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Le genre, une nouvelle approche du fait religieux

Sex, honour and morality : about the precarious situation of servant girls in post-Tridentine Münster

Simone Laqua-O’Donnell

Abstracts

By examining different forms of deviance, this article asks how the religious reforms brought about by the Council of Trent affected issues of discipline and morality for women and men. My case study is the city of Münster, situated in the north of the Holy Roman Empire. Münster was exposed to powerful Protestant influences, which culminated in the notorious Anabaptist kingdom of 1534. After the defeat of radical Protestantism the city was returned to Catholicism and eventually a stringent programme of reform was enforced. The article shows how the Tridentine reforms influenced perceptions of gender and discusses how the women, and in particular servant girls, experienced these changes.

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1The early modern Catholic Church expended a great deal of energy on shaping its followers into well-behaved, obedient and pious believers. However, as far as women were concerned, the church fathers at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) mainly focused on two kinds : those about to enter into marriage and those who had taken holy orders and bound themselves to their heavenly bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Both institutions, marriage and the convent, were pillars of Catholicism and equally in need of reform. Consequently, the church fathers set out to design reforms that would bring conformity of ritual and purity of practice, and all of this under the strict supervision of the ecclesiastical authorities.

2Though the treatment of nuns by the post-Tridentine Church reveals much about its attitude towards women in general and its preoccupation with female sexuality in particular (which ultimately necessitated nuns to live in permanent enclosure removed from the temptations of the world), this article shall not focus on nuns but on a group of women which has received much less scholarly attention so far : that of servant girls.

  • 1 Dürr 1995, p. 31.
  • 2 There is a wealth of literature on early modern servants. See for example : Maza 1983; Frühsorge - (...)

3Positioned near the opposite end of the spectrum of female existence to nuns, servant girls made up a peculiar group of women in early modern society. They were at once insiders and outsiders of a community, often socially marginalised yet by far not a minority, traditionally stigmatised as women of low morale and little honour, while simultaneously privy to many intimate secrets in the households they served. Although the years spent in service were not part of the normal lifecycle of every early modern woman, most lower class girls between the ages of 15 and 29 went into service for a time to save up enough money for a dowry1. The final aim was, of course, to find a suitable marriage partner and to use the dowry to settle down into married life.2

  • 3 Gowing 1997, p. 87-115; Gowing 1996/1; Sharpe 1981, p. 29-48; Kussmaul 1981; Meldrum 2000; Richard (...)

4With this objective in mind, young girls left of their homes to move to another house, another village, town or region to find employment in a stranger’s house. This mobility set them apart from other early modern women who would not usually have been granted the same amount of freedom. However, their mobility also separated them geographically from the bonds and protection of their family and friends. When a girl was offered employment in a household, the master of the house was required to extend his protection and supervision to the new member of the household. Many did, but early modern sources regularly report servant girls being sexually harassed or even raped by men of the community, other members of the household or even the head of household himself. Servant girls also frequently had to endure physical and verbal abuse, usually from the master or the mistress of the house3. Servant girls therefore often spent their time in service living in limbo with their lives wedged precariously between acceptance and disapproval.

  • 4 Compare, for example Gowing 1996/2, p. 225-234; Capp 2003.

5These already difficult circumstances were further complicated by the girls’ desire to find a suitable marriage partner. Between finding a man, getting to know him and testing his suitability for marriage, and finally eliciting a marriage proposal from him, the girl had to make sure she did not damage her honour and respectability. In a society that clearly distinguished between the pious and the sinners any misstep could have severe repercussions. A girl with a blemished reputation could hold little hope for a good match. Many sources from the period confirm the quick manner in which early modern communities fell back on such long-established and convenient stereotypes as « the debauched maidservant » in disputes involving a man, a servant girl, and sex4.

  • 5 Smith 1986; Peters 2000, p. 63-96.
  • 6 Roper 1985/2, p. 62-101.

6It would therefore seem fair to suggest that the Tridentine decrees of 1563 brought some much needed security to this tricky equation by stipulating a break with traditional betrothal practice. Traditionally, marriage had been enacted entirely within the lay sphere requiring only the words of consent (verba de presenti or verba de futuro) from the couple. If present at all, the priest merely witnessed the exchange of the marriage promise5. This was followed by a mass inside the parish church and some merry-making in the local pub6. Many couples, especially those belonging to the lower classes, had at this point already explored the pleasures of sex together because, according to custom, sexual intercourse was simply perceived as the precursor of marriage. Putting sex before marriage did harbour obvious dangers for the girl in question though. A servant girl might well find her man having a sudden change of heart after they had slept together but before the all-important marital vows had been exchanged. This left her with her virginity gone and her reputation in tatters but no husband to show for it in return. And because marriage for the lower classes had, for the longest time, been such a flexible concept without a very definite beginning, it was difficult for a woman to prove that a promise of marriage had indeed been given before the deed was done. Finding a husband was therefore an endeavour that required servant girls to carry out a careful balancing act between the practicalities of traditional betrothal practice and the demands of societal propriety. The risk here lay almost entirely with the woman.

