Inside the Medieval Brothel
What was life like for medieval prostitutes? A case in the German town of Nördlingen reveals a hellish world of exploitation and violence.
In the winter of 1471, the municipal council of Nördlingen in southern Germany got word of a scandal in the town’s public brothel. It prompted a criminal investigation into the conduct of the brothel-keeper, Lienhart Fryermut, and his partner, Barbara Tarschenfeindin. After interrogating all 12 of the prostitutes working in the brothel at the time, the council learned that the brothel’s kitchen maid, a woman named Els von Eystett, had been forced into prostitution and as a result had become pregnant by one of her clients. When Barbara discovered this she had forced Els to swallow an abortifacient drink that she had mixed herself, with the result that Els miscarried a male foetus whom the other women reckoned to have been about 20 weeks old.
After forcing Els back to work only a few days later and swearing her to secrecy, things had returned to normal in the brothel for a couple of weeks. But it was not long until some of the prostitutes began to speak among themselves about what had happened. One, Barbel von Esslingen, had brought a pail of water into Els’ room as she lay in agony and had seen the child’s body laid out on a bench. After Barbara overheard her speaking about what she had seen, she sent Barbel away to work in the public brothel in nearby Ulm. But it was too late to stem gossip about the incident. Some regular clients had even begun to talk about what had happened, wondering aloud how it could be that Els, ‘who had been big, was now so small’.
Things came to a head when two officials from the city council in charge of monitoring the brothel paid a visit. They told the women that rumours of what had happened had reached senior members of the council and that an investigation was imminent. In a furious confrontation, Lienhart burst in on the women while they were eating and delivered a savage beating to Els, while she screamed defiantly back at him that he would have to hack off her arms and legs to keep her quiet. Later, as it finally became clear to Barbara and Lienhart that their cover-up had failed, they approached Els secretly to offer her a bargain.
In exchange for her silence, they would agree to drop the debt she owed them and she would slip away quietly the next day while the women were eating dinner. Els agreed and, when the time came to enact the plan, Barbara sent her into the kitchen to fetch a jug of milk. As Els left the brothel and headed for the city gate, Barbara made a show of asking where she had gone and ordered the women to search the brothel for her. But, as one of the prostitutes, Margrette von Biberach, later testified, Els had already told them all about the secret plan. Even while they joined in the search, ‘all of them knew how things really were’.
The business of brothels
Sitting halfway down the Romantic Road, a stretch of some of Germany’s most well-known tourist landmarks, Nördlingen today is a quiet and prosperous place. Its most distinguishing feature is the wholly intact medieval ring wall that encircles the town, a testament to its past significance in the region. Among other notable events, Nördlingen is associated with two of the bloodiest battles of the Thirty Years War and with a particularly savage witch craze, which made a heroine of one of its citizens, the innkeeper Maria Holl, who withstood 60 sessions of torture without confessing. In 1932, the town would host Adolf Hitler, who gave a speech there several months after losing the presidential election to Paul von Hindenburg.
In the Middle Ages, Nördlingen grew wealthy on the back of the textile trade, fuelling a significant population expansion and placing major demands on the town’s council to provide peace and stability for its citizens. Like many other towns across western Europe, the provision of a public brothel was one part of this equation. In an argument still used today, licensing prostitution and concentrating it where it could be seen and regulated was regarded as a lesser evil than allowing it to flourish unchecked. This rationale was endorsed by no less a figure than St Augustine, whose treatise De ordine noted that ‘if you remove harlots from society, everything will be unsettled on account of lust’. In parts of western Europe where licensed prostitution was the norm – a region that includes southern and central Germany, northern Italy, southern France, the Low Countries and Iberia, though not England – prostitution was thus assumed to provide an outlet for young and unmarried men who might otherwise endanger ‘honourable’ women. In some cities, most notably Florence, prostitution was also assumed to dissuade men from sodomy.
Although there were some regional variations, most German towns that had licensed brothels followed a similar model. The brothel was purchased by the town and leased back to a brothel-keeper (in many places a man, though sometimes a woman), who was responsible for its day-to-day running. The keeper paid a tax to the authorities in return for the right to charge board and lodging to prostitutes living in the brothel and to take one third of the fee they charged to clients. Further income might be generated by selling food and drink. After paying for room and board, prostitutes were able to keep what remained of their earnings, as well as any tips a customer might give them.
