Prostitutes embodied the specifically lower-status version of the “woman as disorder” topos. They were accused of causing disorder in their neighborhoods, and the specifics of these accusations go beyond the formulaic “to the nuisance of her neighbors.” (Bloch 1991) Angelo Taylor’s stewhouse in the London suburb of East Smithfield was accused of causing “many quarrels, beatings, and hues and cries at night.” (Bloch 1991) Several “malefactors and disturbers of the peace” who were harbored at Petronilla Bednot’s stew “about midnight, on several nights, when the neighbors living thereabouts were in their beds, came with sticks to their windows and beat on them maliciously and said to the neighbors, you who are in there, come out and be beaten!” (Bloch 1991) Like inner-city residents today who resent having their neighborhoods relegated to drug dealing, residents did not appreciate the disturbances prostitution caused. Thus, whatever they thought of the prostitutes’ sexual morals, they suffered from the effects of commercial sex. (Bloch 1991)
Some people showed their lack of acceptance of independent feminine sexual behavior by taking direct action against brothels in their neighborhoods. In 1305 the Prior of Holy Trinity in Aldgate Ward, London, was accused of trespass in the house of his neighbor; he responded that because it had been presented at the Wardmote that prostitutes lived in the house, and the owner had not removed them, “the beadle gathered the neighbors, including the Prior and others, and removed the doors and windows.” (Karras 1996) The Prior won his case. The Vicar of St. Sepulchre claimed that the doors of the butcher William Cock in Cock’s lane were torn down for identical reasons. (Karras 1996) This was not spontaneous action by the neighbors of the brothel, but rather was instigated by an ecclesiastical institution in each case. Nevertheless, the neighbors were willing participants.
Just because groups at various levels of society had the same view of marriage, however, does not mean that they regarded in the same way women who transgressed against marriage. Poorer women might have run a higher risk of abandonment and destitution and would be more likely to turn to prostitution; they might also be more likely to be labeled as whores if they transgressed against their marriage vows. Yet accusations of whoredom were not limited to the poor, and other women ran similar risks. The clear recognition that commercial prostitutes were women of the lower classes, that is, below the level of the gentry or merchant class (leaving aside the issue of courtesans, for which there is little evidence for England), and that women of the lower classes can be expected to be whores did not mean that other women could not be accused. It is impossible to discern from the records exactly what was the social status of most women involved.