Forgotten Women from a Forgotten Region: Prostitutes and Female Slaves in Central and Eastern Europe in the Long Middle Ages

Open to the Public
Nador u. 15
Thursday, May 4, 2017 - 9:00am
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Thursday, May 4, 2017 - 9:00am to 7:00pm

Morning Session – moderated by Gerhard Jaritz

10:30 Coffee and Tea Reception

11:00 Introductory remarks
Ruth Mazo Karras (University of Minnesota) - Skype lecture

11:15 Suspect women: Prostitution, reputation, and gossip in 14th-century Prague
Eleanor Janega (King's College London)

11:45 De Ardentissimo Amore: between rape and adultery - a 16th- century trial
Alexandra-Oana Chira (Babes-Bolyai University )

12:15 Prostitution in urban brothels in late medieval 'Austria'
Michael Hammer (Universität Graz )

13:00 LUNCH

Afternoon Session – moderated by Judit Majorossy

15:00 Prostitutes and urban communities of medieval Slavonia
Marija Karbić (University of Zagreb)

15:30 Secondary sites of sex trade in medieval Hungarian towns
Christopher Mielke (Central European University)

16:00 Prostitution in late medieval Dubrovnik
Gordan Ravančić (Croatian Institute of History )

16:30 Closing Remarks

16:45 Coffee and Tea Reception


Alexandra-Oana Chira, “De Ardentissimo Amore: between rape and adultery - a 16th century trial”

The Middle Ages is a period most often viewed by modern cinematography as an era when love stories prevailed - but what happens when women end up on the wrong side of the common law in respect to relationships with the opposed sex? To what extent were men seen as faulty? What can be called rape and where does adultery begin?

The present subject brings into discussion a charter issued in 1545 by the judiciary of Cincu in Transylvania. A trial intended to redeem a certain Zabina, daughter of Lucas Tryster, for sinning with another man before her marriage, and thus threatening the lineage of the family, came to an unexpected turn. The father tried to prove that a man – Benedictus, son of Georgius Faber – had assaulted his precious daughter, and forced her to copulate with him, but witnesses show a different perspective, emphasising the willingness of both parties to engage in intimacy.

The purpose of the present research is to analyse this particular charter with respect to medieval customs and views of women. An attempt will be made to discuss Zabina’s situation and draw conclusions about the nature of 'sins' that she committed. Moreover, I will try to open a discussion on the lack of historical research concerning the so-called deviant behaviour in medieval Translyvania.


Michael Hammer, “Prostitution in urban brothels in late medieval ‘Austria’”

The municipal authorities officially established urban brothels in Austria as a necessary evil to control the lust of unmarried men in order to protect women from sexual abuse. During the course of the 15th century, brothels began to flourish in cities all over Austria until their abolition during the period of reformation and counter-reformation in the 16th century.

For our workshop, I would like to focus on the everyday life in the brothels. Some sources give a closer look into the lives of the prostitutes and brothel keepers. Court cases sometimes inform about names and daily business. Prostitution was handled as a “safety valve” to provide a sexual outlet for unmarried men; they are therefore an instrument to guarantee the pax urbana. Furthermore, the brothels provided the possibility of controlling extramarital sexuality. For this reason, the municipal authorities also tried to prohibit clandestine types of prostitution – not least to protect their own financial interests.

In addition, I will discuss what sources are relevant. What are the problems and challenges concerning the tradition in which they are embedded? What kind of information do they (not) deliver?


Eleanor Janega, “Suspect Women: Prostitution, Reputation, and gossip in fourteenth-century Prague”

In the late fourteenth century, Prague was one of Europe’s largest and richest cities, having been considerably enlarged under the ruler of the Emperor Charles IV. Though the city was famous as an imperial centre, and a celebrated place of pilgrimage, as a thriving metropolis it also boasted several brothels, and a community of women engaged in both licit and illicit sex work. This paper will examine attitudes towards women in the Prague Archdeaconate Protocol from 1379 – 1382. This rich source records the complaints of Prague’s parishioners to the Archdeacon, and in particular records dozens of complaints about women who were openly or ‘clandestinely’ engaging in sex work. The paper aims to look at how the complaints are registered, where different groups of women (public women, suspect prostitutes, and suspect women) were said to live, and what practices, (other than sex work), marked these women as prostitutes. How did the way in which Prague’s citizens perceive women’s behaviour, and report on it, mark women as potential prostitutes? Why did parishioners want to report on the actions of these women, if, as was true in many cases, the women were engaging in legally permissible sex work? When in a theoretically Christian society, which condemns gossip on theological grounds, does the practice become acceptable? Underpinning this examination will be Dunbar’s theory of social cohesion through gossip, Farley’s work on gossip and power, and Botha’s work on gossip in early Christian communities.


