Sex Crimes and Religious Crimes: The Case of Regula Bleuler

1730, Zurich.

By Adrina Schulz, 04.12.2020.

 The deposition of Regula Bleuler from 1730 illustrates the intensity with which Reformed Zurich authorities investigated religious transgressions, even during trials of seemingly unrelated sexual crimes. In fact, the adultery and fornication accusations against Bleuler, as well as her allegations of sexual assault against Heinrich Wirth, were overshadowed by questions about her religious activities. This case took place two centuries after the initial phases of the Zurich Reformation, showing the continued and even increased relevance of confessional boundaries. 

Regula Bleuler was called before the Zurich court several times in November, 1730. She had already given birth to four children out of wedlock by this point, at least one of which had since died, and was pregnant with a fifth. She had been imprisoned three times for fornication (“hureyen”), including a stay in the stocks. After this latest punishment, she had been exiled and told that the next punishment would be physical, even the capital (“Leib und Leben”). She was caught in Eglisau, part of Zurich’s territory, and was officially imprisoned because of a new case of adultery, committed with Heinrich Wirth. Bleuler argued that the encounter had been a case of sexualized violence (for the difficulties inherent to using the modern definition of rape in the early modern period see, among others: Loetz 2015). Bleuler stated that Wirth had dragged her by the arm (“bey den arm gezehrt”) and had had sex with her (“beschlaffen”) even though she had defended herself (“gwehrt”). Wirth’s version of the story involves no force but simply states that he committed adultery with Bleuler (“die ehe gebrochen”). The court protocols do not record a conviction or punishment for either party, but from the court’s questioning, it seems that the authorities did not believe Bleuler’s version of events. Eventually, she also admitted to receiving a whore’s income (“2 1/2 t[al]er hurenlohn”) for the act, which, of course, does not mean that sexualized violence did not occur.

However, the court quickly switched to another line of questioning, regarding Bleuler’s religious activities while in exile. Although she first claimed that she only received alms (“Allmosen”) at Rheinau abbey, she eventually admitted that she had also studied with a religious man (“geistlichen Herren,” later called a “pfaff,” a Reformed word for a Catholic Priest) there. She had learned the 10 Commandments (“X. Gebott”) and the rosary (“Rosen-kranz”) from him. She even declared that she had done this out of her own initiative, and that she had furthermore had to kneel before an altar to Mary (“Sie habe zum Althar zum Mutter Gottes-bild knien müßen”) and that she had put a finger on a book, but had not had to say anything (“ihre finger auf ein buch legen, jedoch kein wort reden müßen”). These actions seem to have troubled the Reformed Zurich authorities as much as, or even more than, her sexual activities, as their description takes up multiple pages of testimony. The court protocols are accompanied by letters in support of Bleuler, one of which even focuses solely on her possible conversion to the Catholic (“papistichen”) confession. This letter states that she knew little about either the Catholic or the Reformed faith and that she had erred out of ignorance (“unverstand”), closing with the plea that she be allowed to stay in Zurich rather than be exiled again.

Thus, Zurich authorities investigated confessional matters seriously and extensively. Sexual crimes were also punished severely, as shown in previous case studies, but in the trial of Regula Bleuler, they take a backseat to discussions of prayers, holy books, and conversion. On the other hand, this case also highlights how little many Zurich inhabitants knew about confessional differences and religious doctrine, or at least how little they claimed to know. Bleuler and those supporting her had good reason to portray her as ignorant and thus as less guilty, but their claims of ignorance seem to have been accepted by the court, meaning they were plausible. Although authorities were extremely concerned with religious doctrine and difference, ordinary men and women did not always follow suit.

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