The Singing Sirens and the History of Working Women

The Singing Sirens and the History of Working Women

Nothing compares to romance at the renaissance festival. We have flower sellers around every corner, offering up brightly colored blossoms for your sweetheart. Weddings occur on the regular, with big parades proclaiming the couple’s love as they travel up the lane to St. Peter’s Chapel. The Mass Vow Renewal takes place each year, giving those who’ve lasted the opportunity to pledge their troth all over again. People walk hand-in-hand, leaning into one another as they enjoy the atmosphere and get a photo to show off their time here at the Ohio Renaissance Festival.

Amid all the cuteness and cuddles, you may have noticed a throng of brightly-clad folks hanging around the Special Events Booth across from the 3 Fools Pub. As they invite you over to purchase tickets for a myriad of shows and sights you can’t get anywhere else, one sign, in particular, catches your notice.

The Naughty Bawdy Pub Show
Rated – R

Sounds like just the thing for Romance Weekend, right? But before we get to the perfect ending for a true romantic, let’s take a closer look at a little of the colorful history behind ‘hosting’.


The Working Woman

Brothel scene; Brunswick Monogrammist, 1537; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

It may surprise some people to learn that the Tudor Era was not quite as free and flirty as television would have you believe. Prostitution was believed to be a dishonorable practice for women and was thought to dissuade men from participating in decent society. In fact, the laws against prostitution were incredibly cruel. King Henry VIII signed an order in 1513 that allowed women caught selling themselves to be branded on the face with a hot iron. Great effort was put into catching ‘unemployed men and loose women’, who were dealt heavy fines and long sentences for violating local regulations. The publicly announced purpose was of course that the morality of the common folk was put at risk by these practicing sex workers. However, while the local governments enjoyed the informal financial income that came from this prosecution, it wouldn’t be until 1546 that any real decisive effort was made to shut down the market in England.

Southwark was the principal brothel district of London due mostly to the fact that it was outside the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor and was thus given some reprieve from the local legislature. It was well placed to serve not only the growing population of London but travelers coming in from far and wide, weary and looking for respite. It is important to remember as we go forward that while the modern-day sex worker industry is undergoing a progressive revolution, the doxies of the 1500s were by no means as empowered or autonomous. Women had few enough rights if they were considered to be pious, upstanding ladies of unquestionable virtue. Those who turned to sex work likely did so out of necessity, not desire for the vocation. But brothels provided some degree of protection. There was food and shelter, and someone who likely knew how to mix an abortifacient if it was required. Some checked their clients for any obvious signs of disease and prevented the customers from hurting the workers. Do not mistake this for approval of the state of things at this time. Merely an acknowledgment of why someone with nowhere else to turn to might consider sex work as an alternative to starving in the street. But repression of the trade drove many of these workers into the open, where they had little option but to continue to ply their trade without such assistance.

Brothel by Joachim Beuckelaer, 1562
 

Queen Mary I was just as inclined to overlook charity towards the working woman, as her reign included more inventive punishments such as making prostitutes publicly grind corn by running on a treadmill or being forced to beat out hemp with heavy wooden mallets. This practice was so unpopular that raids were occasionally committed by men who were intent on ‘liberating’ the arrested women and thus returning a wider selection of workers back to the avenues.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, things did not improve much. There was a large public concern over the state of women and female sexuality, the prospect of loose women and the rise of prostitution giving rise to a play by William Haughton called Englishmen for My Money; or A Woman Will Have Her Will. This play was merely one of many others which became focused on the frivolity of the unmarried woman (also a more polite term for the doxies) who required the steady ‘hand’ of a man to be punished and controlled. The thought was that if women understood that their wanton spending of coin and carnal currency would lead them to suffer, they would be less likely to indulge.


The Singing Sirens

It feels great to help The Sirens continue to reach their potential and I’m happy to be a part of it. Rose was my former cast character who fell from grace/gentry when she slept with too many villagers. She is posh and prim, but kind. She has become dirtier and gayer.

Rose

Let’s make this clear from the get-go. The Sirens represent a goofy, tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the working woman. Their stage shows at the 3 Fools Pub are PG at most, and while the Naughty Bawdy may get a little more scandalous, we are living in the year 2022 and the Queen’s Feast Hall is not a bawd house. While many of the Sirens originated on the cast of the Ohio Renaissance Festival, they are now their very own entertainment group, which means having to stay savvy! These inspiring songstresses have worked exceptionally hard to turn their show into a now multi-faire production, and we are thrilled to be a part of their inception.

Madame Peacock sells tickets at the Special Events Booth

A big part of being a Siren is creating a persona that balances the sweet and funny with the wink and nudge, suitable for the guests who visit the festival. Each character is a process built with time and effort. They are performers, and like any performer, they put a lot of practice into their acts.

Being a Siren requires an ability to think on your feet and improvise solutions in a split second. All of our shows are live, so anything could go awry at any point. We also spend quite a bit of the off-season learning new material and practicing current material. At the Ohio Renaissance Festival, we serve drinks at the Naughty Bawdy Pub Show, as well as man the Special Events Booth, where we hawk tickets for many shows and give information about said shows to patrons.

Meg
3 Fools Performance is rated PG!

It’s a lot of work! Not only do they help work the Special Events Booth, but the Sirens have two stage shows at the 3 Fools and a big end-of-day show at the Naughty Bawdy where they serve drinks, sling jokes, hawk merch, and sing songs for the crowd. Off-season work requires regular practice and development, not just on their act but their look as well. Each Siren is meant to stand out with their own color pallet and personality. Some even have a lil’ fan club of their own like Bunny and Vixen!

We help one another as a team, support other performers and groups at their shows whenever we can, and bring happiness to guests. In character we put on theater shows where we sing, tell jokes, and do a number of other variety skills by day, and perform at the ‘brothel’ (NBPS) by night. There is nothing like performing with the Sirens. I suppose all of these lead back to the amazing amount of love and support the Sirens provide one another andothers around them.

Vixen
How the Naughty Bawdy celebrates birthdays!

As their popularity grows it’s no surprise that many people recognize the Sirens in the pub and on the streets. But it’s important to remember that they are portraying a fictional character meant to entertain the public. When the gates close they want food, a shower, and sleep just like everybody else here. Because when the sun comes up tomorrow they’re going to do it all over again! If you’re lucky enough to get some face time with a Siren, or any member of the festival for that matter, keep a few things in mind.


Rules of the Naughty Bawdy

Rule 1: Costumes are not consent. Ask permission before going in for a hug or getting in a performer’s space beforehand. Same goes for pictures.

Rule 2: Don’t be a creeper. People have places to go and things to do, so don’t follow performers around the festival and especially do not try to go into staff areas to speak to them.

Rule 3: If it’s covered by your clothing it’s meant to stay that way. I should not have to elaborate on this.

Rule 4: Do not audition for the role of village drunk. Your inebriation will not be viewed as an excuse for your actions and security will escort you out.

Rule 5: Respect the Ratings! If a performer tells you this is a PG-rated performance, that means there are probably kids in the audience. Be mindful so everyone can enjoy their visit.


Sources

Inside the Medieval Brothel

Prostitution in Tudor England