7The decrees of the Council of Trent, however, sought to change this process by making traditional practice invalid and bringing marriage back into the church. The couple now had to come to their parish church and stand in front of the altar while

  • 7 Session XXIV, Chapter I : « The form prescribed in the Lateran Council for solemnly contracting ma (...)

the proper pastor of the contracting parties shall publicly announce three times in the church, during the celebration of the mass on three successive festival days, between whom marriage is to be contracted; after which publications, if no legitimate impediment is revealed, the marriage may be proceeded with7.

8After that, the couple celebrated their union in the presence of the people, the priest and two or three witnesses. The celebration of marriage was therefore transformed from a largely lay enterprise into one, which was deficient without the presence of the local priest in the local church. After the blessing was over, the witnesses attested to the marriage in a book, which was especially introduced to record such events. The final step necessary to make the marriage complete was its consummation. As we can see after Trent the Catholic Church tried to maintain a high degree of control over marriage, its definition and the procedures surrounding it. But how were these guidelines implemented in practice ? Did ecclesiastical and secular authorities combine forces to ensure the successful implementation of this new regime ? How did these supralegal reforms shape local marriage custom in Münster ? And how did the religious changes that followed affect the lives of women and servant girls in particular ?

  • 8 For a thorough investigation of how women encountered the Counter-Reformation in Münster, see Laqu (...)
  • 9 For more information on the city, see Hsia 1984.
  • 10 Ibid., pp. 110-111.
  • 11 Korpiola 2011; Seidel Menchi - Quaglioni 2006; Seidel Menchi - Quaglioni 2001; Brundage 1987; Ingr (...)
  • 12 Only cases of clandestine marriages were not heard by the secular court. They went straight to the (...)
  • 13 Gleixner, 1994, ch. 1.

9In order to answer these questions this article focuses on the city of Münster during the first half of the seventeenth century when the Tridentine decrees had been introduced in the city8. Münster was the northernmost outpost of the Catholic Reformation in early modern Germany and situated close to the Dutch border9. Although the Council of Trent had reconfirmed the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church over matrimony, the situation proved to be more complicated at local level. In Münster in 1573, Bishop Johann von Hoya (1567-1574) tried to reform the jurisdictional system by introducing the Ecclesiastical Court (Offizialat) and making it the highest secular judicial instance in the bishopric. However, his effort was hampered by the city council’s firm insistence that he had to confirm the judicial autonomy of the city court, which he did after prolonged negotiations between the city council and the bishop10. Even after 1573, Münster’s citizens could therefore still turn to the city court for cases to do with questions of morality. Thus, people could either turn to the ecclesiastical court or the city council to resolve marital conflicts and the sources show that they made use of both institutions11. Cases of adultery, for example, were examined by the city court, the Offizialat, as well as the synods. Conversely, the city court got to hear the whole spectrum of pre-marital and marital conflicts12. Because the protocols of the Offizialat have survived only in fragments while the protocols of the city court are complete for the period after 1564, we shall concentrate on the latter to establish the views of the magistrate, of maidservants and « their » men on marriage and morality. Our sample covers 32 cases spanning the period from 1594 to 1650 and involve profligacy, prostitution and infanticide. Of course, coming in direct contact with authority was an exceptional situation for most early modern men and women. We therefore have to remember that in court people tried to produce a favourable image and that their stories merely reflect their version of reality rather than reality itself13. However, for our purpose of examining the intersection of gender and religion, the narratives put forward by early modern men and women, and the strategies they adopted in court, all help to reveal contemporary notions of sexual morality, female honour and proper comportment in relation to the law, local customs and the decrees of Trent.

Broken Promises

  • 14 Stadtarchiv Münster (henceforth StdAMs), Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 56, 11.01.1625 (...)

10In 1625 the servant Anna Bruns brought Henricus Buddenbrinck in front of the Münster city court to complain about his broken marriage promise. Anna described to the judges how Henricus Buddenbrinck had first pursued her with great persistence. After repeatedly promising marriage to her, Anna finally gave in to Henricus and the two had sexual intercourse. Marriage was to follow swiftly. However, far from marrying her, Henricus reneged on his promise. He left Anna alone and pregnant with his child14. Standing in front of the judges, Henricus Buddenbrinck did not question the key points of Anna’s statement. He did, however, put Anna’s moral behaviour and honour in doubt. Far from being an honourable virgin as she said, Henricus explained to the judges that Anna’s virginity had not been intact anymore when he met her so that Anna must have had sexual contacts with other men before him. Ignoring this claim, the judges ordered Buddenbrinck to marry Anna Bruns as soon as possible or face a hefty fine.

