Category Archives: Billets

Prostitution and Witchcraft: The Case of Agatha Spörri

1606, Zurich.

By Adrina Schulz, 21.04.2021.

            For this case study I will turn to another subject that made Zurich authorities very nervous: magic. While the connection between prostitution and witchcraft, especially via love spells, has been well-researched for the Mediterranean world, the extensive literature on witchcraft in the German-speaking world has not paid much attention to this topic. But these two gendered crimes were deeply connected in the minds of Zurich’s inhabitants, as shown by the Zurich phrase “gehäxet und gehuret,” (witched and whored), which was used to describe women insulting each other. I will use the case of Agatha Spörri from 1606 to investigate this connection for the Zurich context and to assess the relative dangers of each accusation for the women involved. 

            The case of Agatha Spörri is labyrinthine, spanning over 100 pages and involving a number of interrelated crimes and a host of witnesses and defendants. The main charge against Spörri was that of repeated adultery. Her main partner or client was Ulrich Schilling, though she was also involved with other men. Both Spörri and Schilling were married, making the crime double adultery, which carried heavier penalties than adultery between a married person and an unmarried person or premarital fornication. There were also accusations against Spörri, her father Oswald Spörri, and her uncle Heinrich Spörri of blackmailing several of her partners or clients with the threat of exposure. Furthermore, the Spörri family had been tried several times throughout the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries for a variety of deceptions, scams, and thefts. Even worse, Agatha Spörri’s aunt, Anna Spörri, had been executed as a witch in 1598, following accusations of causing storms, taking abortifactants, stealing, and making a pact with the devil, among other claims. Thus, there are many facets to this case that could be explored in detail, but I will focus here on the connection between sex and magic. 

            In the depositions of Agatha Spörri and her various partners or clients, words for magic were never explicitly used. Instead, the court repeatedly questioned Spörri’s main partner or client, Ulrich Schilling, about the food and drink she had given him. They wanted to know whether or not these items had influenced his behavior, decisions, and movements, specifically whether or not they had caused him to follow Spörri around (“daß sy Spörin Ime Schillingen daß er Iro dergstalt nachgan müss, etwaß Zuoäßen. ald Zuotrincken geben haben wurde”). This repeated questioning reveals an unstated concern about the use of food-based love magic – food and drink being important tools of witches (Roper, Witch Craze, 17). Love magic was commonly used by prostitutes in the early modern period, as has been researched for various Mediterranean contexts by Daniella Hacke, Giulia Morosini, and Guido Ruggiero, among others. The goal of these spells was usually to attract clients and keep their attention, or conversely to prevent them from being sexually interested in others such as their wives, even to make them impotent. Thus, the Zurich court’s fears about the effects of love magic correlated with the concerns of authorities throughout early modern Europe.

            But in the Catholic, Mediterranean world, punishments for witchcraft were not as extreme as in Reformed areas such as Switzerland (Herzig, Witchcraft Persecutions in Italy, 4). Spörri’s aunt, as mentioned above, had been burned at the stake, and witchcraft was said to follow family lines (Roper, Witch Craze, 156). Thus, this accusation against Agatha Spörri, veiled as it was, was life-threatening. In fact, it was apparently more dangerous to be guilty of witchcraft than prostitution. Spörri readily stated that she had engaged in adultery solely due to poverty (“inn Ehebruch sich vergangen…dann sy ein solliches allein us grosser armut gethan”). Conversely, she staunchly refuted the implied charge of witchcraft and insisted that such accusations against her were unjust (“er gescheche Iro aber mit dem gezig…unrächt”). Thus, while both crimes carried the death penalty, witchcraft was apparently more important to deny and thus a greater threat. This contrasts with my previous case study, in which Anna Uster was executed for repeated adultery, the same crime that Spörri admitted to. These cases occurred in the same year, raising the question as to why Spörri was not frightened of an adultery charge. Perhaps the difference was that Spörri had one main partner, though she was also accused of adultery with other men. Or perhaps she hoped that once she was absolved of the crime of witchcraft, her sex crimes would be deemed less important. 

