By the early 14th century, Kilkenny was the largest inland settlement in Ireland. Its annual eight-day fair attracted merchants from far and wide. In 1306, among those hoping to sell goods at the fair was William Douce, a leading merchant in Dublin. However getting goods from Dublin to Kilkenny was no easy task.
The overland journey took a traveler south through the lawless upper Barrow valley. Any merchant laden with goods was vulnerable to brigands and outlaws. William Douce however did not have to worry about his own personal safety. In 1306 the seventy mile journey, which would take several days, was undertaken by his serving man.
The road leaving Dublin took this serving man south west avoiding the Wicklow Mountains, home to Gaelic Irish rebels. Twenty miles south west of Dublin the serving man broke his journey at the town of Naas. Shortly after he arrived in the town, while he was still taking his goods off his horse, he met a local woman Cristiana la Sadelhackere. Cristiana was what as known in the medieval world as mulier communis (common woman) or a prostitute. In the course of their conversation she and the serving man came to an agreement that that in return for goods worth two shillings that ‘he should lie with her’.
Prostitution was not uncommon in medieval Ireland. While it was not illegal, the women themselves faced widespread discrimination in medieval society. The great opinion shaper of the late medieval period, Thomas Aquinas, while accepting prostitution as a necessary evil castigated women like Cristiana la Sadelhackere as immoral. Brothels were also associated with criminality and some towns prohibited such establishments within their walls. Indeed this may have been the case in medieval Dublin. A 1565 law demanded the city authorities punish brothel keepers ‘according to the ancient laws of this city‘ (this ‘ancient law’ has remained elusive).
While prostitution is often labeled the oldest profession in the world little is known about women like Cristiana and less still about why she ended up working in prostitution. There were multiple reasons why women in the medieval period could end up working as prostitutes, motives which no doubt varied from person to person. The very unequal nature of medieval society could leave some women with little choice.
For example if Cristiana, like many woman of the period, worked as a labourer in fields around harvest time she could expect to earn one penny a day. If she was married her husband would earn two pence per day, bringing the household income to three pence per day. If she was widowed this would see this income plummet by 66% on the death of a husband. Facing destitution many woman had limited options for economic survival and prostitution was one of them.
In other circumstances survivors of sexual assault could find themselves also forced into such situations. Aside from the physical and emotional trauma caused, medieval women also faced an uncertain future after a sexual assault. In an era obsessed with purity and family lineage a woman who had survived rape could find it difficult to find a husband and practically impossible if she had become pregnant. Life for single women in medieval society while not impossible was difficult. In such situations prostitution may have been one of the few options open to some women particularly those from poorer backgrounds.
It is also possible that women like Cristiana gravitated towards prostitution of their own volition to escape the constrains of medieval society placed on women. Almost every aspect of a woman’s life was heavily restricted in the later middle Ages. Up to marriage they were in effect the property of their nearest male relative who among other things chose their husband. After marriage legally they were subject to their husband. Breaking such convention and living alone was difficult for women. If she did not want to marry or enter a convent to live under the control of a mother superior prostitution, stigmatised as it was, offered an alternative. However this life had risks as Cristiana la Sadelhackere found out.
In 1306 the agreed price two shillings for sex was not paid for in money but instead in goods. The serving man gave Cristiana ‘a pair of linen web, a pair of shoes and a pair of hose (a type of trousers)’. Through the course of the transaction Cristiana also came into possession of a box containing some goods owned by the serving man’s master William Douce.
Afterwards Cristiana, having gained possession of the items, in turn swopped the box for twelve gallons of ale. While this may seem like an extraordinary amount, it should be remembered those who could afford it drank large amounts of ale everyday as an alternative to potentially putrid water.
However a dispute soon arose over the ownership of the box. William Douce, the powerful Dublin merchant, complained that the box of his artifacts had been stolen. Cristiana was accused and arrested. Taken before the court, she had little chance. She was seen as a ‘common woman’, while Douce was a prominent citizen from Dublin, a man who would go on to twice serve as mayor of the city in the 1320s. Unsurprisingly she was found guilty but her punishment has not survived in the records.
What exactly happened between Cristiana and the serving man is not clear. While it is entirely possible Cristiana stole the box, it is equally likely that the serving man, agreed to give her the box, then in an effort to explain its absence accused Cristiana of the theft. He could have done this safe in the knowledge she as a prostitute, had little chance in court against someone of the stature of Douce.
While we will never know what exactly happened, Cristiana unquestionably came off the worst. Her punishment has not survived though the case records note that she had ‘abjured the county’. Abjuration was an exile, which usually referred to a legal process whereby convicts, after seeking refuge in a church, fled the realm, only to return on pain of death. This is not what Cristiana did – she only left Co. Kildare. Why she did this is not clear due to the fact some of the court records were destroyed in the following seven centuries. It may have been part of an agreed punishment or perhaps the social pressure of the case made a woman, already living on the fringes of Naas society, feel unwelcome.
While Cristiana la Sadelhackere disappeared from the historical record after she left Naas, in the following centuries many women continued to live in similar precarious circumstances. Indeed the illegalisation of prostitution in the modern era did little to change this precarity many women lived in.
Check out my book ‘Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome, Life in Medieval Ireland’ for more stories on the lives of the people lived in Ireland in the late Middle Ages. It is on sale now in all good bookshops and available online here