Monthly Archives: April 2021

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.