The Bawd: A Forgotten Figure of the Past

The Bawd: A Forgotten Figure of the Past

A bawd is an archaic term for a woman who runs a brothel, a prostitute, or a procuress. The word comes from Middle English bawde, which was derived from Old French baude, meaning “jolly” or “dissolute”. The word was also used for men who were pimps or panders, but it was more commonly applied to women.

Bawds were a common feature of the urban underworld in the early modern period, especially in London. They operated houses of ill repute, where they provided sexual services to clients of various ranks and classes. They also recruited and trained young women, often orphans or runaways, into the trade. Some bawds were wealthy and influential, while others were poor and desperate.

Bawds were often the target of moralists and authorities, who saw them as a source of corruption and disease. They were frequently prosecuted and punished by whipping, branding, imprisonment, or carting (being paraded through the streets in a cart). However, they also had some allies and patrons among the powerful and the elite, who enjoyed their services or profited from their business.

Bawds have been depicted in various literary and artistic works, such as Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress, and Defoe’s Moll Flanders. They have also been the subject of historical studies, such as Laura Gowing’s Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England and Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution. Bawds offer a fascinating glimpse into the sexual culture and social history of the past.

Some of the most famous bawds in history include:

  • Mother Needham: A notorious bawd in 18th century London, who ran a brothel in Park Place, St. James. She was known for supplying young women to aristocrats and politicians, such as John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. She was arrested several times and died after being attacked by an angry mob in 1731.
  • Mother Damnable: A legendary bawd in 17th century London, who was said to be a witch and a sorceress. She ran a brothel in Southwark, where she catered to the rich and powerful. She was reputed to have a foul temper and a fearsome appearance, and to have cursed anyone who crossed her. She died in 1670 and her body was said to have turned to stone.
  • Mother Clap: A sympathetic bawd in 18th century London, who ran a molly house (a meeting place for homosexual men) in Holborn. She was known for being kind and protective of her customers, who called her “mother”. She was arrested in 1726 and sentenced to stand in the pillory three times and to pay a fine of £20. She died in prison shortly after.
  • Mistress Overdone: A fictional bawd in Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, set in Vienna. She is a comic character who runs a brothel and complains about the strict laws against fornication. She is arrested by the corrupt deputy Angelo and faces execution, but is saved by the Duke at the end of the play.

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