16 July 2009

These religious pains....or I'd love to ask for those directions.

It was normal practice for a medieval street name to reflect the street's function or the economic activity taking place within it.

With that as an introduction, Gropecunt Lane was a street name found in English towns and cities during the Middle Ages, believed to be a reference to the prostitution centred on those areas. Gropecunt, the earliest known use of which is in about 1230, appears to have been derived as a compound of the words grope and cunt. Variations include Gropecunte, Gropecountelane, Gropecontelane, Groppecountelane, and Gropekuntelane. There were once many such street names in England, but all have now been bowdlerised. In the city of York, for instance, Grapcunt Lane—grāp is the Old English word for grope—was renamed as the more acceptable Grape Lane. Streets with that name were often in the busiest parts of medieval towns and cities, and at least one appears to have been an important thoroughfare.

Under its entry for the word cunt, the Oxford English Dictionary reports that a street was listed as Gropecuntlane in about 1230, the first appearance of that name. Organised 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 practice was often tolerated by the authorities, 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, and in 1285 French prostitutes in Montpellier were confined to a single street.

Although the name was once common throughout England, changes in attitude resulted in its being replaced by more innocuous versions such as Grape Lane. Gropecunt was last recorded as a street name in 1561. With the exception of Shrewsbury and possibly Newcastle, where a Grapecuntlane was mentioned in 1588, the use of Gropecunt as a street name seems to have fallen out of favour by the 14th century. 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. 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".

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 contemporary 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 (would it be Pissing Alley Station?) 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.

Now, just imagine if some developer decided to use some of these quaint, Olde Englishe street names in his housing estate.

Well, turn down Cock Street and make a left on Pissing Alley You'll see Gropecunt Lane after you've passed Shiteburn Lane.

Or maybe Cock Street runs into Gropecunt Lane.