Customer satisfaction

Somewhere between the ‘sixpenny drab’ in the backstreets and the high-class ‘courtesan’ cruising for custom in her new-fangled coach, there was a hinterland of what one might almost call ‘genteel prostitution’, in which respectable-looking young - and not so young - women traded sexual favours for money or goods.

We have seen these women at the playhouse - the ‘Cheapside dame’, the ‘light huswife’ and others - on the look-out for sexual assignations that may or may not be also commercial ones. We find them also in these plays and pamphlets of 1604-5. Thus Middleton tells us that the discerning young gallant of 1604 likes his ‘harlot’ to be a woman of class: ‘They should be none of these common Molls neither, but discontented and unfortunate gentlewomen . . . poor squalls with a little money which cannot hold out long without some comings-in; but they will rather venture a maidenhead than want a head-tire’ (the tire here epitomizing - as it often does - the expensive and unnecessary fashion-accessory).35 And in Marston’s Dutch Courtesan, the broad-minded Freevill speaks sympathetically of wives who seek paid sex as a solution to economic problems -

A poor decayed mechanical man’s wife: her husband is laid up, may not she lawfully be laid down, when her husband’s only rising is by her falling? A captain’s wife wants means: her commander lies in open field abroad, may not she lie in civil arms at home? A waiting gentlewoman that had wont to take say [a kind of fine cloth] to her lady, miscarries or so: the court misfortune throws her down, may not the city courtesy take her up? Do you know no alderman would pity such a woman’s case? (1.1.102-9)

These amateurs were viewed with predictable suspicion by professional working girls. In Dekker’s Honest Whore 2, the upmarket Penelope Whorehound, who pretends to gentility - ‘I come of the Whorehounds’ - and wears a ‘costly gown’, says: ‘If I go amongst citizens’ wives, they jeer at me; if I go among the loose-bodied gowns [prostitutes] they cry a pox on me because I go civilly attired, and swear their trade was a good trade till such as I am took it out of their hands’ (2729-32). And in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614) the prostitute Alice - ‘your punk of Turnbull, Ramping Alice’, a true ‘mistress of the game’ - complains to the flirtatious Mrs Overdo the judge’s wife (who is not to be confused with Shakespeare’s Mistress Overdone): ‘A mischief on you, they are such as you that undo us and take our trade from us, with your tuff-taffety haunches . . . The poor common whores can ha’ no traffic for the privy rich ones. Your caps and hoods of velvet call away our customers, and lick the fat from us’ (4.3.283-9).

A particular aspect of this is the idea of tradesmen’s and shopkeepers’ wives who offer sexual favours, or least promising flirtations, to customers. We find this with Mistresses Mulligrub and Burnish, the wives respectively of a vintner and a goldsmith, in Marston’s Dutch Courtesan. Here is what Mistress M says of Mistress B -

I know her very well. I have been inward with her and so has many more . . . She has been as proper a woman as any in Cheap. She paints [uses cosmetics] now, and yet she keeps her husband’s old customers to him still. In truth, a fine fac’d wife in a wainscot carved seat is a worthy ornament to a tradesman’s shop, and an attractive, I warrant. Her husband shall find it in the custom of his ware, I’ll assure him.

The word ‘inward’ is used doubly: the line broadly means, ‘I have been socially intimate with her and others sexually intimate with her.’36 ‘Proper’ in the next sentence is probably also duplicitous. No longer in the first blush of youth, Mrs Burnish continues to use her physical charms as an ‘attractive’ to her husband’s male customers. And Mrs Mulligrub, it seems, does much the same - ‘I do keep as gallant and as good company, though I say it, as any she in London. Squires, gentlemen and knights diet at my table.’ She offers them credit, and perhaps something more: ‘Full many fine men go upon my score, as simple as I stand here . . . [They] promise fair, and give me very good words, and a piece of flesh when time of year serves . . . My silly husband, alas, he knows nothing of it; ’tis I that bear, ’tis I that must bear a brain for all.’ (3.3.2-13, 17-27). There is more Marstonian innuendo in this. That ‘piece of flesh’ which her favoured customers offer her is ostensibly a joint of meat for feast days like Christmas, but has an obvious bawdy reading as well. And ‘ ’tis I that bear’ puns on ‘bear’ = carry the weight of a man on top, and perhaps also on ‘bare’.37

The same idea is expressed from the opposite angle in Middleton’s satire, The Family of Lovec. 1602-4, where the apothecary Purge is complacent about his wife’s infidelities because they help business along -

He that tends well his shop, and hath an alluring wife with a graceful ‘what d’ye lack’, shall be sure to have good doings, and good doings is that that crowns so many citizens with the horns of abundance . . . I smile to myself to hear our knights and gallants say how they gull us citizens, when indeed we gull them, or rather they gull themselves. Here they come in term-time, hire chambers, and perhaps kiss our wives: well, what lose I by that? God’s blessing on’s heart, I say still, that makes much of my wife; for they were very hard-favoured that none could find in’s heart to love but ourselves . . . Tut, jealousy is a hell, and they that will thrive must utter their wares as they can, and wink at small faults. (2.1.2-10)

The implication of that last sentence is that this apothecary’s wife is herself one of his ‘wares’.

