Sunday, October 24, 2010

Embarrassing place names

For some time, the residents of Fucking, a place in Austria, have had to struggle with thefts of the sign marking the entrance to their town. Several years ago they installed antitheft devices.

Now the people of Shitterton, a hamlet in Dorset in England, have had to take similar steps, inscribing their name on a stone slab.

One toponym flourished in embarrassing profusion in medieval England: Gropecunt Lane. Here is just a portion of the data historians have uncovered.

In all likelihood, the term encodes a reference to the prostitution centered on those areas, as it was normal practice for a medieval street name to reflect the street's function or the economic activity taking place within it. While the name was once common through much of England, changes in attitude resulted in its being replaced by more innocuous versions such as Grape Lane (as in York). Gropecunt was last recorded as a street name in 1561. This disappearance is part of the gradual "cleaning up" of the English language--the shift from medieval bawdy to the euphemism that culminated in Victorian times.

The first record of the word grope being used in the indecent sense of sexual touching appears in 1380; cunt has been used to describe the vulva since at least 1230, and corresponds to the Old Norse kunta, although its etymology is uncertain.

Under its entry for the word "cunt," the Oxford English Dictionary reports that a street was listed as Gropecuntlane in London in about 1230, the first appearance of that name. According to author Angus McIntyre, organized prostitution was well established in London by the middle of the 12th century, initially mainly confined to Southwark in the southeast, but later spreading to other areas such as Smithfield, Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, and Westminster. The authorities often tolerated the practice, and there are many historical examples of it being dealt with by regulation rather than by censure: in 1393 the authorities in London allowed prostitutes to work only in Cocks Lane (sic).

It was normal practice for medieval street names to reflect their function, or the economic activity taking place within them (especially the commodities available for sale), hence the frequency of names such as The Shambles, Silver Street, Fish Street, and Swinegate (pork butchers) in cities with a medieval history. In "A survey of London" (1598) John Stow describes Love Lane as "so called of Wantons."

Although some medieval street names such as Addle Street (stinking urine, or other liquid filth; mire) and Fetter Lane (once Fewterer, meaning "idle and disorderly person") have survived, others have been changed in deference to changing attitudes. Sherborne Lane in London was in 1272–73 known as Shitteborwelane, later Shite-burn lane and Shite-buruelane (possibly due to nearby cess pits). Pissing Alley, one of several identically named streets whose names survived the Great Fire of London, was called Little Friday Street in 1848, before being absorbed into Cannon Street in 1853–54. Petticoat Lane, the meaning of which is sometimes misinterpreted as related to prostitution, was in 1830 renamed as Middlesex Street, following complaints about the street being named after an item of underwear.

With the exception of Shrewsbury and possibly Newcastle (where a Grapecuntlane was mentioned in 1588) the use of Gropecunt seems to have fallen out of favor by the 14th century. Gropecuntelane in 13th-century Wells became Grope Lane, and then in the 19th century, Grove Lane.[17] The ruling Protestant conservative elite's growing hostility to prostitution during the 16th century resulted in the closure of the Southwark stews in 1546, replacing earlier attempts at regulation.

The name also appeared in other large medieval towns across England, including Bristol, York, Shrewsbury, Newcastle upon Tyne, Worcester, Hereford, and Oxford. Norwich's Gropekuntelane (now Opie Street) was recorded in Latin as turpis vicus, the shameful street. In 1230 Oxford's Magpie Lane was known as Gropecunt Lane, renamed Grope or Grape Lane in the 13th century, and then Magpie Lane in the mid-17th century. It was again renamed in 1850 as Grove Street, before once again assuming the name Magpie Lane in the 20th century. Newcastle and Worcester each had a Grope Lane close to their public quays. In their 2001 study of medieval prostitution, using the Historic Towns Atlas as a source, historian Richard Holt and archaeologist Nigel Baker of the University of Birmingham studied sexually suggestive street names around England. They concluded that there was a close association between a street with the name Gropecunt Lane, which was almost always in the center of town, and that town's principal market-place or high street. This correlation suggests that these streets not only provided for the sexual gratification of indigenous males, but also for visiting stall-holders.

