Studying Early Modern Cities: What Space Can Teach Us About Social Histories

I work on histories of prostitution in late sixteenth century Spain, France and Mexico, considering how both the counter-reformation and colonial constructions of gender, race and sexuality impacted those involved. My work is not about recreating sex workers’ lives but about analysing their interactions with others, with each other, and how these relationships might have changed over this dynamic period. This can offer us a window into some crucial issues in early modern society such as attitudes to gender and sexuality, how authorities governed by keeping certain groups on the margins, how the social change of the sixteenth century altered the position of marginal groups and their relationships with their community. Our understanding of early modern society can gain a better understanding of working practices, social dynamics, and of ideas about gender from a greater focus on sex workers’ agency. I concentrate so heavily on lived experience because I see it as a way of combatting the focus on elites that is often prescribed by written sources, and because it is a way of challenging assumptions about prostitution and of highlighting the specificities of prostitution in a given time and place.

My research is first and foremost an urban social history, and so I focus specifically on three cities: Seville, Lyon and Mexico City. These cities are linked by their role as hubs of trade, and their dynamic, rapidly changing populations. Throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, all the cities underwent radical changes - Lyon during the religious wars of the late-sixteenth century offers a very different context from Lyon as a driver of Counter-Reformation moralising in the early-seventeenth century; the Seville of the late-sixteenth-century silver boom differs from Seville in the mid-seventeenth-century depression; recently-colonised sixteenth-century Mexico City contrasts with the seventeenth-century city, afflicted by floods and riots, and with its growing population of enslaved Africans. The differences between and within these cities make them perfect opportunities to study how prostitution – and the social world of women and the lower classes generally – changed in times of economic boom and crisis, and how race, freedom and migration impacted upon their experiences.

I use spatial history to try to understand the lived experiences of my subjects. This is a challenging methodology which owes much to other disciplines; sociology, anthropology, and geography, to name just a few. To do this, I use maps from the period to plot the locations that mattered to people in the sex trade. Initially, brothels might be the only locations that come to mind, but in fact the sites are far more varied: prisons, inns, bathhouses, churches, courthouses, docks, boats, and city walls all make appearances.

burgess map

A spatial approach encourages attention to agency, because it leads us to consider the early modern city beyond the two-dimensional version in our sources, and reveals the specificities of a city. However, there are three more specific reasons why a topographical approach can be particularly helpful to a study of sex workers. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, space was one of the principal policy routes by which early modern authorities sought to regulate and control sex work, and thus it is sensible that we should use this same category to understand the experiences of sex work. Prostitutes were herded into ghettos, limited to certain streets, forbidden from entering certain spaces, and restricted in how they could move about the city. In Lyon, for example, in 1624 we have a record of the order issued by Captain La Vioze, the ‘quartermaster of the town’, to the ’women and girls of wicked life who occupy two houses located facing one another in the quarter of Bourgneuf, which [quarter] they scandalise by their debauchery’ who he commands to ‘leave these houses and the said quarter, within three days’ on threat of their possessions being thrown out. Like so many others, these women were deemed illegitimate in certain spaces. To understand how sex workers experienced this, I analyse how early modern conceptions of space were brought to bear on their lives.

Secondly, I hope to explore the relationships of sex workers to each other and to their wider community. By seeing who lives next to sex workers, where sex workers interacted with churches and civic buildings, how sex workers’ ability to use certain spaces changed, we can build a picture of their networks, and points of friction. For instance, we can consider the locations in which militant preachers like Menot and Maillard (several of whose works were published in Lyon) extolled their lessons, and how their teachings on prostitution and its ills might have been heard or seen by prostitutes themselves. Spatial analysis also provides a perfect method to examine movement through the city. It can allow us to plot the routes of processions – such as the Corpus Christi procession in Seville which involved the relics of two reformed prostitute-saints, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt – to see how the sacred interacted with (or deliberately avoided) prostitutes. We thus realise how the movement of prostitutes through the city was limited, and how other people might have seen prostitutes as they moved through the city.

Lastly, we can consider the queer use of space. The queer use of something, in this case space but more broadly an object, a ritual, a procedure, is defined by Sara Ahmed as the ‘improper use’ of that thing. Here, we are more specifically referring to a subversion of purpose carried out by sex workers and others, which can lead us to an understanding of agency as a continual negotiation, demonstrated through the use of space. Prostitutes were not just objects of regulation or framed by the spaces they inhabited. These invisible negotiations over public space were carried out by everyday use and the social dynamics of relationships, with customers, with audiences, with neighbours, and they can afford power to even the most unempowered subjects, in this case sex workers.

Despite its focus on prostitution, my work is a study of the city, of relationships and networks, and of early modern understandings of and attitudes towards race, gender, sexuality, migration, and other issues which are still relevant today. It is a comparative history, using three different contexts to consider the specificities of the Spanish world, colonialism, Catholicism and French exceptionalism.

-- Clare Burgess