  • 15 StdAMs, Kriminalprotokolle, Causae Civiles, Causae Civiles Nr. 15 (1620/1621). Translations by the (...)
  • 16 Ibid.

11Similarly, the servant girl Elsa Vorstman complained in court that the scribe Herman Wittover had broken his marriage promise. Elsa told the judges how Herman used to follow her around many times « to trick me out of my former honour »15. On Good Friday, she finally gave in to his « sweet, smooth words » and his many advances that she could only resist with great physical strength, « but only after he had promised her Christian marriage many times ». Because they were good Christians, they agreed on a date after Easter « to get to know each other in the flesh ». After that, Herman promptly forgot his marriage promise and « left her against God’s and men’s law ». Elsa complained how Herman « turns me into the blemish of my parents » by refusing to accept the baby son that Elsa had given birth to as his own. Instead of being a good husband and father, Hermann went about slandering Elsa’s good name16. Elsa was painfully aware that her former honour and good standing in society had been reversed by Hermann’s desertion. But she worried not only for herself, the broken promise also reflected badly on her family. That is why she appealed to the judges to also take the shame that Hermann’s actions brought onto her parents into consideration. Again, the judges were swayed by the fact that Elsa was pregnant and that Hermann did not deny having been involved with the girl. He was ordered to marry Elsa or pay a fine. In the end, however, the case found an unforeseen and tragic resolution when the child died.

  • 17 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 54, 18.04.1622, p. 123.
  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 Hövel 1936, , p. 298 (See no. 3252 where it states : Anna Helleman from Telgte married Bernd zur W (...)

12When Bernd zur Wye stated that he had not yet married Anne Hellemann since she « had caused him many difficulties with her quarrelling day in day out », the court did not endorse his position17. Even when he pointed out that Anne had called him « traitor and rogue every day, so that he had concerns to proceed with the wedding », which clearly did not bode well for a peaceful union, these quarrels did not overshadow the fact that Anne and Bernd had a baby daughter together. The judges gave zur Wye the choice between paying a penalty of two hundred Taler and being dismissed from his job as gatekeeper of St Ludgeri or getting married to Anne Hellemann18. On 20 June 1622 the two promptly received marital blessing19.

13The basic pattern of these cases, as it was reported by the protagonists in court, is familiar by now : the man pursued the girl, and after having promised marriage to her, the two had sexual intercourse. Then he left, thereby reneging on his marriage promise. Typically the girl claimed to have become pregnant the first time she was ever intimate with a man, thus still attempting to conform as much as possible to two essential expectations of early modern society : first, that of pre-marital virginity and, second, that of marital chastity for women. The men in their defences relied on equally well-used strategies. They denied the girl’s virginity and referred to her history of (sexual) encounters with other men. Putting the girl’s morality in doubt and tainting her with the suspicion of profligate behaviour was supposed to remove the duty to marry the girl because if there was no honour left to lose, there was also none to restore.

  • 20 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, Bd. 52, 5.3.1620, p. 66.
  • 21 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotkolle, Bd. 56, 10.2.1624, p. 26.

14But even in cases where marriage was not at the heart of the dispute and both parties merely argued about money, the authorities never lost sight of necessity and the common good. When in 1620 Elsa Karrentreiber demanded that Johan Kohaus pay alimentation for his two-year-old child, her demands were granted and Kohaus was asked to contribute the (admittedly meagre) sum of three Taler per annum20. Four years later, the servant girl Anna Lethmate argued for a substantially better provision for her child from Henrich Engelberting. She demanded one Goldgulden, some wood, twelve pounds of butter, wheat, and some beer, all to be paid in form of a one-off alimentation21. Again, the judges complied and made Engelberting pay. In both cases, marriage was never part of the dispute (the reasons for this are not clear), but the women were granted some degree of financial compensation for the loss of their honour and the support of their children.

15As we can see, the secular authorities in town were therefore concerned primarily with providing for the children born out of wedlock. The judges were well aware that they would not be able to determine the parentage of a child with absolute certainty and they never tried. Above all, the judges wanted to avoid burdening the community with the children of unions gone wrong. This is why any man standing before the judges who admitted to sex with the servant girl in question was handed the same swift sentence : marriage or a fine.