Such trade may explain the relative uniformity of the name across the country. Streets named Gropecunt Lane are recorded in several smaller market towns such as Banbury and Wells, where a street of that name existed in 1300, regularly mentioned in legal documents of the time. Parsons Street in Banbury was first recorded as Gropecunt Lane in 1333, and may have been an important thoroughfare, but by 1410 its name had been changed to Parsons Lane. Grape Lane in Whitby may once have been Grope Lane, or Grapcunt Lane. A street called Grope Countelane existed in Shrewsbury as recently as 1561, connecting the town's two principal marketplaces. At some date unrecorded the street was renamed Grope Lane, a name which it has since retained. In Thomas Phillips' History and Antiquities of Shrewsbury (1799) the author is explicit in his understanding of the origin of the name as "... [a place of] scandalous lewdness and venery", but Archdeacon Hugh Owen's Some account of the ancient and present state of Shrewsbury (1808) describes it as "called Grope, or the Dark Lane". As a result of these differing accounts, some local tour guides attribute the name to "feeling one's way along a dark and narrow thoroughfare".


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Can art redeem the Abrahamic blight?

I begin with a brief review of my religious experience. It starts with a blank, for my parents were atheists and sought diligently to shield me from any religious contamination. It is axiomatic that prohibition fosters curiosity, so that in my late teen years I began to explore religions. Having decided not to join any of them, I nonetheless elected to study medieval art, which is massively inspired by the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. For thirty-five years I made my living teaching this variety of art (and a few others), emphasizing the positive effects of the Abrahamic religions in the cultural sphere. I did not teach Islamic art, but several trips to the Middle East familiarized me with Islamicate achievements, especially in the realms of architecture and the minor arts. (I say "Islamicate" because a significant portion of the art was produced by Christian and Jewish craftspeople.)

In my most recent years I have been exploring, at some length, the other side of the coin--the deleterious strains in the Abrahamic heritage as we have come to know it.

Now comes an exhibition at the New York Public Library--"Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam"--echoing a previous show at the British Museum in London. This includes many beautiful illuminated manuscripts and other objects produced under Abrahamic auspices. The organizers cherish an eirenic aim: to bring us all together by emphasizing the elements that all three faiths share. But what about showing the differences?: say, some Crusader scenes and some contemporary Islamic anti-Semitic images. In short there is a Pollyannaish subtext to the exhibition. It is what may be termed in the vernacular the Rodney King syndrome: can't we all just get along?

Parenthetically, I note that the influence of the Big Three religions has not always been favorable even to art--witnessed the Second Commandment of the Hebrew Bible which, in its continuing irradiation, has not only authorized image-avoidance, but sometimes actual iconoclasm.

In his New York Times account (, the astute Edward Rothstein points out that there is also an element of protectiveness towards Islam in this artistic roundup. That suggests a larger issue. We still do not altogether understand why the European left, increasingly imitated by liberals in this country, has adopted Muslims as its poster children. This "see no evil approach" has been at the expense of women and gay people, whom the left and the liberals claim to support. This switcheroo, lending them no support among Islamists and dismaying their dwindling body of followers, will surely accelerate the decline of these groups. I take no pleasure in this development, but it needs to be acknowledged.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Male sex workers in retrospect

REVIEW of Barry Reay, New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America. Manchester University Press, 2010.

This fascinating but problematic book deals with the relationships of hustlers, usually straight-identified though bisexual in practice, and their paying johns, focusing on the middle decades of the 20th century. As primary sources Reay uses archival material obtained at the Kinsey Institute and other repositories. He fleshes out these finds with nuggets gleaned from Tennessee Williams, Mart Crowley's "The Boys and the Band," and similar high-culture products. Of necessity the result is one-sided, since there is relatively little that is available from the hustler's point of view. The books of John Rechy, who worked as a hustler in NYC and elsewhere, are a seeming exception. Yet Rechy is a sophisticated literary artist and intellectual--scarcely a typical male sex worker.

On the plus side, the author has been diligent and his book is very readable. Yet he is too quick to reject the interpretation of C. A. Tripp and others that the johns' quest for relationships with young toughs who were emotionally unresponsive and sometimes abusive reflected internalized homophobia. In all likelihood the abuse served to confirm the johns' belief that they were in fact the inferior creature that the society told them they were. This phenomenon has been studied in a number of contexts under the rubric of abjection.

In fact Reay has a larger goal in mind. He seeks to challenge the accepted historical narrative that "modern homosexuality," in which the two partners have an egalitarian relationship, arose in the late nineteenth century out of a more fluid situation. He implies that the modern homosexual was not simply a late comer to the great fresco of world history: rather, that iconic figure is simply a phantom, the illusory offspring of the ideology of gay liberation. In good postmodern fashion he scoffs at the "hetero/homo sexual binary." Yet his evidence for this skepticism comes mainly from the hustler-john nexus, and thus he commits the error of synecdoche, taking a part for the whole. The double-barreled title "New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America" encapsulates the mistake, for the first thing does not equate with the second. To make this conflation is, if one will forgive the expression, a hustle.