Broad acceptance of the social utility of prostitution ensured that it was a highly visible part of late medieval urban life. In many cities the social role of prostitutes extended to civic pageantry, where, as participants in dances, weddings and the entry processions of great rulers, they could be seen as part of the city’s hospitality. The entourage of the Emperor Sigismund supposedly enjoyed the hospitality of brothels opened up by towns on his way to the Council of Constance in 1414, while an anecdote attached to Frederick III saw him greeted at the gates of Nuremberg in 1471 by prostitutes who captured him with a golden chain, only freeing him after the payment of a one florin ransom.
Despite this recognition of their role in society, in comparison with respectable wives and daughters, prostitutes were considered dishonourable and sinful. Increasingly throughout the 1400s, any woman suspected of illicit sex risked being equated to the whore of the brothel and might even find herself forcibly placed there by the authorities. This was not necessarily a one-way journey, though. Women who found themselves in brothels might hope to leave by saving up enough for a dowry that allowed them to marry and ‘turn to honour’. In doing so they might follow the example of one of Christianity’s most powerful symbols of redemption, Mary Magdalene, often portrayed as a prostitute in late medieval sermons.
Like many of those in the Middle Ages who were not part of the social elite, the lives of prostitutes are known to us almost exclusively from accounts given by literate, mostly male observers. As the historian Ruth Mazo Karras has noted, although the concept of whoredom played a major role in policing the sexual behaviour of women at all levels of society, the voices of prostitutes themselves are virtually unknown. The testimony given by the Nördlingen women is therefore unique in offering us a glimpse into the world of late medieval prostitution from the perspectives of prostitutes themselves. What do the Nördlingen women tell us about this world? And what parallels might be drawn between their experiences and those of women working in the sex trade today?
The criminal investigation carried out by the Nördlingen town council proceeded along two primary lines of enquiry. First, there was the alleged abortion of Els von Eystett’s child. Abortion (an act often conflated with infanticide at the time) was a serious crime, which could merit a banishment from the town; unlike some other parts of western Europe, it was not yet common in southern Germany to execute those convicted of it. Interestingly, Els herself seems never to have been under suspicion of aborting her child. From the start, the council seems to have accepted the story told by the other women in the brothel, which portrayed her as the innocent party. Most of the details of this narrative were actually supplied by just three of them: Els and two others, Margrette von Biberach and Anna von Ulm. Both women appear to have been special confidantes of Els throughout the traumatic events and described supporting her and comforting her as she lay in agony. Els herself actually testified in the nearby town of Weissenburg, where she had gone after being allowed to leave the brothel in Nördlingen. This necessitated some co-operation between the two sets of authorities, revealed in correspondence attached to the trial record – a testament to the seriousness with which the Nördlingen town council treated the matter.
The second half of the investigation took the form of a general enquiry into the working conditions in the public brothel. Here, the council set out to discover whether and how Lienhart Fryermut had broken the terms of his oath as brothel-keeper, sworn when he began the job in 1469. Such oaths were a common means of regulating brothels in German towns. Because brothel-keeping was such a disreputable occupation, comparable with what the historian Kathy Stuart refers to as the ‘defiled trade’ of the hangman, binding an individual to his duties by an oath sworn to God provided a strong form of regulation that allowed authorities to dismiss easily those who abused their position.
As became clear once the Nördlingen women began to give their testimonies, there was more than enough evidence to suggest that Lienhart had done just this. Unlike the abortion enquiry, in which a small number of key witnesses provided much of the relevant evidence, evidence for this part of the investigation was spread across the testimony of nearly all the women. Their statements show that, although most of them simply answered questions put to them by the council, a number of the women took the chance to offer additional incriminating details about the ways in which they had been exploited and abused by Lienhart and Barbara.
The first to come before the council was Anna von Ulm. Anna began her testimony by stating that ‘the brothel-keepers treat her and the others very harshly’ and that ‘they compel and force the women to earn money at inappropriate times, namely on holy Saturday nights when they should honour Mary, the worthy mother of God, and should avoid such work’. She added to this that she, and almost all of the women, had been sold into the brothel, including one from as far afield as Italy, and were all heavily in debt to Lienhart. She said that he and Barbara ‘force the women to let men come to them, and when they do not want to they are beaten’. In a similar vein, she claimed that ‘when the women have their womanly sickness [menstruation] they are forced to earn them money and to let men come to them’.
Anna then went on to explain how she and the others had got into debt. As soon became clear, Lienhart had subjected them to a range of arbitrary charges that not only wiped out their ability to earn, but ensured that they were trapped by ever-increasing debts, which he used as a pretext to forbid them from leaving his employment. Although this was not strictly illegal – numerous employers in this era imposed restrictions on their workers’ freedom of movement and might confiscate property to prevent them absconding – the sheer scale of Lienhart’s exploitation made this an exceptional case.
