Taking in those who chose to enter the profession as well as those forced into in through one means or another, from the poorest street walker to the semi-celebrity kept mistresses and courtesans as well as the pimps, bawds and others making money from them, this is a fascinating trip through the ages and the changing attitudes towards sex. Eye-opening and, at times, eye-watering details (such as when contemplating the ancient condoms carved from tortoiseshell that the Chinese apparently had to endure) all paint a vivid picture of a city with a voracious sexual appetite, as do some of the wonderful names of those serving that appetite, as in the delightful case of Clara la Clatterballock.
Also tracking the many hypocritical attempts by the authorities during the ages to shut the trade down while continuing to avail themselves of the mind boggling array of different types of prostitutes that served the city, City of Sin also serves as a good snapshot of the ways in which those in power have always held themselves above the laws and morality they sought to impose on the lower classes, many of which massively increased the dangers faced by those that sell their bodies.
City of Sin one of a number of books that Catharine Arnold has written on different aspects of London’s history. I’ve already read Necropolis and Bedlam, on how London has dealt with its dead and its mad through the ages, and still have Underworld and its criminal side waiting on my shelves. If you’re at all interested in London and its history but want something easy-going enough to read on holiday, you could do a lot worse than spending some time in Arnold’s company.