Reay's larger claim does not capture the way most of us were in those days. Here a personal reminiscence may be helpful. I first came to New York City in 1956 at the age of 22 to enroll as a graduate student at NYU and to live on a fellowship that paid one-hundred dollars a month. For me there was no question of seeking out hustlers: I couldn't afford it. I saved my pennies and met other gay guys at the bars where I would nurse one beer for the night. By present-day standards most people were poor in those days. Hardly any of the men I met paid for sex. In those days, resort to hustler services was an indulgence reserved for the prosperous and well-healed.

One piece of evidence that Reay does not include is a modest series of gay guides self-published (probably by the late Edgar Leoni, author of "Jonathan to Gide" writing as Noel I. Garde) in NYC between 1949 and ca. 1955. These booklets were incongruously entitled the "Gay Girl's Guide," with Swasarnt Nerf (= soixante neuf, or 69) as the principal author. These handy items, about 70 pages each, have extensive lists of bars and movie theaters, parks and beaches where gay men could meet other gays noncommercially. The guides contain separate sections warning about rough trade ("dirt")--how to spot and avoid such individuals, some of whom were psychopaths. Most of us knew to be wary of these reprobates. Of course there was always a coterie who enjoyed "feasting with panthers," as Oscar Wilde put it.

The guides have been conveniently reissued in 2010 by Hugh Hagius: "Swarsarnt Nerf's Gay Guides for 1949" (available through Amazon). These guides, precursors of today's weighty Spartacus Guides, are the first known examples in the US. There may have been some predecessors in Europe. In various countries, of course, knowledgeable men would type out their own personal lists, making carbon copies for friends. Swarsarnt Nerf probably had access to some of these documents.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Bad ideas

They say that if you don't like the weather in Seattle, just wait fifteen minutes: it will change.

With bad ideas, it takes a little longer. One can take comfort in the precept uttered by the German physicist Max Planck early in the previous century: "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”

Indeed that outcome often proves to be the case--if one lives long enough. However, there are two troubling issues. The first is the revenant or vampire problem. Bad ideas may die, but they can come back as specters to haunt us. A couple of generations after the death of that megabore Thomas Aquinas, his ideas were judged dead, replaced by nominalism and other philosophical currents of the later middle ages. Yet in the nineteenth century, we witnessed the rise of Neo-Thomism, a current of though still prominent inmy youth as seen in the works of Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. One of the few positive accomplishments of Benedict XVI is to relegate that rubbish to the dustbin of history where it belongs. But who is to say that Thomism may not at ssome point gain a new vampiric life?

The second problem with Planck's Law is that, as it retreats, the noxious set of beliefs may be supplanted by something even worse. During the 1980s, those of us who do grounded gay scholarship were troubled by the appearance of the Social Construction fad, which alleged in some of its wilder versions that there had been no homosexuality before 1869. In former days I expended considerable energy combating this foolishness, even as friends urged patience: it would collapse of its own weight, they said.

So indeed it did--to be replaced by Queer Theory!

Today I long for the relative sanity of Social Construction. The lesson is, I fear, be careful what you wish for.

POSTSCRIPT. Bad ideas are sometimes likened to "ear worms," those annoying jingles that keep repeating themselves in your head once you have been subjected to a hearing. Such ideas are also compared to an infestation.

These days in New York we are coping with an appalling problem with bed bugs. I went through this calvary three years ago and have been (I trust) free ever since. But now a close friend has the problem. In such a personal crisis, the support of friends is important. But the most significant asset is resolve--resolve, resolve.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Political polarization

At, Shankar Vidantam casts some light--unfortunately not enough--on the growing political polarization in this country. Here is a portion of what he has written.

"Conservatives are angry. They are angry about President Obama, about taxes, and about government spending. If it were legal, Tea Party conservatives would like to vaporize much of Blue America.

"Liberals are not angry—they are disgusted. They are disgusted by the endless questions about President Obama's birth, by the hysteria over "death panels," over Republican candidates demanding an end to masturbation. If it were legal, liberals would move all of red America behind a large screen where its antics would be less "embarrassing.

