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".



Blogger Gogo said...

Just want to give you kudos for a fascinating and illuminating post. It combines one major interest of mine (language) and one minor one (medieval history), so it was a real treat.

11:57 PM  

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