There was another establishment peculiar to the medieval towns which formed a favorite resort to the townswomen, called in French estuves or public baths. The women of the medieval towns appear to have spent much of their time in these estuves. They met there as at a party of amusement, and often clubbed together provisions to make a banquet, much in the manner of fashionable picnics in the days of George III. of England. The earlier French popular literature introduces us to the scenes which occurred on these occasions, but they are too coarse and disreputable to be described in modern print. In the manner in which they were conducted, these establishments offered so many facilities to discreditable intrigues that they became known as houses of ill-fame. They continued to exist in France until rather a late period; in London they were suppressed by Henry VIII.
The tone of society in the towns, as revealed by these scenes in the estuves, was extremely gross, and the language the women use, and the subjects of which they talk, would not bear repetition at the present day. This was, no doubt, less the case with the higher classes, though women of these classes, even, are expressly warned against the use of obscene words and expressions, as though they were not uncommon. Morality, too, appears to have been at a low ebb, and the burgher women are represented as engaged continually in low intrigues, as too often faithless to their husbands.
Various circumstances conduced to this state of things. The women of the towns, and the common class in the country, were left much to themselves, and were perhaps on that account more exposed to corruption. But the literature of the feudal age destroys any doubt which might remain on our minds that the priesthood, deprived of the privilege of marriage, were the great corrupters [sic] of female morality. This was chiefly the case outside the walls of the feudal castles. The clergy within—the chaplains of the feudal chieftains—were too widely separated in social level from the ladies of the household, and under too close observation of the lord and his knights and esquires, to be dangerous. It was the parish priesthood especially, who mixed with their parishioners on a footing equality, and, in fact, belonged, generally, by blood to the same class, who, armed with the demoralizing system of auricular confession, were the great underminers [sic] of the social morals of the Middle Ages.
In the popular stories of the time, every woman almost had a priest, or a “clerk,” or a monk, for her lover, and not a few of the stories turn upon the alliance or rivalry of clergy and laity in the same pursuit. Moreover, a very considerable portion of the clergy, down to a very late period, so far set the regulations of the Church at defiance, that they lived with concubines, who were acknowledged by the parishioners as their wives, and were commonly spoken of as the “priestesses,” who were considered as holding rather high position in the popular society, and whose children were proud of their descent. The priests’ wives, or priestesses, formed quite a class in medieval society, although they were not acknowledged by the Church.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.