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22.05.02 Page, Prostitution and Subjectivity in Late Medieval Germany

22.05.02 Page, Prostitution and Subjectivity in Late Medieval Germany

Although the research has been constant for decades, there is still a manageable amount of research on the (medieval) history of prostitution in Europe. Jamie Page’s Prostitution and Subjectivity in Late Medieval Germany is an encouraging new contribution to the subject that, to anticipate the following, enriches previous research with an innovative approach and interesting insights: while the most recent studies have focused primarily on the systemic structures and institutional working conditions of prostitutes, Page pursues a subjective approach and analyses the prostitution system on the level of concrete individuals. However, the actual “subjects,” namely the prostitutes themselves, usually only play an indirect role in the sources that have survived (cf. 2-3). This is exactly where Page starts his ambitious investigation with an innovative claim: “Given the chance to speak, how might they have expressed themselves in their own words?” (3).

This question forms the basis of the study, and it might make prostitution researchers take notice with interested suspense, especially since it has so far remained unanswered. Page “is placing individual women at the center of the narrative with each chapter examining the world of late medieval prostitution from a vantage point hardly known until now: that of prostitutes themselves” (3). For this, Page, focusing on Switzerland and southern Germany, uses sources from Zurich, Nördlingen and Augsburg: “This region featured centrally in the emergence of prostitution as an urban institution in western Europe between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries” (3).

In the first chapter, Page deals with the case of the alleged child murderer Repplin, probably a clandestine prostitute. This fourteenth-century case took place in Zurich and involves a single woman suspected of having killed her new-born child. The author describes in detail the (general) circumstances of prostitution, its different forms and, above all, the difficulties of a contemporary definition of who can be considered a prostitute and why. With this in mind, the Repplin case is special: The judges in court do not treat her as a prostitute a priori, but as a possible child murderer. However, Page is aware of this difficulty for classification: “[P]rostitution itself is never mentioned in the record [...]. There is no evidence from Repplin’s behaviour or circumstances that she identified herself as a prostitute in any way” (30). This awareness of the danger of “overcoding” (24, 31) shows one of the strengths of this work: it is self-critical, and the analysis is based on well-considered and sometimes extensive considerations, which regularly call for restraint and caution not to jump to hasty conclusions. This is essential when researching (medieval) prostitution, which can have so many faces.

Above all, the wealth of detail presented reflects the quality of the study. Page contextualizes his three case studies extensively and takes into account the (possible) approaches of the individuals mentioned as well as the (social) topography of the space in question. When gathering relevant information to form a general data basis, the author uses a method that connects data with a reliable methodology (cf. 33). In doing so, he chooses a broad approach for his dense description, which, in addition to the obvious biographical circumstances, also includes social, economic, and legal circumstances. At first glance, these explanations appear to meander, but Page always manages to return to his main object of investigation.

Despite the critical and profound method of source evaluation, it remains unclear whether the first case study really provides enough evidence to assume a context of prostitution. Although Page refers to the various sexual partners of Repplin who appeared as witnesses at the trial, the sources do not indicate that money or other forms of payment were made for cohabitation, which would have made the connection to prostitution clear. Although Page admits to this “elusiveness” (63), some of his answers, however, lead to new questions, not all of which can be answered, as probably anyone familiar with (medieval) court sources can attest.

One might only rarely get the impression that Page is not always able to keep to his plan of avoiding “overcoding.” This is the case, for example, when he deduces a possible economic relationship between the assumed prostitute and her pimp on the basis of a short testimony (cf. 46-47). The only certainty to be drawn from this source is that these were cases of deviant sexual behaviour (i.e., extramarital sex)--but not necessarily prostitution. However, Page is aware of this lack of clarity concerning the first case study: “To describe her [Repplin] as a prostitute is undoubtedly reductive, even if the historical context of prostitution provides a way to see her life in the wider context of poor women’s survival strategies” (64).

In the second chapter, Page analyses the notorious case of Els von Eichstätt whose forced abortion in 1471/72 caused a scandal in Nördlingen. Page meticulously investigates this criminal case and analyzes the various witnesses’ testimonies in order to grasp the systemic conditions of exploitation and abuse in the local Frauenhaus (brothel). This case is already well known in research; nevertheless, Page provides a vivid but also shocking picture of the working and living conditions in the Frauenhaus. This probably represents an extreme example and should therefore not be generalized, as Page also notes.

The third and last case is about Gerdrut Birckin, a single woman and former maid of the executioner of Kaufbeuren. She was suspected of theft and later of clandestine prostitution by the city council of Augsburg. Here, as in the first example, prostitution is not explicitly mentioned in the surviving sources. “Gerdrut Birckin’s interrogation nevertheless presents a different scenario to these earlier cases. Here, prostitution ultimately became the focus of the interrogation itself, a reflection of the Augsburg city council’s disciplinary agenda towards the turn of the sixteenth century when it began to take an explicit interest in pursuing and punishing illicit sexual behaviour” (116). Although Page cites circumstantial evidence pointing to a case of clandestine prostitution, doubts ultimately remain. Accordingly, he notes with his usual caution that it is difficult to differentiate between marginal groups (here: maid of the executioner and prostitute).

In summary, the three case studies relate to different contexts of prostitution. Both the first and the last case deal with a rather vague form thereof. With his aim to read the surviving sources “against the grain,” however, Page makes a plausible connection to the field of clandestine prostitution. Undoubtedly, the second chapter is the strongest in this book: it draws on a higher density of sources and clearly locates them in the milieu of brothel prostitution. The author’s writing style--a category not to be neglected--should also be highlighted: Page knows his trade and guides the readership gently through the complex criminal cases.

Page carefully carries out his analysis and discusses his findings critically based on the current state of research. He neatly adds source documents to his statements. Findings which do not draw on clear evidence are hard to find. One rare example includes the following remark on the brothel ordinance of Nördlingen from 1472: “At best, the document may have secured a short-term improvement in the women’s working conditions for a few years [...]” (109), although “little is known about the years” to follow the ordinance.

Although Page provides a dense description with numerous original quotations, the book does not include the most important sources in toto in the appendix, which would have been helpful for further research.

Despite all of Jamie Page’s efforts and meticulousness, there is still a lot to discover. His work, therefore, is of high quality and a much-needed contribution necessary to get a bigger picture of everyday life of medieval (clandestine) prostitutes.