1600 were readily seen although today they are usually internal. The phenomenon is presented in our plays by descriptions of damage to the nose (see e.g. 2HW, TLN 2695n, 2735n, and 2903n). Fabricius cites the case of a man who had two tumours and an ulcer in his nose, which every day produced a quantity of stinking and filthy matter, and adds that this condition was caused by one of the most horrible lesions in syphilis, in which nasal and sometimes palate bones are destroyed by gummy tumours.[37]

Tertiary syphilis could afflict people very seriously with a whole variety of symptoms, including insanity, and would not infrequently lead to death. Apparently those who were infected c.1500 usually suffered very badly, as the ‘Columbian’ disease was new to Europe. Death was then frequent, and early. By around 1550 the illness had become less severe, but still remained terrible and terrifying. Its occurrence in essence remained for long more or less epidemic, notably in a city like London. It is unsurprising that it so strongly preoccupies the characters shown to us in 1 and 2 The Honest Whore. Bone loss, for example, is another symptom more than once referred to. Although mercury treatment, combined with sweating, was regularly used, it offered only very limited relief, and no cure. Indeed, until the advent of antibiotics no real cure existed.