On putting sex work on the map

I have written before about the Agas Map of London (which you can find a fun zoomable version of here!) and how we can use it to find ordinary people and think about how medieval and early modern people thought about the world around them. Today, however, I have been thinking once again about how these same maps either show or hide sex work from us.

Yes I know I never shut up about sex workers, but that has a lot to do with my stated interest in ordinary people. There are a million people wanking on about kings, queens, lords, and ladies, but on this blog we stan the workers of the world, and that includes sex workers. In cities it especially includes sex workers because a) the general conceit that you need sex workers to have a peaceful city, and b) the fact that sex work is a profession open to ordinary women. Have you run away from your family farm and trying to make your way in the big city without any prior connections? Sex work was a job that was open to you, and something which didn’t require a bunch of rich friends.

Anyway as a result places like London have rather a lot of sex work going on, and there can be hints of that in various streets. It was common in medieval and early modern cities for streets to be named after what was on sale there: think Poultry Street, Bread Street, or Leather Lane.

The same is true for sex work. So on the Agas Map we can find four specific such sites.

The first is Cock Lane:

Over near Smithfield, Cock Lane does a great job of adhering to the medieval requirements for a site of sex work. It is outside of the city walls (which you can see just to the right in this picture), meaning that it is discrete. By all account Cock lane (still delightfully spelt Cocke here) was fairly famous as a place of sex work. It is specifically mentioned in a 1393 ordinance about sex work which states that no sex worker is to  “go about or lodge in the …city, or in the suburbs thereof, by night or by day; but they are to keep themselves to the places thereunto assigned, this is to say, the Stews on the other side of [the river] Thames, and Cokkeslane; on pain of losing and forfeiting the upper garment she shall be wearing, together with her hood, every time that anyone of them shall be found doing to the contrary of this proclamation.”[1]

It also does a great job of adhering to medieval place name conventions. Looking to get your cock taken care of by an expert? Off to Cock Lane you go. Funnily, because of modern sensibilities people now often like to say that the street is called Cock because there “may have been cock fighting” there. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t necessarily such entertainment on hand, but it’s a long walk to get away from the fact that one of the only licensed areas for sex work wouldn’t just be named after, you know, penises. In these circumstances it behooves us to think like thirteen year old boys about it. It’s probably more accurate. Sorry not sorry.

Another common name for sites of sex work is Love Lane, and at the time of the Agas Map London boasted three such places.

You have your Love Lane near Cripple Gate:

Your Love Lane near Coleman Street:

And your Love Lane near Thames street:

Now none of these places were actually licensed for sex work that I am aware of, but all adhere fairly closely to norms about such sites. The Cripplegate Love Lane is very close to the city walls, the Coleman site close to the Moore Gate and a series of gardens, and the Thames Street one, well, near the Thames. In each of these cases we see the liminality of the city coming in to play. Where do early modern people consider the edges of a city to be? One way to know is to look for places that sex work is tolerated, and you can tell what is fair game.

Later in the modern period we start getting into the real obvious names of sex work, and London gets its very own Grope Cunt Lane. Here on the map it is the middle of the three blue streets.

Interestingly, these streets did not exist at the time of the Agas Map, and they seem to be a post Great Fire inclusion. Compare here, what seems to be the same area.

From a medieval or early modern standpoint this is a completely inappropriate place for sex work to happen. It is very much in the middle of the city, and in the medieval period a very respectable one. Sopers Lane was home to a community of very rich and very fancy Guildsmen – largely Grocers and Mercers. As such, there is no way that sex work would be tolerated in this place at the time. By the eighteenth century, all such sensibilities had gone right TF out the window, however, and it was totally fine to have a bunch of brothels in the middle of the city.

What appears not to have been fine, however, was to talk about it. That map above shows you where Grope Cunt Lane is, but it doesn’t name it. You need to be in the known in order to  understand what exactly that place is. And before you get all “Oh but it is a small street, Eleanor, maybe they just didn’t have room to label it!” go contrast this with Red Lion Court to the left. Exactly.

The appearance of Grope Cunt Lane shows us about shifting attitudes towards cities and sex work from the medieval to the modern period. For medieval people it is fine to have sex work happening in a city, provided the sex workers in question are adhering to the (very stringent!) legal and communal guidelines about brothels. You can go ahead and name a street after the work taking place there, provided that the street is in the right place.

Modern people no longer care where sex work takes place, and they will name a street after it in the most delightfully vulgar way possible. What they won’t do is admit that on an official document like a map. Grope Cunt is very much the official name of this place, but you don’t need to go around making a thing about it.

All of this is to say, there are ways of finding ordinary groups of people using maps, and ways of tracking public sentiment about those people over time. In order to do this, we need to familiarise ourselves with the prevailing public sentiments about such groups so that we can.

TL/DR there’s a street named after penises. LOL.


[1] Quoted in Emily Amt, Women’s Lives: In Medieval Europe, p. 213.


If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!


For more on the Agas map, see:
On the Agas map of London, medieval and early modern cities, and life

For more on sex work in the medieval period, see:
On Prague, preaching, and brothels
On St Nicholas
On sex work and the concept of rescue
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bitches in medieval and hip hop culture
Sex and the (medieval) city: social hygiene and sex in the medieval urban landscape

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s