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Geese with Stewed Prunes

01:00 Wed 26th Dec 2001 |

Q. Sounds unusual. Surely not a culinary combination

A. Could be. Roast goose with stewed prunes would probably work very well. However, in this context it has more to do with the bishops of Winchester.

Q. How so

A. 'Stewed prunes' - often shortened to 'stews' - was a slang term for the brothels of London, particularly those sited in Southwark on the south side of London Bridge opposite the City.

Q. Why stewed prunes

A. Apart from the more obvious brothel activities, bathing often took place, and the clients were deemed to be stewed like prunes once their fingertips became all wrinkled. Also, prunes were thought to be a cure for venereal disease in Elizabethan England, and it was common for a jar of the fruit to be displayed on the front window-sill of such establishments. Consequently, stewed prunes became a symbol of infidelity, as exemplified in Henry IV, when Falstaff tells Mistress Quickly that 'There's no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.'

Q. How do the bishops fit in

A. Between the 12th and 15th centuries the Bishopric of Winchester was landlord of at least 22 brothels in Southwark. In 1161 Henry II, prompted by an epidemic of syphilis in London, attempted to bring in legislation to curb the activities of the stews, and he specifically named 'the Government of the Stewholders in Suthwarke under the direccion of the Bishoppe of Winchester'.

It seems pretty astonishing today, but the Medieval church was far more likely to be involved in secular matters than its modern counterpart. It should be remembered, however, that the Church of England remains a landlord of some considerable substance.

Q. Where do the geese come into it

A. In the same ordinance it stated that any man who didn't manage to get over the river and back into London by the time of the curfew, after dallying too long with the 'Winchester geese', should be allowed to return to the stew and claim lodging for the night.

Q. And a brief history of Southwark as a pleasure zone

A. Modern Southwark is a borough comprising the old boroughs of Southwark, Camberwell and Bermondsey. Old Southwark, also known traditionally as 'The Borough', was from 1295 to 1547 the only town besides the City in the present Greater London area to be represented in Parliament, only becoming part of London proper 1327, when it became known as the Bridge Ward Without.

Apart from the stews Southwark was known for its many inns, theatres, spas, country resorts and other less savoury places of entertainment, such as bear pits. Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims started their journey from the Tabard Inn in Borough High Street, and many of Shakespeare's plays were first produced at the Globe Theatre on Bankside, a replica of which was built in the 1990s and is now a popular London tourist attraction.

If you're interested in finding out more about this, it would be worth trying to locate a book called The Bishop's Brothels by E.J. Burford. It's currently out of print, but there may be some copies around.

See also the answerbank articles on geese and the place names of London

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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