Prostitutes in Zurich

Adrina Schulz, Universität Zürich

This project analyzes the history of prostitution in Zurich during the late medieval and early modern periods, focusing on the lived experiences of the women (and sometimes men) involved, as well as of their clients, pimps, and madams. This project aims to expand the field of prostitution history by investigating a time period often ignored by researchers, by focusing on prostitutes’ lives instead of their legal or institutional treatment, and by decentering the effects of the Reformation in an investigation of the period 1400-1700. 

            Throughout the middle ages, prostitution in Zurich, like in most European cities, was institutionalized in the Frauenhaus, or municipal brothel. In the course of the Zurich Reformation, all pre- and extramarital sex was criminalized, and the Frauenhaus was closed. Much of the research on this topic sees this progression as an epochal break, with most of the books on medieval prostitution in German-speaking areas concluding in 1600 (Roper 1989; P. Schuster 1992; B. Schuster 1995; B. Schuster 1996; Hemmie 2007; Hammer 2019) and most studies on the modern period generally beginning in the 1600s or even later (Henderson 1999; van de Pol 2011; Kushner 2016; Rodrìguez Garcìa/van Voss/Nederveen Meerkerk 2017). However, while analysis of the Nachgänge und Kundschaften, archival Zurich court documents comprising over 90,000 pages and spanning the period 1434-1797, does show the effects of the Reformation, including the delayed enforcement of the laws against fornication and adultery around 1600, they also reveal continuities in practices of prostitution from the late medieval through the early modern period. Thus, analysis of both the changes and the continuities in the treatment of prostitution and prostitutes in the years 1400-1700 will help to decenter the Reformation as an epochal break. 

            Furthermore, these sources and approach facilitate an investigation of the women themselves, rather than an analysis of their profession’s institutional or legal aspects. The legal records reveal details of prostitutes’ daily lives, including their accommodations, patterns of travel, business and social networks, and even their sexual practices. For example, one case from 1606 centered on four prostitutes includes over 200 pages of depositions from pimps, from their clients, and from the women themselves. In the process of detailing the illegal acts of fornication or adultery, these records also reveal details of the women’s trips to other Swiss cities such as Baden, the exact location of their homes in Zurich, the extensive business and social networks that united them, and much more. Approaches including women’s history (B. Schuster 1995; Karras 1996), the history of the body (Attwood 2011), the history of mobility and movement (Desmond 1993; Cresswell 2006), and historical anthropology will be used to analyze these patterns and the changes that occurred in the course of the early modern period. Why were the laws against illicit sex not enforced against Zurich prostitutes until the seventeenth century? How visible were the women and their businesses? How was the movement of prostitutes allowed, circumscribed, and interpreted? And who were these women – what were their origins, what were their relationships with their clients, their pimps, and with each other? 

           There is one last – but central – question that must also be asked and answered in a different manner. Who was, or counted as, a prostitute in early modern Zurich? This question is more difficult to answer than it may appear because both modern language and concepts regarding prostitution and prostitutes do not line up with early modern terminology and notions of these women and their actions. A medieval prostitute was most clearly defined by the number of partners she took, rather than by the fact that she took money from these partners. This conception was also present in early modern Zurich, but when did it begin to change to the modern definition? Furthermore, the terminology regarding these women was variable and context-specific. Other studies of prostitution have used various methods of solving this problem: some have focused on institutional forms of prostitution (P. Schuster 1992; Hammer 2019), others have chosen analytical categories that encompass a broad range of women (B. Schuster 1995; B. Schuster 1996; Karras 1996). However, for early modern Zurich neither of these approaches is sufficient because of the closure of the institutional Frauenhaus and the multitude of terms used to describe the women, from “gemeine Dirne” to “offene Frau” to “verschreite Hure.” Thus, historical semantics, following linguist works that analyzed changes in how specific terms such as Dirne became more pejorative and sexualized over time (Keller 1990; Nübling 2011), will be used to determine precisely who was seen as a prostitute, to avoid projecting modern assumptions onto the past, and to include male sex work in this study. Preliminary research has shown that prostitutes were viewed as one extreme end of a spectrum of all early modern women, but at the same time were differentiated from them in various ways, legally and linguistically (see: Roper 1989; Norberg 2016).

            The Zurich legal investigations do not generally address the religious lives of prostitutes. However, they do discuss interactions between prostitutes and clergymen, which will be the focus of this project’s connection to EvEn. Several Reformed pastors were caught soliciting prostitutes: who was punished, how harshly, and how did both parties defend themselves? Furthermore, because the Zurich marriage court always included clergymen as judges, each case was the site of interactions between prostitutes and religious authorities, even when this was not directly addressed in the resulting protocols. Thus, it will be important to look at how the Reformed hatred for prostitution affected the court’s treatment of women. Specifically: how did the Reformation and Reformed polemics against Catholic priests, which often made use of their concubines or “whores” as a rhetorical device, affect these proceedings? Finally, if the source material permits it, this project will address how prostitutes interacted with religion more generally: did they go to church, observe feast days, pray?