Hooking and Hustling – Prostitution in Late Medieval Switzerland

When exploring the past, we tend to focus on the tales of kings and queens and the adventures of worthy men. But what about the lives of ordinary people? And how about that activity that will inevitably occur when people come together, sex?

Alex (A) interviewed Jamie Page (JP), a research fellow at the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, about how he became interested in the history of gender, sexuality and crime and how Late Medieval attitudes to prostitution can help us uncover the hidden, and little explored, underworld of medieval society.


A: What encouraged you to focus on the history of gender and sexuality in relation to crime?

JP:  My interest in this topic actually has its roots in my undergraduate degree, in Medieval History and German at the University of St Andrews. We spent a lot of the course looking at marginalised groups in medieval towns, such as prostitutes, beggars, criminals and the poor, and it suddenly felt like I was looking at the ‘real life’ of the period, in comparison to a lot of the high politics I’d studied before.

Court records are one of the very few types of source from the Middle Ages which deal with what ‘really happened’ amongst ordinary people, though you have to be very careful in the way you interpret them to take account for the way the sources are shaped by judicial authorities, and by people’s strategic behaviour in court.

But that’s part of the enjoyment for me, dealing with colourful evidence of everyday life and working through the methodological challenges to see what you can say about it.

A: Why do you think prostitution is an important area of historical investigation?   

JP: I think prostitution is one of those topics which can seem almost ahistorical, but tells us so much about individual cultures in which it’s found (depending on how one defines it). The cliché that it’s the ‘world’s oldest profession’ is actually quite a harmful one, I think, because it seems to imply that prostitution is inevitable in every society, threatening to overlook the complex factors which see women (and men to a lesser extent) become involved in the sex trade.

Prostitutes themselves are effectively denied agency and subjectivity in this way of thinking – they can seem less like real people than puppets in an unchanging historical phenomenon. By investigating historical prostitutes as complex individuals, we can help to undo that kind of idea.

Jamie Page Interview Picture 2
Brothel-keeper taking his oath with prostitutes (Volkach Salbuch (1504) fol. 424r)


A: In your current research on prostitution in late medieval Germany and Switzerland have you come to any unexpected conclusions?

JP: I would have to say that I’m constantly surprised by the sheer ambiguity of prostitution in the material that I look at, which deals primarily with individuals (the book I’m writing is a bit like microhistory in that sense).

Looking at the bigger picture, there’s both a high degree of tolerance for prostitution in much of Europe, where allowance is made for unmarried men to visit prostitutes, but prostitutes themselves were highly stigmatised for what they did. At the same time, one of the most powerful symbols of redemption in medieval Christianity, Mary Magdalen, is often depicted as a prostitute.

Although there are plenty of firm definitions of what a prostitute was in the Middle Ages, for instance in canon law, and plenty of representations of prostitutes, e.g. in religious sermons, popular comic literature, I often feel like it’s hard to pin these to the evidence of individual lives – individuals seem too complex to fit within identity categories.

I think the same must be true for us – if you had to fit the whole of your life and your experience into only one or two categories of identity, would you feel adequately represented?

A: Learning about the lives of those often living in the underworld of medieval life, such as prostitutes, have you learnt anything that has changed your perception of modern society?

JP: I wouldn’t say ‘changed’ so much as sharpened my appreciation of how modern society works, particularly in terms of how minority groups are stigmatised and marginalised by those in power to shore up their own authority, or to create fear of outsiders which justifies taking action against them.


A: Why did you choose to focus a study of honour in urban life and government on Zurich?

JP: I was interested as a PhD student in crime, and if you’re a Germanist, there are very few archives from German-speaking cities that hold records of criminal court cases containing witness testimony from the Middle Ages.

One of the few that does is the canton archives of Zurich, as I discovered on a brief visit there in December 2010. Within 20 minutes of arriving it was clear to me that I’d have to come back for at least several months, which I did the following year in the second year of my PhD. It also helped that the archive is a dream to work in – very modern, superb library resources, very helpful staff and right next to the university campus, with a (for Switzerland!) cheap canteen.

The other reason, on honour and urban government, is a bit more complex, but basically it seemed a good ‘way in’ for me to think about how I might use the records. Honour was something like an unwritten social code for late medieval city-dwellers – a better term is probably ‘reputation’ – which allows them to manage their relationships with others through clearly-understood symbolic actions.