Marija Karbic, “Prostitutes and urban communities of medieval Slavonia”

The paper will give insight into the position of prostitutes in the urban settlements of medieval Slavonia (present-day north-western Croatia), which was a part of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary. My research primarily focuses on the free royal city of Gradec (part of Zagreb), because its source material is more abundant and diversified than sources on other settlements in this area. In the first place, I have approached my subject by analyzing the judicial records, but I have also taken into account other written sources that reflect everyday life (i.e. city protocols, property documents). I will try to answer the following questions: from which social group did prostitutes come; what were the reasons for one to become a prostitute; was prostitution for the women in question a main 'profession' or just an additional source of income; were prostitutes involved in other types of criminal activity; in which way was prostitution organized; where were the brothels located; and what do we know about their 'customers'? The attitude of the urban community towards prostitutes, as well as punishments for prostitution will be discussed. In order to get a clearer picture, the judicial practice and the legal regulations will be compared. The sources show that prostitution was usually punished severely, although punishment was sometimes minimized or dismissed; in fact, in the eyes of the urban community it was worse to be a procuress than to be a prostitute.


Christopher Mielke, “Secondary sites of sex trade in medieval Hungarian towns”

While the locations of municipal brothels are known in three Hungarian cities (Bratislava, Sopron and Košice), little has been discussed thus far on other sites where prostitution could occur. Jacques Rossiaud has identified four different levels where sex work could function in the Middle Ages: city-run brothels, bathhouses, smaller private establishments and finally freelance prostitutes. Shifting the focus from the first level, this paper aims to explore the roles of bathhouses and even street names in uncovering what is known of medieval sex work in Hungary.

The first part of this paper will explore known bathhouses in Hungary. As the brothels in Bratislava and Sopron were both in close proximity to bathhouses in those cities, it will be necessary to explore whatever link there is between the two, real or imagined. The other aspect explored will be attempting to trace the origin of several streets in Hungarian cities. In German cities, streets called “Rosengasse” (“Rose street”) are known to be associated with prostitution; this is true for the case of Sopron wherein the fourteenth century brothel is located on “Rózsa utca”. Examining other Hungarian cities with similarly named streets and tracing back the history of the earliest mention of the street name will help understand not only the history of the burgage plots around the street but also the urban topography of prostitution in medieval Hungarian towns. With this groundwork in place, the hope is that eventually experiences of prostitutes in medieval Hungary will be better understood.


Gordan Ravančić, “Prostitution in late medieval Dubrovnik”

Margins of society and marginal groups pose a continuous challenge not only for social historians but also for sociologists. The reasons for this is obvious: people on the margins, though they do not establish an alternative society, have their own rules of social life and their own meeting places. Some of those places, such as taverns and brothels, were meeting points where both socially active and marginal groups came together.

It is well known that “the oldest profession” was widespread across the entire Old World and that almost every pre-modern town had one or two brothels or “bathing houses”, even though official public opinion and governments did not encourage this practice. Actually, such establishments were a part of local 'amusement', especially in market towns and harbors.

In this contribution I will examine one of these establishments – the brothel, its personnel and clientele, focusing on medieval Dubrovnik as a case study. Even today, prostitution is a question on which public opinion is not uniform, and the investigation of such a phenomenon in the Middle Ages is even more challenging.

Sources used for this investigation are normative (mostly published) and juridical ones (basically unpublished). Even though one would expect that prostitutes were marginalized, they were often asked to testify in front of the court. Surprisingly, data from the town Statutes suggests that the government did not interfere with the problem of prostitution but left it to be solved (and punished) within the family. Therefore, a comparison between these two types of sources (juridical and normative) might show what the public opinion about prostitution was and how it differs from our present-day views.