Category Archives: Prostitutes 2020: Research

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. 

Regula Bleuler: Sources

By Adrina Schulz, 5/1/2021.

Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich (STaZH) A.27.141, Case of Regula Bleuler.

(working transcription, there may be errors; thanks to Nicole Zellweger for her help with the transcription)


Wie sie heiße?

Regula Bleuwler.


Wo her?

Aus der Eyerbracht.


Wie alt?

Etwann 25. jährig.


Warum hier im Öetenbach im Verhaftt?

Es werde leider, Gott erbarm, Euch meiner gnädigen Herren wol bekannt seyn.


Sie solle dermahlen einen richtigen Bescheid geben, warum sie eigentlich zugegen?

Sie habe einen kerli verschinen Frytag nach mittag ungefahr um i. uhren zu Seebach angetroffen, der mit Ihro nacher Eglisau gegangen; hernach aber außert Eglisauw hinder einer Scheür bey den arm gezehrt und gsagt, müß ihme zwillen werden und es ihro thun; und disem nach, schon sie sich deßen bestermußen gwehrt, bey ernannter Scheür am boden beschlafen.


Ob sie aber zu vor mit selbigem nicht auch den einkehr gemacht, und trincken geholffen?

Ja, zu Bülach in einem Schenckhaus, sammt noch einem andern ihro unbekanten weibsbild.


Wer aber diser manns Persohn eigentlich seye?

Habe geheißen sey ein Eglisauwer und verehlichet, jedoch selbigen zu vor niemahlen gesehen noch gekennt.


Von wem sie den beyligenden brief her habe?

Von einen geistlichen Herren zu Rheinauw, zu dem sie 12. wochen lang gegangen, und bey ihme gelehrt habe.

was denn?

die  X. Gebott, und den Rosen-kranz


Wer sie aber veranlaset, dahin zu gehen?

Niemand, sonder sey aus sich selbsten dahin gekehret.


Ob sie ihmme auch gsagt, woher sie eigentlich seyn möchte?



Ob aber auch, worum sie hinweg?

Ja, habe gesagt, sey deß Lands verwisen worden.


Was sie sonsten zu Rheinauw weiters thun müßen nachdem sie beschriben mäßen daselbst unterrichtet worden[?]

Sie habe zum Althar zum Mutter Gottes-bild knien müßen. Darbey sey diser pfaff, 1. männ und eine Frauw sammt dem Mesmer gewesen; und harauf ihre finger auf ein buch legen, jedoch kein wort reden müßen.


Wie lang es sieth dem, daß diß alles beschehen?

Ungefahr ein 1/2 Jahr.


Ob ihro aber auch etwas auß dem Closter gegeben worden?

Ein juppen, und 5 R. an gelt.

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.

A Note of Terminology: Prostitutes or Sex Workers?

By Adrina Schulz, 01/05/2020

The word Prostitution in German is anachronistic: it does not appear in the medieval or early modern Zurich sources, although Peter Schuster did find it in a Nurnberg source in the sixteenth century (Schuster 1992, p. 19). The words used instead were numerous, context-dependent, and variable. In fact, almost any word meaning woman could be used to denote a prostitute when combined with certain adjectives. For example, in the case of Kaspar Bleuler from 1566, the term weib or woman was used to discuss prostitutes – “gmein wyber” –and to speak sympathetically of a wife – “wyb unnd kindt” (STaZH A 8.1, Nr. 93). Furthermore, words that today are strongly associated with prostitution, such as Dirne, could be used for different kinds of women, from a maid to a prostitute to a woman in general. Thus, there is a terminology problem. Some scholars have stuck with modern terms such as prostitute (Schuster 1992, among others). Others have used contemporary terms such as the German Dirne or the English whore to highlight these ambiguities (Schuster 1995; Karras 1996). This project will examine the various source words using historical semantics in order to differentiate them and track their changes over time, but will use the word prostitution as an umbrella term in order not to blur these differences.

The modern, self-chosen term for a prostitute is sex-worker (see for instance the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, among many others). However, even the concept of prostitution or sex work cannot be applied one-to-one to the medieval and early modern periods, as contemporary theologians and law-makers focused far more on a woman’s promiscuity – how many men she had sex with – than whether she was paid. Thus, since the word sex worker emphasizes aspects of labor and money, it does not fit with these conceptions of prostitution, as well as the women’s legal status: they were punished for adultery or fornication, as there was no specific charge of prostitution. Thus, this project will continue to use prostitute and prostitution for now, although I am of course open for comments and suggestions.