This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

The year is 1471, and sitting in the middle of Germany’s Romantic Road is a tranquil village – Nördlingen. Yet, like most German towns, Nördlingen was home to a licensed brothel. The brothel wasn’t just the home of 12 prostitutes, it was of substantial economic value. The revenue the brothel generated provided the authorities with a stable tax income, with further income possible if they sold food and drink, or rented rooms. 

The social utility of prostitution was important in Medieval society. Although Christianity’s grip on society was at an all-time high, prostitution was tolerated as it helped to prevent the greater evils of rape, sodomy and masturbation. In the words of Augustine of Hippo, “if you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts” – brothels provided a sense of balance and harmony for male sexual impulses.

Despite this toleration prostitutes were still considered disreputable and ungodly. But throughout the 15th century, any woman who was suspected to be involved in any illicit sexual activity – referred to by Ruth Mazo Karras as ‘whoredom’ – could be placed into a brothel by force by the authorities (who played a major role in policing women’s sexual behaviour at all levels of society). Nonetheless, the voices of prostitutes themselves are still virtually unknown. What we know about the world of late medieval prostitution comes from the words of literate and wealthy male observers. However, a criminal investigation carried out in winter 1471 by Nördlingen town council would provide us with a raw and honest testimony, giving us a insight into prostitution, from the perspectives of prostitutes themselves. 

Following an investigation into the brothel keeper, Lienhard Fryermut, and his partner, Barbara Tarschenfeindin, and also the interrogation of all 12 prostitutes working there at the time, it was found the kitchen maid, a woman named Els von Eystett, had been forced into a prostitution. As a result, Eystett had become pregnant by one of her clients. Els complained to Barbara of abdominal pains as a consequence. She was first told that she was suffering from amenorrhea, to which Barbara mixed together a few market ingredients and forced Eystett to drink – with the mixture reportedly being an abortifacient, to bring about menstruation. Several witnesses describe the sudden abdominal pain Eystett endured, which caused Eystett to miscarry a male foetus, which Els estimated to be 20 weeks old.  Els confided in one of her clients about what had happened, which caused rumours to spread around the village – leading to the investigation by the council.

But this was not the only line of enquiry, an investigation was also summoned into the working condition of the prostitutes. All 12 women provided accounts of their treatment. The first came from Anna von Ulm. She stated “the brothel-keepers treat me and the others very harshly”, and “they force us to earn money at inappropriate times, namely on holy Saturday nights when we should honour Mary, and avoid such work”. Almost all of the women claimed that they had been sold into the brothel, and were all in great debt to Lienhard. It was also recorded that Barbara “forced us to let men come to them, and when we do not want to we are beaten […] and even when we are menstruating we are forced to earn them money”.

Those who came after Anna added to the picture, Els von Nürnberg stated that when she entered the brothel her clothes were confiscated. She also stated the brothel-keepers overcharged them for food, drink and rent, leading to many of them being in debt to Lienhard. 

This contrasts to the prevalent image of late medieval prostitution in popular culture. They are painted as sensual, sanitised environments, which provided luxurious furnishings and courtly love. This, quite frankly, paints a rose tinted perspective. It ignores the exploitative working conditions and the privilege male sexuality held in society. 

It was ultimately the abortion which made this extreme case domino effect into an unravelling investigation onto the working conditions of these sex workers. Financial and physical exploitation were common in medieval brothels, but this of course begs the question – how representative can this single case be?

Well, following the interrogation Barbara was found guilty of causing the abortion of Eystett’s child. Although Nördlingen’s town law had no overt reference to abortion, convictions usually resulted in expulsion of the guilty party. As a result, Barbara was banished across the Rhine, after being branded across the forehead. Lienhard was also dismissed from his position as brothel keeper. In addition, 1472 saw the introduction of Frauenhausordnung, a series of new provisions introduced to prevent the abuses of prostitutes which were reported in the investigation. The extent to which these laws were enforced is up for debate, but it is the first law of its kind. The first example we see of the protection of sex workers, in both Germany and Europe in the Middle Ages.

Yet, during the 16th century, as the Reformation approached and the characteristics of medieval urban life vanished, it is reported that Bartholme Seckler, a later keeper of the same brothel, also had charges of assault brought against him by the women working for him. The testimony of the Nördlingen women provided only a brief insight into the struggle for acceptance and respect faced by sex workers for centuries following.

By Lewis Jones

Image: Joachim Beuckelaer, Brothel, 1562