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Gender Transgression in 16th C Germany

Monday, June 4, 2018 - 07:00

Mostly this project has drawn on scholarly studies of historical data, but I've decided to include a few original source texts, especially when the relevant material is in a fairly manageable excerpt. This text providing the story of 16th century lesbian Greta von Möskirch is interesting enough on its own. But when I went to read the actual original text (as opposed to reading articles about her case) I discovered that the discussion of Greta was followed by a couple of equally interesting anecdotes, including what appears to be a description of a trans woman in 16th century German, serving as a cook, and where there is no indication of any sort of legal consequence beyond a curious inquiry.

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Full citation: 

Decker-Hauff, Hansmartin and Rudolf Seigel (editors). 1967. Die Cronik der Grafen von Zimmern: Handschriften 580 und 581 der Fürstlich Fürstenbergischen Hofbibliothek Donaueschingen. Jan Thorbecke Verlag, Konatanz und Stuttgart.

Publication summary: 

A family chronicle of the Counts of Zimmern.

This is an excerpt from a German family chronicle about the Counts of Zimmern. All material transcribed from the published original will be in bold type. My translation will be in plain type, and my commentary will be in italics. I’ll be interleaving my translation and discussion with several separate sections and noting where I’ve omitted material that wasn’t relevant to the interests of the Project. The German text is a transcription of the original 16th century manuscript, reflecting 16th century spelling conventions. For the main section on Greta, I have some guidance from the partial translations by Benkov (2001) and Puff (2011) as a guide, but the rest is my own work and may have inaccuracies due to my imperfect grasp of 16th century German idioms and vocabulary. Corrections and suggestions are very welcome and will be incorporated.

Updated 2018/07/08 thanks to the generous contributions and commentary by Irina Rempt (see comments), who also points out the existence of a wikisource index of all the unusual words in the Zimmern Chronicle.

We begin with a section heading that indicates the general era and topic, followed by the beginnings of the next entry which gives a date. I’ve omitted some non-relevant material after that date phrase, but we can assume the date applies at least approximately to the entire entry.

[530] Von etlichen seltzamen handlungen, die sich bei zeiten herrn Gotfridt Wernhers freiherrn von Zimbern zue Mösskirch und in der herrschaft zue Guetenstain begeben haben

Concerning several strange events which occurred during the time of Lord Gotfridt Wernher, Freiherr of Zimmern at Mösskirch, and in the lordship of Gütenstain.

Es ist umb die jar 1514...

It was around the year 1514...

The preceding line giving a specific date may apply to the entire following section, but I’m not absolutely certain of this. Also, several of the following stories add an element of vagueness: “in that time”, “I heard about this”, and so forth. But the date gives us a general reference. There are several pages of anecdotes before we get to the one about Greta.

[marginal note]

Die arme Dienstmagd Greta

The poor serving-maid Greta

The text is formatted with brief indications of the topic in the margin next to the beginning of the section. I’ll be identifying these as “marginal note.” All other text can be assumed to be in the main part of the page.

So ist auch der zeit ain arme dienstmagdt zu Mösskirch gewesen, hat hin und wider gedienet, ist genannt worden Greta, am Markt. Die hat sich keiner mann oder jungen gesellen angenomen oder denen zu pank steen wellen, sonder hat die jungen döchter geliept, denen nachgangen und gekramet, auch alle geperden und maniern, als ob sie ain mannlichen affect het, gebraucht. Sie ist mehrmals für ain hermaphroditen oder androgynum geachtet worden, welches sich aber nit sein erfunden, dann sie ist von fürwitzigen muetwilligen besucht und als ain wahr, recht weib gesehen worden . Zu achten, sie seie under ainer verkerten, unnaturlichen constellation geporn worden. Aber bei den gelerten und belesnen find man, [dass] dergleichen vil bei den Græcis und Remern begegnet, wiewol dasselb vilmehr den bösen sitten deren verderbten und mit sünden geplagten nationen, dann des himels lauf oder dem gestirn, zuzumessen.

There was also in that time a poor serving-maid in Mösskirch who had served here and there in the market, named Greta. She hadn’t accepted any man or youth, or was willing to be available to them, instead she loved the young daughters, following them and gifting them, also employing all behavior and manners, as if she had a masculine affect. She has frequently been considered a hermaphrodite or androgyne, which however was not confirmed. For she was visited by curious busybodies and seen to be a true, proper woman. Perhaps she was born under a perverted, unnatural constellation. But according to the learned and well-read one finds that the same was frequently met with among the Greeks and Romans, though more often those same [people] were corrupted by evil customs and sin-stricken nations, than by the course of the heavens or the measure of stars.

I was a bit startled to see “affect” being used in the sense used in modern psychiatry, but since psychiatry was developed by German-speakers, I assume it was a borrowing of an ordinary everyday word. Regarding my translation "gifting them", the published articles make reference to Greta giving trinkets to the women she was courting. "Kramen" has senses relating to selling minor dry goods, but also senses relating to "fumbling after something, rummaging for something", so while this seems to be the source of the "giving gifts" references, I'd be interested to know if it might instead refer to some type of fondling. But here my grasp of the idiom fails me. As Puff (2011) notes, this text runs through nearly all the most prominent historic theories of female same-sex desire: masculinized anatomy, a historical tradition of “hermaphrodites” or “androgynes”, astrological influences, sin. Puff points out that these hypotheses existed simultaneously in people’s knowledge, rather than being a chronological succession of understandings.

This anecdote is immediately followed by two that involve cross-dressing, the first of which strikes me as being clearly transgender in tone. While there is no connection made in the text between Greta’s same-sex desire (which did not involve cross-dressing) and these two anecdotes (which do not appear to have sexual aspects), the conjunction suggests that some sort of connection around the issues of gender transgression may have been in the author’s mind.