  • 22 Compare, for example, Rublack 1999.
  • 23 Burghartz 2004, p. 6; Burghartz 1999; Roper 1991, pp. 158-162; Strasser 2004, p. 113.

16At this point it is also worth remembering that pregnancies before marriage were not a rare occurrence amongst people of low social status in early modern Germany22. That mishap on its own was not yet perceived as scandalous. Society only punished those women who were left entirely without a husband and with the children raised illegitimately. As long as the reciprocity between sex and marriage was upheld, Münster’s city court prioritised making sure that the hungry mouths of its children were fed before concerning itself with questions of religious conformity. Although the regulations of the Council of Trent had already been known in the city from around 1616 at the latest, the new prescriptions never once entered into the negotiations. The judges favoured practical considerations and comfortable solutions instead. Studies of a number of German-speaking territories have shown that there was a transformation of moral politics during the second half of the sixteenth century. Whereas before secular courts would have followed integrative policies that favoured peace-making to disciplining, from the 1560s onwards the courts began to pursue much more repressive policies against those who had had non-marital sexual relations. That was true for Protestant as well as Catholic territories.23 In many places across the German-speaking lands, this led to the criminalisation of women during the first half of the seventeenth century. No so in Münster : here the decrees of Trent held only limited sway and the secular court did little to implement them. Religious conformity did not trump everything even after Trent.

  • 24 It can be assumed that servant girls in more unfortunate circumstances just left town when their e (...)

17But what about our servant girls ? They were left with a number of options. They could ask for compensation for the loss of their honour and alimentation for their children24. They could also make their grievances heard to the judges of either the secular or the church courts. As long as a child was involved, their chances of success with the city court were quite good. This obviously had nothing to do with the changes brought by Trent and everything with the way the judges viewed sexuality before marriage. The secular authorities in Münster made no attempt to propagate a Tridentine view of marriage and instead continued to interpret sex as a precursor of marriage in line with traditional practice. One reason for this behaviour might have been the tight grip with which the city tried to hold on to its judicial privileges against any intrusions from bishop or church.

18So far the analysis has painted a rather positive, almost paternal, picture of the relationship between the city fathers and their support for deserted servant girls. The question arises if this description changes as we now broaden our investigation to include cases of prostitution, rape and infanticide.

Prostitution

  • 25 Protestants thought that prostitution encouraged rather than fought sin. « Some say one must have (...)
  • 26 Rocke 1998, p. 150-170; Storey 2008.
  • 27 On prostitution in early modern Europe, see for example van de Pol 2011; Dash 1994; Cohen 1998.

19Similar to their Protestant counterparts, Catholic city authorities also outlawed prostitution by closing down public brothels and banning prostitutes from the urban community, though at a more leisurely pace25. Although Catholics perceived prostitution as a sin, it was tolerated for longer because it was thought that it prevented greater transgressions26. The city of Münster did not possess anything like a civic brothel; the closest it had to a house of disrepute was perhaps the bathhouse. However, the sources generally talk about more individual cases of prostitution that happened in private houses and women who engaged in prostitution only temporarily.27 Most of these women were indeed servant girls, all of them in need of money.

  • 28 StdAMs, Gerichtsarchiv, BII Acta Criminalia Nr. 256, 1653.
  • 29 Ibid.

20Every night when Trine Weingartner’s husband went out on watch « men knocked at her door for some company and a drink »28. They came to see Maria, the servant girl of vicar Schröder. With encouragement from Trine, Maria then had intercourse with some of the visitors, either upstairs or in the kitchen. Maria must have been aware of her sad situation, because one of the witnesses heard her complain about her fate. In court, however, Maria only admitted spending time in Trine’s house to give her a hand with the housework. Trine Weingartner also insisted that nothing immoral went on in her house. She claimed total ignorance : yes, « some young men fell on the bed with Maria », but no, « she does not know if anything else went on ». Only when a witness told the judges about a conversation he had overheard, did she confess. Her husband had warned her : « Do you not know how strict the law is in Münster ? » Unaffected by this warning Trine replied : « There are many whore houses in Münster … this goes on in a hundred houses […] people can actually make a living from this »29. Thus caught out, Trine decided to name some other houses in which similar activities went on. Interestingly, while Trine faced serious punishment as a procuress, Maria was viewed as a victim and allowed to leave the courtroom unpunished. We can guess her helplessness from the statement that she complained about her fate. This does not sound like a woman who had voluntarily sought to sell her body for carnal pleasure. We do not know more about her situation and motivation though, since she hid behind a strategy of complete denial in court. Trine Weingartner was to be displayed at the pillory. And her husband ? He was of course not unaffected by his wife’s public shaming, but he never had to appear in front of the judges despite the fact that he was something of a silent accomplice. Perhaps it was thought to be enough punishment already that the wife of the night watch had procured girls under the cover of darkness.