Another complacent apothecary is the subject of a jest in Wilkins and Dekker’s Jests to Make you Merrie (1607):

An apothecary that had a gallant creature to his wife, was wondred at, that shee (especially) and himselfe could be so rich in apparell, and so expensive in dyet, hauing no customers resorting to their shop for any phisicall stuffe, but onely a few gentlemen that came to take pipes of the divine smoake. Whereupon some of his neighbors giving up their credit, that this geere could not last long, oh (said one of them) you are all deceived in that man, it is not possible he should sinke, hee is so well held up by the heade [by his cuckold’s horns].

And in Wilkins’s Miseries, when Butler plans an assignation with Wentloe and Bartley near Goldsmith’s Row, he instructs them, ‘Ask not for me, only walk to and fro, and to avoid suspicion you may spend some conference with the shop-keepers’ wives; they have seats built a-purpose for such familiar entertainment’ (1820-23). This is the same arrangement mentioned by Marston: ‘a fine fac’d wife in a wainscot carved seat is a worthy ornament to a tradesman’s shop’.

Women in shops enticing potential male purchasers are also mentioned in the anonymous Pasquin’s Palinodia (1619). Speaking of the tradesmen in the upmarket Jacobean shopping-mall called the New Exchange, the author says:

Thy shops with pretty wenches swarm, 

Which for thy custom are a kind of charm.

These girls are customers rather than shopkeepers, but it is the same nexus of sex and money which is the terrain of Jacobean city-comedians, and which was defined by them as an aspect of the period’s social instability. London was a hive of retail activity: conspicuous consumption was its by-word, and increasingly it was an area in which women were in control. For their menfolk, says Ian Archer, ‘shopping becomes a locus of anxieties . . . The apparent availability of women in the shops and the desire of city women for consumer goods threatened the patriarchal order on which the authority of citizen husbands rested.’38 The Cheapside dame cruising for company at the theatre, the pretty girls out shopping at the New Exchange, the fine-faced wife offering cosy chats in the wainscot seat - these are all females enthusiastically engaged in a free-market economy in which they can be sellers and buyers and indeed the commodity itself.

The shop as a locus of sexual assignation or anyway promise - how much does this touch a chord with the Mountjoys of Silver Street? We have hints of the climate there. There are those shenanigans reported in, or inferred from, Simon Forman’s casebook, in which Marie’s relationship with Henry Wood the mercer seems precisely a mix of business and sexual dalliance (‘amor’ is the word written down by Forman, so presumably Mr Wood called it ‘love’, but one suspects that dalliance is what it was). There is that dead baby whose father is not named, and that pregnant maid Margaret Browne, and then later (and more substantial) those two illegitimate children of Christopher’s by another maid, and those statements that he had been up before the bench for ‘lewd acts and adulteries’.

One remembers also that the head-tire and the periwig were among the most characteristic wear for prostitutes - those ‘borrowed gleamy bushes’ which ‘signify beauty to sell’, those ‘quaint periwigs’ worn by ‘street-walkers’, those ‘lascivious Jessabells’ who ‘set out their broidred haire with periwigs’. We see that glittery confection of gold and gauze on the courtesan’s head in Isaac Oliver’s allegorical study of pleasure. She is a decade or so earlier, but this is more or less how the Franceschinas and Bellafronts of Jacobean London looked and dressed. The woman in the painting and the courtesans onstage are fictions, but they are accurate portrayals of real women in that trade or situation - and it is perfectly likely, on a strictly retailing basis, that these women were sometimes to be found in the Mountjoys’ shop, buying something special ‘with low-down dangling spangles all beset’ for that promising assignation with some bountiful lord or wealthy flat-cap.

In these ways a certain dodgy glamour attaches to the Mountjoys’ shop, above which Shakespeare sits writing his mirthless comedy about a city obsessed and corrupted with sex - a city he calls ‘Vienna’ but which is really London.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!