His practices included confiscating their tips and forcing them to pay cash gifts at certain times of year, including Whitsun and Christmas. He also sold goods to them at inflated prices. As Anna said, ‘when he had something to sell to them, whether cloth or other things that were worth half a florin or a full florin, he sold it to them for two, three or four’. She also said that the women were made to exchange whatever ‘even’ pennies they had for uneven ones of a presumably lesser value. Upon entry to the brothel they had had their clothing confiscated and pawned to Jewish merchants, which for Anna meant that she was forced ‘to go about miserably and almost naked, having no more than a skirt and no undershirt’, with the further consequence that ‘she can hardly cover herself, and is unwilling to go out among honourable people’.
Those who came after Anna added to the picture. Els von Nürnberg stated that when she first entered the brothel she had given Lienhart a veil with a value of two florins and told the council that ‘for the skirt which she wears, she has to give him money’. Enndlin von Schaffhausen and Adelhait von Sindelfingen both said that they had had their clothes confiscated by Lienhart; according to Enndlin, this happened ‘whenever one of the women has good clothes’. When it came to paying for their food and drink, Wÿchselbrünn von Ulm said that Lienhart overcharged the women by providing them with meals for 13 pennies when the same was available elsewhere in town for 12. Chündlin von Augsburg said that wine was sold to the women for a penny more inside the brothel than outside it. Enndlin also described a practice by which Lienhart charged the women double the normal amount of ‘sleeping money’, a fee levied when a customer wanted to stay overnight in the brothel. Margrette von Biberach said that, when she informed the brothel-keeper in advance that she had an overnight customer who subsequently failed to turn up, she was still made to pay the full amount of sleeping money.
On top of these exploitative arrangements were further practices intended to squeeze yet more income from the women. These included supplementary labour, primarily spinning, a task which brothel-keepers in some towns were permitted to demand of prostitutes, although not in Nördlingen. Anna von Ulm reported nevertheless that the women were made either to produce two large spindles per day, or to pay Lienhart four pennies. There were also restrictions on the women’s freedom of movement. Anna also told the council that Lienhart had ‘taken their churchgoing from them’, denying them the chance to hear mass. She also said that he habitually did not let them leave the brothel, with the consequence that they were ‘unable to earn their food’. On the subject of food, she pointed out that the women were usually given disgusting meals and were denied extra portions during menstruation, as was required, and were not given bread and meat during the week.
Some of the women also told the council about the fraudulent ways in which Lienhart deprived them of an income. One practice common in brothels across the region involved depositing all of the money paid by clients into a central strongbox, which was then distributed among the women at the end of the week according to how many clients they had seen. Catherin von Nürnberg said that, when this was done in Nördlingen, she had suspicions that several women were paid less than they had earned, while Margrette von Biberach told the council that she had sometimes seen Barbara deliberately undercount the amount of money contributed by a particular woman, with the result that Lienhart would become angry and tell the woman in question that ‘he has no use for her, and they earn him nothing’.
The consequence of all this was that, in Anna von Ulm’s words: ‘They are all poor women and cannot save money, and the debt grows for each one although they do not know how, and they cannot pay off anything.’ But Lienhart’s regime was not restricted to financial exploitation. The deprivations suffered by the women were made worse by frequent use of violence and intimidation. According to several of them, both Lienhart and Barbara beat the women frequently, often when Lienhart claimed that they had earned less than they should have. Margrette von Biberach said that such violence was arbitrary, since Lienhart ‘hit them more for innocence than for guilt’. At times the violence appears to have a sadistic edge. Many of the women said that Lienhart beat them with a bullwhip, while Wÿchselbrünn von Ulm said that he sometimes used a rod or a belt. To make things worse, Adelhait von Sindelfingen pointed out that Lienhart had even been known to assault customers in the brothel, ‘preventing them from earning’, thus perpetuating a cycle of violence.
One prevalent image of late medieval prostitution, sometimes repeated in popular culture via fantasy settings, depicts the brothel as a sensuous environment in which good cheer and innocent revelry are the order of the day. There is some evidence to suggest that brothels in fact sought to cultivate this kind of image for themselves by providing luxurious furnishings, a warm oven and the opportunity to eat and drink in the company of women, a setting which aped the ideals of courtly love.
