Welcome the first edition of Fuck.com's WTF History Lessons! We're here to expand your brain muscles with little known facts about history. Giving you some good conversation starters (or stoppers depending on the situation). So take a stroll down memory lane with this little snippet about London street names...
With its businesses, universities, art and culture, London has attracted new arrivals from all over the world for centuries. And for centuries, like all new arrivals in a new city, they've asked themselves some basic questions: where's good to eat around here? Where can I find an affordable place to live? And perhaps most importantly: where's the party?
In the middle ages, there were no guidebooks – after all, most people couldn't read – and there weren't city maps. Street names functioned as a form of guide and advertisement rolled into one. Want to buy some silverware? You want Silver Street. Want to buy some fish? Fish Street. Want to get laid? Well …
Many of us think of the modern era as much more open about sexual matters than previous ages. Never before has sex been so slathered over advertising and social media. But although modern society may be frank about sex in some ways, we've got nothing on the medieval world that named a narrow street in Cheapside Gropecunt Lane.
You heard me: Gropecunt Lane. And it's not a typo, or a weird etymology, or anything like that. It's right next to Bordhawelane – that's “bordello lane” to you and me. Even stranger, it's a very common street name in medieval England. Lots of towns and cities have a Gropecunt Lane, often right in the centre of a busy market district. London actually had more than one. In most cases, they relate to prostitutes who worked in the area.
The Gropecunt Lane in Cheapside is a rare example of large-scale prostitution outside of Southwark. Southwark – the area south of the Thames – was a separate jurisdiction from the rest of London and in Tudor times was known as a haven for unlicensed entertainment. Renaissance society was different from ours, of course; in addition to the prostitution, Southwark also played home to entertainments that repel us today, like bear-baiting, and ones that seem completely respectable, like the theatre.
But the days of Gropecunt Lane were not to last. Remember when I said that we see our own society as more open about sex than earlier ones? Gradually, sexual place names disappeared from most English towns. In London, a reorganised street plan saw the street itself vanish; in other towns it became Grope Lane, then Grove or Grape, or was renamed completely. By the Victorian era, the name was regarded as an obscene historical curiosity, not to be spoken of. Not that the Victorians didn't have prostitution, you understand – Victorian London had as many as 80,000 prostitutes. They just didn't like talking about it.
Only a handful of these dirty old names survive into the modern day, and in London they're usually the nicest: Love Lane is completely inoffensive, for instance, but the 16th-century writer John Stow explained that it was named after the “Wantons” who worked there. If you pay attention as you walk around London, you can still catch a few faded glimpses of the city's less-than-respectable past.
Sadly, the story that Threadneedle Street is a sexual euphemism is probably not true. It's probably named after tailors. But the sex version is more fun, isn't it?
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