[marginal note]

Der Koch des Grafen Wilhelm Werner

The Cook of Count Wilhelm Werner

Zu zeiten sein hievor und auch bei unsern zeiten weiber in manns- und man in weibsklaider wandlen, dienen und alle officia ußrichten besonden worden, als ich dann von dem alten herrn cammerrichter, graf Wilhem Wernhern von Zimbern, mehrmals gehört, das er ain koch, wie er das kaiserlich camergericht versehen bei sich gehapt, der die gestalt eins weibs im angesicht, des gangs und geperden, auch in der rede. Der hab in der bestallung clärlichen auß gedingt, das er all nacht in aim bett allain ligen und nachts niemands bei sich haben oder gedulden welle. Das ist im nun gehalten worden, und hat getrewlichen gedienet und wol gekochet. Zu bekreftigung des argkwons, das er ain weibsbildt gewesen, hat er treffenlichen wol spinnen künden, und so er desshalben angeredt, hat er gesprochen : “Ich mueß wol spinnen, dann wer wolt mir sonst gedüchs genug geben?” Derselbig koch ist auch in aim solchen verdacht, als er sein versprochen zeit außgedienet, hinweg kommen, das hierin kain weitere erkundigung beschehen. Got waist den grundt.

In previous times, and also in our time, [there are] women change into men’s [clothing] and men into women’s clothing, [who] serve and were appointed to all administrative posts. [Both Irina and I are uncertain about that last clause.] As I then once heard from the old presiding-judge Count Wilhelm Wernhern von Zimmern, he had a cook, that the imperial Chamber Court provided to him, who had the form of a woman in appearance, walk, and behavior, also in speech. In the appointment he had clearly stipulated that he wanted to lie all night in a bed alone and in the night would have/tolerate no one with him. That has now been confirmed to him, and [he] had served loyally and cooked well. As confirmation of [or maybe in response to?] the suspicion that he was a woman, he bore witness that he, in fact, spun excellently, and therefore he pronounced the same, he said, “I must, in fact, spin, for who will otherwise give me enough “gedüchs” [perhaps a type of cloth]?” That same cook is also in such a suspicion, for he served his promised time and left, that that [we] have no further account of this. God knows the reason.

Although the account doesn’t discuss the basis for referring to the cook consistently with male pronouns, we may suspect that there was some anatomical basis for doing so. It appears that the cook was accepted as a woman until there was some reason for Count Wilhelm to question the matter. I’m not entirely certain that I’ve correctly interpreted the section about sleeping alone in a bed--whether as I translate it, this was a condition the cook required, or whether there had been some question of morals and this was offered in defense. But there seems to have been no prosecution--indeed no mention of a chargeable offense--and at the cook left service at the end of the contract, though perhaps with some lingering questions by the authorities. I would love for someone with a more solid grasp of 16th c German to review the text and make corrections and adjustments to my translation.

Additional note: 2018/07/08 - It occurs to me to emphasize that I am interpreting this anecdote as involving a trans woman (assigned male at birth, living as a woman) rather than as a trans man specifically because of the use of male pronouns in the text. Texts about transgender individuals in this era aren't in the habit of recognizing transgender identity as such, but overwhelmingly refer to the person based on anatomical sex. There are exceptions, especially in cases of physiological ambiguity, but as this text does not raise that question, my interpretation seems the most likely. As noted previously, I welcome commentary and discussion of this interpretation.

[marginal note]

Die Mörderin in Mannskleidern

The murderess in men’s clothing

So haben wir bei wenig jaren erfaren, das ain gemaine fraw sich in mannsklaider verklaidet, die jungen gesellen an sich gezogen, under andern des burgermaisters Hanns Conrat Hettingers son von Rotweil, der dozumal zu Freiburg im Breisgew studirt. Den hat sie an sich gehenkt, mit im ins feldt spaziern gangen, letzstlich hat sie in ermürdt und plinderet, auch an ain girtel gehenkt, also das menigclich anders nit gewist, dann er hab sich selbs entleibt. Aber in aim jar darnach ist der trug offenbar worden, und hat die bestia iren verdienten lone darab bekommen; dann sie ist in manskleidern zu Rotweil gefangen worden und, als sie peinlichen gefragt, hat sie vil böser stuck, die sie begangen und auch dozu geholfen, bekennt, under anderm auch, wie sie den gueten jungen studenten, wie oblaut, zu Freiburg ermürt und zu ablainung alles argwons den mit der gurtel ufgehenkt hab.

So we have learned a few years [ago], that a common women clothed herself in men’s clothing. Atracted the young fellows to herself, among others, the son of the burgermeister Hanns Conrat Hettinger of Rottweil, who at that time was studying at Freiburg in Breisgew. She had hanged him herself: went for a walk with him in a field, finally she murdered and robbed him, and hanged him with a belt, so that everyone else didn’t know [but] that he had killed himself. [Despite my rather awkward translation, the clear intent here is that people would believe that her victim had committed suicide. "Selbst entleibt" is not the more usual term for suicide but is unambiguous.] But a year after, the deception became obvious, and the beast received her deserved reward from it. For she was arrested in men’s clothing in Rottweil and, while questioned painfully [i.e., tortured], she confessed to many evil things that she committed and also assisted, among other things, how she murdered good young students, like the Oblate of Freiburg, and to deflect suspicions, had hanged [him] with the belt.

“Common woman” seems in context to mean “lower class, ordinary” though if I ran across the phrase “common woman” in an English historic text I might guess an implication of prostitution. From the context, it appears that the cross-dressing in this example was motivated by a desire to befriend her victims as a (male) equal in order to gain their trust.


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