Sunday 21 December 2014


Kids partying while parents are away isn’t a modern phenomenon. It happened in Basel, 1536. Except then it was serious business for a young woman to lose her virginity. It made her damaged goods and hard to marry off.

And marriage wasn’t something that concerned only the two lovers. The cohabitation of a man and a woman is a civic matter and must therefore be agreed upon in public. Yes, the state had a say in what went on in the citizens’ bedrooms!

In this case, a young woman invited a young man to dinner while her parents were away, and dinner wasn’t the only thing that was consumed. She gave up her virginity to her lover because he had promised her marriage. The question was: Is a promise of marriage legally binding?

The answer in 1536: No, that would reward the dirty rascal with the woman he deceived. Besides,  an unmarried woman is under the authority of her father. Why then should anyone make her his own, against her father’s will? 

Oh morals! Oh laws! What times we are living in! The gist of the matter is: A virgin has lost her grace and honour, which we consider the principal part of her dowry. Who will marry her thereafter when she is marked by such a stigma? If someone steals my new clothes and returns them torn and stained with dirt, will he not be sentenced to return what he has taken away – that is, the clothes in their original state?

Unfortunately, virginity cannot be restored, so the scoundrel who took it should be made to pay a penalty. Let’s just go by the Old Testament law: if a man finds a virgin who is not betrothed …and lies with her, and they are found together, the man who lay with her must give the father fifty shekels.
There you are. Value of virginity: fifty shekels.

(Source: The Correspondence of Wolfgang Capito, Vol. 3 forthcoming; my translation)

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