            Whatever the specific reason for Spörri’s defense strategy, it seems to have worked. She seems to have gotten off “lightly”: she kept to her story despite being tortured and was not executed. Her statements throughout the case show that she was aware of the different accusations against her, whether they were stated explicitly or implied, and that she knew how to defend herself against the worst possible outcome. She fought against the unspoken connection between adultery and magic, and between herself and her aunt. Her later fate remains a mystery, but in 1606 she was able to leave the Zurich court system alive. 

Conflict and Collaboration

EvEn (Conflict and Collaboration: Everyday Encounters between Women and Clergymen in Pre-Modern Europe) is a research blog dedicated to the study of the various forms and expressions of the relations between clergymen – secular priests, friars, bishops, and local clergy as well as the higher levels of the ecclesiastical hierarchy – and women – noblewomen, nuns, and laywomen – from every social stratum, from the Middle Ages until the end of the Early Modern period. These encounters were sometimes initiated by the formal setting of the Church: spiritual guidance, ecclesiastical superiors in nun’s convents, or countryside parishes. They also included incidental encounters in the context of everyday activities, such as a casual discussion during a tour of a chapel or participation in confraternities. Encounters also occurred in moments of difficulty, when women were obliged to act as witnesses at episcopal courts or when they asked for shelter and spiritual help, as in the cases of the convertite, the women who abandoned Judaism or Islam for the Christian faith. They also occurred during adventurous holy missions and when traditional barriers momentarily disappeared, as in the case of the foundation of a convent or at the departure for an evangelizing mission to the other side of the world. Finally, encounters also included illegal relationships, love stories maintained through the grates of convent parlours or presbytery concubinage.

This multiplicity of moments of encounters, exchanges, and relations, sometimes conflictual, sometimes collaborative, will be explored by the topics of this blog. The blog aims to understand the mechanisms, dynamics, continuities, and ruptures of these encounters, in connection with their immediate context and the broad movements taking place in the Church and Europe during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. This research on the points of contact between people reveals individuals who were connected to each other, acting in networks that went beyond the barriers of the ecclesiastical and secular worlds or of the male and female worlds. In these networks, ideas and spirituals currents were circulated and transformed between every point of contact and by each individual participant to this diffusion of information.

The EvEn project has five main objectives:

1) To analyze a variety of case studies in which it is possible to reconstruct one or more interactions between women and clergymen;
2) To explore the various networks that these cases reveal and to investigate the potential information that circulated through these networks;
3) To compare the various case studies individually presented by each collaborator in order to analyze the encounters between women and clergymen in the long term and over an international territory;
4) To create digital tools to connect individual studies/research to the broader world of Digital Humanities; and
5) To promote the collaborative research and the creation of networks between emerging scholars across the world.

The blog contains:

1) Cases and people: single cases found during archival research, accompanied with some initial hypotheses and interpretations, as well as biographies of the individuals involved.
2) Archival material: freshly transcribed samples of archival material.
3) Project: a page for the individual projects of each contributor.
4) Map: a collective map locating protagonists and showing networks and their evolution over time.
5) Editorial: plural-hand articles to analyze the broader historical to which protagonists of encounters and networks are connected.

EvEn is, therefore, a collective blog that discusses and maps the encounters and relations between women and clergymen, focusing on agency, strategies of action, conflicts, friendships, networks, and the sharing of information. Even, as an adjective, means both something recurrent or continuous: just as this topic need to be explored deeply and with a different perspective than previous historiography, as an historical phenomenon spanning the whole history of Christianity. Even also refers to the state of being equal or balanced: to this end, the project attempts to “even out” our understanding of relations and encounters between individuals traditionally considered to be regulated by a relation of power – the clergyman having authority over women – by placing the aspirations, objectives, and strategies of women at the centre of the investigation. Finally, EvEn presents a space to develop even more about the history of women, and the religious and cultural history of Medieval and Early Modern Europe.