  • 30 StdAMs, Gerichtsarchiv, BII Acta Criminalia 103/5, 17.10.1594.
  • 31 Alfing et Schedensack 1994, p. 259.

21Men did not always play such a marginal role in the sexual trade of the city though. Henrich Lange, the owner of a bath house (Badestube), took on Anneke Dorsel as a tenant. Anneke was pregnant and had just lost her job as a servant because of that.30 Now she had to earn a living in some other way. As she told the court, she « made love » to some of the men who frequented the bath on order from Henrich Lange. Eventually Anneke formed a relationship with one of the men, staying with him, eating with him, sleeping with him31. Yet, irrespective of the blossoming attachment between the two, the judges still saw her as a prostitute and did not place her in the same category as other pregnant servant girls. They decided to expel her from the city. Anneke was seen as a loose woman with a pregnant belly and no father to show. This is the reason why she was punished much more severely than Maria. Another reason might have been that the bath house certainly possessed a very mixed reputation in town and occasionally appears in the sources in connection with loose morals or even prostitution. That made it much more difficult for Anneke to present herself as a hapless victim of Henrich Lange’s machinations. In addition, it must have mattered that Anneke was already pregnant by the time she joined Lange at the bathhouse indicating to the judges a disposition towards profligate behaviour. The judges probably saw her prostitution (though born out of necessity) as one transgression too many.

  • 32 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotkolle, Bd. 38, 12.9.1606, p. 189.

22The stories of Maria and Anneke conveniently fit with early modern notions of servant girls as women of low morals. And yet, one day when Johan von Eichel called the maidservant Catrina Köster a whore because she had been holding hands with an apprentice while walking from nearby Greven back to Münster, the judges did not endorse his foul-mouthed behaviour. Von Eichel had walked along the road to Greven when he encountered Catrina and the apprentice. Seeing that the two young people held hands in public, he rudely suggested « do it on the side of the road, if that’s what the apprentice had in mind »32. Catrina, incensed by this blatant attack on her honour, brought von Eichel to court to repair the damage done to her name. When von Eichel explained to the judges that he found Catrina’s behaviour indecent, the judges disagreed and told him that he had no right to « slander the servant on a public road ». Honour and morality therefore remained a complex and far from straightforward matter even after the Council of Trent had tried to clarify the Catholic stance on sex and marriage. The judges of Münster’s city court did make an important distinction between sexual acts for the purpose of marriage and those performed with no such goal in mind. But they also defended female honour against overzealous attacks, thus making sure that honour was not blemished lightly in their city. Even though the stereotype of the loose servant girl was always available to be used as a strategy of defence or attack in different scenarios, the judges of the city court valued female honour too much to allow it to be slandered too easily.

Infanticide

  • 33 Constitutio Criminalis Carolina : Peinliche Gerichtsordnung Kaiser Karls V., Rechtsdenkmäler : Fak (...)
  • 34 Rublack 1999 ; Ferraro 2008 ; Gowing 1997 ; Walker 2003.

23The move of infanticide into the limelight of early modern criminality had been a relatively recent contemporary development. In the course of the sixteenth century infanticide transformed from an offence that only rarely reached the courts into a « monstrous crime » that was punished with drowning or impalement33. By the seventeenth century infanticide was generally equated with murder34. Most offenders were now executed through decapitation, often in conjunction with other punishments, such as the application of hot pliers or the display of the severed head on a stick. This was to serve as an additional warning to the (female!) population. The combination of more intensive prosecution and stricter punishments also lead to an increase in convictions, although the figures from Münster remain very low in the period under consideration. In the first half of the seventeenth century only three women were convicted of child murder. Their cases provide us with further insight into post-Tridentine morality and early modern servant girls.

  • 35 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 54, 31.03.1622.
  • 36 Ibid., 6.04.1622.

24In 1622 a dead infant was found at the wall of St. Johann’s Hof. The city council asked two midwives to help with their expertise in childbirth and care of infants. The two established that the baby had not been older than three days by the time it was suffocated. A hunt for the « godless mother » began35. The city council never considered the possibility of a father as the murderer. To speed up the investigation the councillors decided to put up a reward of twenty Mark and threatened those who withheld important information with serious punishment. Suspicions soon fell on the former servant Adelheid zu Brintrup. Adelheid shared a house with Catrina Schlütermann, a concubine, which is our first indication of her standing in the local community36. Because Adelheid had fled the city, the council decided to question her neighbours. They had been aware of her pregnancy but chose not to get involved. Next the court questioned an apprentice, who was known to have had « much conversation » with her. He confessed his relationship to Adelheid and that he, too, had known about her pregnancy. But he « was so drunk that he did not care », thus showing that children, whether inside or outside the womb, were felt to be the responsibility of the mother. When questioned by the judges about his role in the relationship, the apprentice quickly fell back on the convenient excuse of female immorality. He reported that at one point, he had contemplated marrying Adelheid, but decided against it because « there had been other apprentices who had some suspicious dealings with her ». Hence, although the apprentice had slept with Adelheid (he did not mind her « suspicious dealings » then) and had seen her belly grow over the course of the nine months, he had never felt under any obligation to offer her more than the pleasure of his company.