Jamie Page Interview Picture 4
The city of Zurich was under the control of the abbeys of Grossmünster (pictured) and Fraumünster until the 14th century when the Guild Revolt led the city to join the Swiss Confederation.

A: What has been the most poignant criminal case you have discovered in the Zurich canton archives?

JP: I’ve come across several cases where I’ve felt genuine sympathy, or sometimes the opposite, where I’ve laughed out loud (after vacating the archive reading room, naturally).

One of the latter concerns a hat-maker’s apprentice, who complained to the court in the late 1400s that another, rival apprentice (hats are a serious business in medieval Switzerland) had gone about town claiming to have spied on him masturbating in his master’s workshop.


Masculinity and Prostitution

A: How did prostitution occupy the imaginations of contemporary writers to be included in literary texts?

JP: Prostitutes pop up in all kinds of literary texts – from the high romance literature, like the story of Apollonius, to religious sermons and didactic narratives featuring Mary Magdalen, to popular comic tales. When you see them appearing in more obviously courtly or didactic literature, it’s usually to make a point about female virtue. My favourite texts are from the genre of popular comic literature, however – think lots of scatological humour and penis jokes.

A: Who was the fictional character of Apollonius of Tyre and how does his story relate to masculine identities in the Holy Roman Empire?

JP: Apollonius of Tyre is the protagonist of one of the great classical and medieval romances, who spends the narrative travelling around the ancient Mediterranean, having various adventures before being reunited with his family. It was the kind of ‘improving’ text you probably wanted to have on your bookshelf as a self-conscious member of the urban upper classes in the Empire, perhaps the sort of thing you might want others to know you’d got.

I’ve looked at the story in an article coming out next year, which focusses on a famous scene in the story where Apollonius’s daughter Tarsia is separated from him and sold into a brothel. Ultimately she’s able to resist the attempts of various men to have sex with her by demonstrating her outstanding piety, and is eventually able to escape. I interpret this partly as a message to women in the audience (be like Tarsia!), but I’ve also argued that this kind of depiction of prostitution works well for men, in two ways.

The story seems to offer a reassuring message to men who might visit a brothel, because it suggests that a truly virtuous woman – like Tarsia – would never give up her virtue.

What makes this even more of a pressing issue is the fact that, in the late 1400s, there’s an increasing awareness that women are being trafficked through public brothels across the Empire. So the notion that pious women are able to resist the debauchery of the brothel, like Tarsia, is a useful one for civic rulers who might have worried about their own responsibility for this problem.

Jamie Page Interview Image 7
The market aisle (Volkach Salbuch (1504) fol. 431r)


A: What advice would you provide to aspiring history students?

JP: I would offer two pieces of general advice, about two of the key skills associated with history, which are reading and writing. And you’ll have to forgive the hypocrisy here because I certainly didn’t do this myself all the time as an undergraduate!

Firstly, on reading: there’s nothing better you can do for yourself as a history student than to draw up a reading regime and stick to it. By this, I mean read the core texts assigned each week for your modules, and do all the necessary note-taking, preparation for seminars and so on, but also read in order to develop your interests and simply to take pleasure in your subject. Reading is like physical exercise, it’s not going to happen unless you set aside time and make it happen (and it makes you feel great!).

Secondly, on writing: there is a virtuous relationship between reading and writing, as they feed into one another in a way which improves your enjoyment of (and ability in) both. Often, when I’m struggling with a difficult paragraph, it’s enough just to pick up a book by someone I admire and read a couple of pages for my own writing to start flowing.

One of my PhD supervisors compared the process of writing a thesis (which is a minimum of 80,000 words) to producing a piece of sculpture – you chisel away at the rock a little bit, slowly, until at some stage it’s ready to go. It’s a model that works well for shorter pieces too, the key thing is to get words on the page and build something, rather than writing your ‘final’ draft from scratch.

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(Featured images: By Hans Leu der Ältere – Own work, fotografiert im Baugeschichtlichen Archiv der Stadt Zürich (Haus zum Rech), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16147802, Photo by Esteban Castle on Unsplash, manuscript folios from http://www.museum-barockscheune.de/salbuch/)

One Comment Add yours

  1. Barbara Luthy says:

    Very interesting article. Thank-you for another chance to open our minds to new study.
    I think that Mary Magdalen was purported to be a prostitute by the early church to keep her true place in the inner circle from coming to light. The Catholic Church apologized for this misleading reference some years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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