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Wrong Side of the River: London's disreputable - page 15 / 25





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Nightly they sit to sell their rotten ware," he was alluding to a state of affairs that had already been widely commented upon

in the Elizabethan period and earlier. One of the earliest of the London theaters was the Curtain, opening in 1576; within

three years, however, Stephen Gosson in his treatise The School of Abuse was publicly accusing the playhouse of being no

more than an anteroom for a brothel:

-- every wanton and his paramour, every man and his mistress, every John and his Joan, every knave and his quean, are

there first acquainted and cheapen [i.e. bargain for] the merchandise in that place, which they pay for elsewhere as they can


The common practice of finding a prostitute at a playhouse, of course, must have involved sums in excess of Nashe's

sixpence, and perhaps of his half- crown, too, for the professional lady in question would

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undoubtedly pass on to her customer the cost of her admission, most likely to one of the costlier gallery seats.

In view of Puritans' attitudes towards the moral degeneracy of taverns and alehouses, it will come as no surprise that a

similar stream of invective was launched against these "suburb sinners" and the districts in which they operated. In Thomas

Dekker's Lanthorne and Candle- light (1608), a visitor from Hell takes a first look at the suburbs: "And what saw he there?

-- He saw the doors of notorious carted bawds like Hell gates stand night and day wide open, with a pair of harlots in taffeta

gowns, like two painted posts, garnishing out those doors, being better to the house than a double sign." The rebuke is

mild, however, compared to the more splenetic outbursts of Stubbes and Nashe: "These, (our openers to all comers,) with

quickning & conceiuing, get gold. The soules they bring forth, at the latter day, shall stande vp and giue evidence against

them -- There is no such murderer on the face of the earth as a whore."69 In the one hundred years before the Puritans came

to power in 1642, there were numerous attempts to pass civil laws to condemn and punish sexual laxness. Not until 1650,

however, did Parliament pass a law that made adultery a felony punishable by death and fornication a crime punishable by

three months' imprisonment.70 Nor, apparently, was it merely a question of assumed immorality, for in this there was a

more visible sign of God's retribution: the pox. As far as preachers and pamphleteers was concerned, venereal disease was

God's swift and painful punishment on those who made use of the prostitute's abominable services, a foretaste on earth of

the torments of hell. Phillip Stubbes, in his Anatomy of Abuses (1583), did not hesitate to give a comprehensive and

detailed list of the dread consequences of whoredom.71 Prostitution was, of course, a legal offense, and was punished

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as such. Thomas Platter, at least, felt that "good order" was kept in


London in the matter of prostitution: "special commissions are set up, and when they meet with a case, they punish the man

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