  • 37 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 59, 6.07.1627; StdAMs, Gerichtsarchiv, BII Acta (...)

25Five years later Elsa Lüleßmann was arrested on similar grounds. She told the court how one afternoon she had left town to buy some goods outside of Münster. By the time she returned to the city, the gates were closed and she found herself on her own without a roof over her head. All of a sudden the contractions began and between one and two o’clock that night she gave birth to her baby. That night Elsa kept the baby by her side but when morning dawned, she took the knife and slid its throat. Then she hid the dead body. All this, she said, happened « under the influence of the evil spirit », thus confirming the prevalent view of early modern authorities which saw child murder as an unnatural and devilish crime37.

  • 38 StdAMs, Gerichtsarchiv, BII Acta Criminlia Nr. 135, 31.01.1643.

26Anna Stumme had also given birth all by herself. She was a widowed servant and had only recently come to Münster. She said that she had given birth in the bathroom, but then the baby just fell through the hole in the floor right into the river underneath38. She had no intention of killing it but, as the judges pointed out to her, also did nothing to save it. More difficult to determine than the question of guilt was the question of paternity. Anne told the judges that a soldier in Lüdinghausen had raped her. One week later she slept with her long-time admirer Joachim Schmedding. Then she realised that she was pregnant. Without hope of any other support, Anna decided for the sensible option and told Joachim about her pregnancy. He offered financial support to her. Marriage, however, was never a possibility because Schmedding was married already.

  • 39 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 59, 6.07.1627.
  • 40 Ibid.
  • 41 Ibid.

27The cases of Adelheid, Elsa and Anna offer us a rare glimpse into the emotional state of an early modern child murderess. All three of the women describe an emergency situation. Although hardly unannounced, the women experienced the arrival of their children as a sudden shock that exposed their whole desperate situation with full clarity. The secrecy that characterised their pregnancy in combination with the experience of giving birth alone must have aggravated their feelings of loneliness and isolation. Elsa told the judges that she had been sad because the father of the baby had left her to become a soldier. She feared the consequences of her pregnancy and grieved for her lost love. Her parents had also recently died. Elsa said she had been « desperate and did not know to whom she could have gone or turned to »39. The arrival of the baby brought out the complete hopelessness of her situation. Anna Stumme seems to have been more aware of the consequences of her (in-) action. Immediately after the child had fallen into the water, she « fell to her knees to ask God for forgiveness and promised a bequest to the poor »40. Still hoping to escape detection she appealed to the highest power for forgiveness and promised a mild deed in exchange. She also described feelings of sadness and anxiety and told the judges about her poverty41.

  • 42 In addition, the orphanage only had privision to look after twelve children.
  • 43 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 54, 18.04.1622.

28Both Anna and Elsa realised how hard it is to bring up a child on their own without social support or any financial provisions. Münster offered no institutional assistance to single mothers. Although an orphanage was founded in 1592, this was a private initiative and only open to children of citizens42. The city offered no other avenues of support. The only alternative for the three women would have been to go to court and claim alimony. But coming out into the open was a risky strategy as long as the women could not present a father too. They would have been vulnerable to accusations of immorality. One woman from Elsa Lüleßmann’s neighbourhood thus proved to be an insightful commentator, when in 1622 she had falsely accused a woman called Agnes von Raesfelt of the infanticide that Elsa committed. Reprimanded by the judges for her quick accusation, she defended herself saying that « Agnes von Raesfelt could have done it because of her poverty ».43

  • 44 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 59, 6.07.1627.
  • 45 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 54, 6.04.1622.