Images like these, however, use the notion of the ‘luxury’ brothel as a sanitised version of prostitution to draw a veil over exploitative working practices and the privileging of male sexuality. In the case of Nördlingen, the women’s testimony indicates that life in a municipal brothel could be truly hellish. In one of several such claims in the case record, Chündlin von Augsburg told the council that ‘she has been in other houses before, but has never seen women kept more harshly or despicably than here’, while Wÿchselbrünn von Ulm claimed that ‘the women are not kept here as they are elsewhere’. Catherin von Nürnberg seems to have had much the same impression, stating that the women’s treatment in Nördlingen ‘exceedingly harsh’.
Like all exceptional incidents, it is important to question how representative a single case can be. It is possible that the women exaggerated the scale of abuse – or even lied about it – to secure more favourable working conditions. But it is also striking how readily they seem to have been believed by their interrogators. As dishonourable women, the testimony of prostitutes ordinarily counted for very little in a legal setting and yet the council had no difficulty in accepting their accounts over those of Barbara and Lienhart. At the conclusion of the investigation both were dismissed from their posts and banished from the city forever. In Barbara’s case the council took the additional step of branding her across the forehead for her part in aborting Els von Eystett’s child.
It was the abortion, ultimately, which made this such an extreme case. Financial exploitation and violence were common enough in municipal brothels, but the forced abortion of a prostitute’s child – as the council evidently came to see it – was an act of brutality well beyond the norm. It was this act which also produced some of the most distinctive parts of the women’s testimony. In both of their statements, Anna von Ulm and Margrette von Biberach describe acting as confidantes to Els in the aftermath of her miscarriage. They told the council how Els had wept bitterly, saying that the sight of Barbara had filled her heart with misery and that she had ‘taken my child from me and killed my flesh and blood’.
Els perceived Barbara’s actions in the wider context of abuse and exploitation, by which Lienhart claimed virtual ownership of their bodies and their capacity to earn. Viewed in this way, the forced abortion of Els’ child can be seen as an instrumental act of terror, one which made clear that the brothel-keepers had absolute control over the women’s bodies.
But, if the record shows evidence of trauma, it also communicates the women’s defiance. Els’ own determination to speak out is manifested in the descriptions of her facing down Lienhart. And when their day in court finally came, the evidence provided by the Nördlingen women was enough to prompt the council to take action against Lienhart and Barbara.
In the year following the investigation, the city council drew up a new set of regulations for Nördlingen’s brothel which forbade many of the exploitative financial arrangements that had made prisoners of most of the women working there. Unlike most brothel regulations used by towns in this era, the rules also included an explicit clause requiring a given woman working in the brothel to report to the council immediately any kind of abuse or breach of the rules so that corrective action could be taken – a further sign of the impact made by those who testified in 1471.
It is tempting to think of the events described here as part of a depressingly familiar picture. Exploitative working conditions, violence and danger are often thought to accompany prostitution, even in regulated and thus theoretically safer forms of commercial sex. A modern observer of prostitution might recognise in Nördlingen’s brothel a certain model of prostitution catering for low status clients, designed to keep costs low and drive up profits by exploiting its workers. Such a response also seems to affirm the old cliché of prostitution as the ‘oldest profession’ – an unchanging and ever-present phenomenon in human society.
But this cliché is not a harmless one. Thinking about prostitution in this manner is not merely ahistorical, blinding us to what was distinctive and local about the conditions in a place like 15th-century Nördlingen; it also obscures the individuality of the women involved. As the historian Judith Walkowitz has argued, it is important that we regard prostitutes themselves as complex individuals, whose experiences and life stories are distinctive and worthy of hearing. Prostitutes are not merely ciphers of a larger historical trend; this is difficult to deny, whatever one’s own position on prostitution as a social and economic phenomenon.
We know little else about the women who worked in Nördlingen’s brothel in the years after the 1471-2 investigation. A second, smaller collection of judicial records suggest that by the early 1500s another brothel-keeper by the name of Bartholome Seckler was in trouble with the council for exploiting the women working for him. In any case, it was only a few decades until the sea change of the Reformation saw municipal brothels swept away en masse across southern German towns, as civic authorities grew increasingly uneasy about the moral compromise required to sustain them. By the mid-16th century an institution that had been characteristic of late medieval urban life had vanished, one into which the testimony of the Nördlingen women offers a brief yet vital glimpse.
Jamie Page is a research fellow at the University of Tübingen. He is writing a book on prostitution and subjectivity in late medieval Germany.