"If the dominant tone of conservatives is shrill, the dominant tone of liberals is saracastic. The philosophical position of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, expressed in body language, would be a raised fist and a clenched jaw. The philosophical position ""of Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher would be a raised eyebrow and a wrinkled nose. Angry coverage on Fox News has become the standard bearer of the right. Irony and mockery on Comedy Central have become the standard bearer of the left.

"Right-wing blogs reek of blood and guns, violence and revolution. The tree of liberty, they remind us, needs to be refreshed with the blood of patriots. Look at the weapons of the left—Colbert's sly smile, Maher's snigger, and the endless jokes about the stupidity of George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Christine O'Donnell. Even the bumper stickers of the right are grave in tone. They ask, "What Would Jesus Do?" Their opponents' bumper stickers respond, "What Would Scooby Doo?"

"The right is convinced that the left is evil. The left is convinced that the right is retarded.

"In the conspiracy theories propounded by the right, Barack Obama is not an idiot but a clever double agent whose purpose is to destroy capitalism, Christianity, and America from within. If you listen to the left, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are small children who have gotten their hands on very large bazookas and need to be told to put down the weapons—preferably using words with few syllables.

"Both anger and contempt have deep psychological roots. Anger usually stems from feelings of unfairness or betrayal. Contempt is anger mixed with disgust. Anger and contempt are not just emotions. They are scripts that determine our political conversation. If you are a conservative blogger, you will hunt out material that shows liberals to be unpatriotic and dangerous, because your audience wants affirmation of its underlying feelings. If you are liberal, you will play up material that shows conservatives to be stupid, because your audience wants affirmation of its sense of superiority."


As so often occurs in such analyses, Vedantam lets the liberal-left side off too lightly. There contempt stems from an almost insufferable sense that theirs, and only theirs, is the "reality-based" view. Too much has happened over the last few years to sustain this hubris. Perhaps it should be otherwise, but the liberal world-view is now deeply incoherent. Yet the liberal spokespeople keep acting as if nothing has happened.

Why is liberalism incoherent? The source of the rifts goes back almost a hundred years, when the Labour Party rose to eminence in Britain, gradually supplanting the Liberal Party. In the nineteenth century the movement of Gladstone and Mill had opposed Tory paternalism by favoring free enterprise, free trade, and free speech. The Labour Party, echoed by the Democrats in the US, saw fit to erode all of these principles in the interests of an ill-conceived "social justice." Above all, this Second Liberalism found the answer to all social problems in increasing government intervention. One can see the clash of the two views--Liberalism I and Liberalism II--in the difference of the two approaches with regard to free speech. A dwindling band of Liberal I stalwarts gives unqualified support to freedom of speech. Ye the Liberalism II group favor speech codes on campus (whether overt or covert) and punishment of "hate speech." Of course this latter trend has gone much farther in Western Europe. As I write, the Dutch politician Wilders is being tried in the Netherlands for daring to say things Muslims have deemed offensive.

Obama's election was supposed to ratify and restore this hoary liberal faith. It appears now that it has done nothing of the sort. The irrelevance of liberalism is shown by the fact that it is being defeated by two truly puny enemies: Republican obstructionism and Tea Party infantilism.

If liberalism offers a true account of how the world works, how could it be threatened by such adversaries? Threatened it is, but the liberals and the left see no need for rethinking their premises. Above all they claim to be the champions of the working class, the "people." Yet the people are deserting them. Abolish the people and appoint another? I don't think so.


Saturday, October 02, 2010

Bastiat, anyone?

The October 2 edition of the New York Times contains an article by Kate Zernike on the emergence of a kind of canon among Tea Partyites and followers of Glenn Beck (“Movement of the Moment Looks to Long-Ago Texts”).

These include imposing works by the Austrian economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, as well as some more ephemeral items. Perhaps the most surprising figure in the roster is the French opponent of socialism Frédéric Bastiat, whose “The Law” was published in 1850. Michael C. Behrent provides an excellent account of Bastiat at For their part, Tea Party adepts have now created a Bastiat Institute:

If memory serves, most of these books were already being pushed by Libertarian bookstores forty years ago. In other words, the Tea Party folks have simply ripped off a reading list devised by a movement that has recently seemed to be on the ropes.

Still championed by the well-funded Cato Institute in Washington D.C., official Libertarianism sustained a serious body blow when its advocacy of deregulation came to be seen as one of the culprits of the world economic crisis that began a few years ago. I wonder what my Libertarian friends think of this Tea Party usurpation?

A side benefit of the promotion of this canon is that it will get some people back into the habit of buying and reading books. It may be that the Gutenberg Era is not yet dead.