29Anna and Elsa were both executed. Anna came to feel the full weight of the authority’s abomination for two reasons : her adulterous relationship was a serious offence, but the infanticide put her well beyond help. Her claim that she had been raped just seemed to strengthen the authorities’ suspicion that she was an immoral person. She was beheaded and her head displayed on a pike.44 In Elsa’s case, the judges decided to give her a « merciful punishment », though they could not resist to turn her execution into show. A hole was to be dug out and the pillory placed in its centre and Elsa was to be impaled. In the end though, as an act of mercy, she was beheaded. The instrument of her decapitation was then to be displayed to the public.45

Conclusion

30In Münster, an episcopal city, power was divided between the secular and ecclesiastical authorities, and that was true for judicial authority too. This division played out at various levels - in this instance, in the way the city judges chose to handle the Tridentine prescriptions on marriage. The city judges were very aware that religious reform always had a political and social dimension. Unlike in Bavaria, where Maximilian I, the brother of Münster’s Bishop Ferdinand, was successful in streamlining secular and ecclesiastical jurisdictions to enforce strict marital discipline, Münster’s secular authorities did not use vulnerable women for political gain. In Bavaria, women engaging in premarital sexual relationships were increasingly seen as women of loose morals. The same did not occur in the north of Germany, where competing elites and religious divisions inside and outside the city did not allow for the adoption of similarly repressive policies. For the same reason the decrees of Trent were only implemented slowly and in a rather lenient fashion. Although the decrees of Trent promulgated a universal one-fits-all approach to religious reform, this study shows that, at local level, a large degree of variation could be found, which shaped the way in which gender and religion intersected. Thus, the prescriptions of Trent concerning marriage had almost no impact on the lives of servant girls in Münster. Well into the seventeenth-century, people of low social status continued to follow traditional custom which made sexual intercourse before marriage not only permissible but an important marker for the intention to marry. The secular authorities of the city also made little effort to promote the new regulations. Instead they guarded their judicial space from any encroachment of the Church and tried to keep as much of the jurisdiction on marriage in their realm as possible. The sources have also shown that in cases of broken marriage promises the girl had a relatively good chance of winning her case if she was pregnant. In these circumstances the council sought to create stable and orderly relationships between the men and women of the city. However, if the girl was not pregnant, she had only very little chance of succeeding.

  • 46 Compare Roper 1994, ch. 7.

31A pattern emerges that shows that the authorities followed a different gender order for men and for women. Women who found themselves pregnant without a father to show did not receive any institutional support or public assistance. As we have seen, the direness of the situation led some women to take desperate steps. Anna Stumme, Adelheid zu Bintrup and Elsa Lüleßmann were women at the margins of Münster’s society. All three were not well integrated and mingled with other marginals like concubines, soldiers, and adulterers. In essence, they lacked the essential social networks that were necessary to even imagine raising a child as a single mother in Münster. At the same time, the city council tolerated widespread male neglect and irresponsible behaviour. Whereas a woman could become pregnant and subsequently lose her position as servant in a household, none of these dangers applied to men. In line with the link between masculinity, male sociability and a culture of drinking, men could even cite their excessive alcohol consumption in court as a legitimate excuse for the avoidance of their responsibilities.46 Pregnancy, childbirth and the provision of food and shelter for babies were obviously seen as female duties in the first instance. The decisions of the Council of Trent might have ultimately made women’s position more secure by putting the marriage vows before sex but the everyday realities that shaped the lives of early modern servant girls dictated otherwise.

32Clearly, considerations of morality, purity and proper behaviour mattered greatly to the early modern civic community. But the cases concerning servant girls also demonstrate that historians have relied too heavily on normative sources with their innate emphasis on dichotomous categorisations, social regulation and correction for their interpretation of early modern morality. This has led us to overemphasise the starkness of the division that apparently lay between honour and dishonour. It seems to me, though, that honour was such a powerful early modern concept precisely because it allowed for some variation (based on gender and class) and flexibility (in this case, provided that the outcome was marriage). At the same time, the judges displayed an acute awareness of the kind of behaviour they sought to suppress or support. Premarital sex amongst people of low(er) social status was a fact of life, as the judges knew all too well, and women who could name a father for their child did not have much to fear. However, servant girls who found themselves outside of the confines of this scenario, like those who had been abandoned more than once, met with little benevolence. They found themselves caught in the crossfire between the existing negative stereotypes about servant girls and traditional attitudes towards women and their profligate nature. Many of these attitudes, of course, had been shaped throughout the centuries by the Catholic Church and were merely reinforced after Trent.

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Notes

1 Dürr 1995, p. 31.

2 There is a wealth of literature on early modern servants. See for example : Maza 1983; Frühsorge - Gruenter - Metternich 1995; Meldrum 2000; Harrington 1998; Sarti 2002; Hill 1996; Fairchilds 1984; Mitterauer 1990; Sarti 1994; Gowing 2002.

3 Gowing 1997, p. 87-115; Gowing 1996/1; Sharpe 1981, p. 29-48; Kussmaul 1981; Meldrum 2000; Richardson 2010.

4 Compare, for example Gowing 1996/2, p. 225-234; Capp 2003.

5 Smith 1986; Peters 2000, p. 63-96.

6 Roper 1985/2, p. 62-101.

7 Session XXIV, Chapter I : « The form prescribed in the Lateran Council for solemnly contracting marriage is renewed; bishops may dispense with the publication of the banns; whoever contracts marriage otherwise than in the presence of the pastor and of two or three witnesses, does so invalidly », in Schroeder 1978, p. 183.

8 For a thorough investigation of how women encountered the Counter-Reformation in Münster, see Laqua-O’Donnell 2014.

9 For more information on the city, see Hsia 1984.

10 Ibid., pp. 110-111.

11 Korpiola 2011; Seidel Menchi - Quaglioni 2006; Seidel Menchi - Quaglioni 2001; Brundage 1987; Ingram 1987; Barahona 2003; Gowing 1996.

12 Only cases of clandestine marriages were not heard by the secular court. They went straight to the synod court. Holzem 2000, p. 316.

13 Gleixner, 1994, ch. 1.

14 Stadtarchiv Münster (henceforth StdAMs), Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 56, 11.01.1625, p. 448.

15 StdAMs, Kriminalprotokolle, Causae Civiles, Causae Civiles Nr. 15 (1620/1621). Translations by the author.

16 Ibid.

17 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 54, 18.04.1622, p. 123.

18 Ibid.

19 Hövel 1936, , p. 298 (See no. 3252 where it states : Anna Helleman from Telgte married Bernd zur Weihe, gatekeeper of St. Ludgeri, iurat et recipitur cum filia Gertrütken zur Weihe).

20 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, Bd. 52, 5.3.1620, p. 66.

21 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotkolle, Bd. 56, 10.2.1624, p. 26.

22 Compare, for example, Rublack 1999.

23 Burghartz 2004, p. 6; Burghartz 1999; Roper 1991, pp. 158-162; Strasser 2004, p. 113.

24 It can be assumed that servant girls in more unfortunate circumstances just left town when their employer discovered their pregnancy and sacked them. These fates can then obviously not be traced in court records.

25 Protestants thought that prostitution encouraged rather than fought sin. « Some say one must have public brothels to prevent greater evil – but what if these brothels are schools in which one learns greater wickedness than before ? » On these grounds Protestant municipal authorities shut down brothels. Zwickau, for example, did so in 1526, Augsburg by 1532. See Fairchilds 2007, p. 204. Roper 1985/1, pp. 3-28.

26 Rocke 1998, p. 150-170; Storey 2008.

27 On prostitution in early modern Europe, see for example van de Pol 2011; Dash 1994; Cohen 1998.

28 StdAMs, Gerichtsarchiv, BII Acta Criminalia Nr. 256, 1653.

29 Ibid.

30 StdAMs, Gerichtsarchiv, BII Acta Criminalia 103/5, 17.10.1594.

31 Alfing et Schedensack 1994, p. 259.

32 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotkolle, Bd. 38, 12.9.1606, p. 189.

33 Constitutio Criminalis Carolina : Peinliche Gerichtsordnung Kaiser Karls V., Rechtsdenkmäler : Faksimiledrucke von Quellenwerken zur Rechtsentwicklung, Bd. 2, (Osnabrück, 1973), Art. 35 and 36.

34 Rublack 1999 ; Ferraro 2008 ; Gowing 1997 ; Walker 2003.

35 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 54, 31.03.1622.

36 Ibid., 6.04.1622.

37 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 59, 6.07.1627; StdAMs, Gerichtsarchiv, BII Acta Criminalia Nr. 263. See also Rublack 1999, p. 165.

38 StdAMs, Gerichtsarchiv, BII Acta Criminlia Nr. 135, 31.01.1643.

39 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 59, 6.07.1627.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 In addition, the orphanage only had privision to look after twelve children.

43 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 54, 18.04.1622.

44 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 59, 6.07.1627.

45 StdAMs, Ratsarchiv, Ratsprotokolle, AII Nr. 20 Bd. 54, 6.04.1622.

46 Compare Roper 1994, ch. 7.

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References

Electronic reference

Simone Laqua-O’Donnell, « Sex, honour and morality : about the precarious situation of servant girls in post-Tridentine Münster », Mélanges de l’École française de Rome - Italie et Méditerranée modernes et contemporaines [Online], 128-2 | 2016, Online since 02 August 2016, connection on 26 March 2017. URL : http://mefrim.revues.org/2590 ; DOI : 10.4000/mefrim.2590

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About the author

Simone Laqua-O’Donnell

University of Birmingham - S.LaquaODonnell@bham.ac.uk

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