‘A virgin by day, a wench by night’

Huldrych Zwingli: priest, theologian, reformer... and seducer Hans Asper/akg-images

As a candidate for the priesthood at Zurich's Grossmünster, Huldrych Zwingli is on the verge of a decisive career step. But on December 3, 1518, in the middle of the selection process, his friend Oswald Myconius tells him about a rumour going around that he allegedly seduced the daughter of a high-ranking Zurich official. 

Regula Bochsler, swissinfo.ch

Myconius is mistaken. Zwingli, who has been a priest at Einsiedeln Abbey for almost two years, fears that he has indeed impregnated a young woman. In view of the rumours, he decides to come clean and sends Heinrich Utinger, one of the electors, a multi-page explanation. “I cannot ignore this slander,” writes Zwingli indignantly. He therefore wants to give a “completely honest” account of what this is all about. Then he explains: Already three years ago, when he was still a priest in Glarus, he had made “a firm resolution” to “never touch a woman again”. Unfortunately, he was “not too successful”. True, he had kept his resolution for a while, but in Einsiedeln “I fell off the wagon”. The “maiden” with whom he had sinned was the daughter not of a powerful Zurich official, however, but of a barber in Einsiedeln. 

‘Deeply embarrassed’

Zwingli assures him that he is “deeply embarrassed”, but this does not stop him from describing himself as a victim and the young woman as a temptress, who succeeded in seducing him “only with difficulty and with exceedingly enticing allures”. Before ruining her reputation, he admits that it “does not bode well to openly vilify a woman”, but he claims to have good reasons for doing so. The barber’s daughter was allegedly “a virgin by day and a wench by night” and had already “done it” with a bloke or two before him. 

Regula Bochsler studied history and political science at the University of Zurich. She has worked for many years as an editor, journalist and presenter for Swiss public television, SRF. She has made ten or so television programmes on history as well as putting on exhibitions. Her books include “The Rendering Eye. Urban America Revisited” (2013), “Ich folgte meinem Stern. Das kämpferische Leben der Margarethe Hardegger” (I followed my star. The combative life of Margarethe Hardegger) (2004) and “Leaving Reality Behind. etoy vs eToys.com & other battles to control cyberspace” (2002). swissnex SF

Zwingli is discrete, he doesn’t name names, but he insinuates that the man who deflowered the barber’s daughter is a mutual acquaintance. This other man is a low-ranking Einsiedeln official or assistant teacher. The immoral conduct of this young woman – who was “not so much disgraced as disgraceful” – was known not just to her family but the entire population of Einsiedeln as well. This is why no one had thought “to blame him for her defilement”. 

To counter the accusation that he had deflowered the young woman, Zwingli asserts that he has followed three principles throughout his life: never deflower a virgin, defile a nun or “violate a marriage (because, as Isaiah said, the bedcover is too short to cover two men at the same time)”. Moreover, thanks to his “sense of decency” he had always been highly discrete “in such matters”. Even in Glarus, at his previous position, he had done it “with such secrecy” that even “his closest acquaintances hardly noticed anything”. Him underlining his discretion is no coincidence, as it is not uncommon for priests to live openly with a mistress and have children with her. 

Far more delicate than the matter of virginity is the pregnancy. On the one hand, Zwingli does not want to lie. On the other hand, he does not want to acknowledge his paternity, as this could lead to negative social and material consequences. His explanation is accordingly convoluted: Now and then he had visited the barbershop with the mutual acquaintance where the young woman was working, and because she made eyes at him, it finally went so far “that she is now pregnant by me, if she can even know that for sure”. No sooner has Zwingli confessed his paternity than he qualifies his confession. But he seems to have his qualms, for elsewhere he states that if the young woman should say that she is pregnant by him, “then I do not deny it”. 

A precarious situation

In his explanation, Zwingli gives us interesting information about this nameless woman. She was apparently in a precarious situation in several respects. Discord reigned in her parents’ house. According to Zwingli, the barber was always accusing his wife – “based more on emotions than facts” – of cheating on him, although she was “obviously a faithful and honest woman”. The barber was also constantly quarrelling with his daughter. He had allegedly “thrown her out almost two years ago and given her neither food nor clothing”. Zwingli does not say anything about the reasons, but it is suggested that it had something to do with a man. Neither does he tell us where the young woman lived or how she made a living after she lost the roof over her head and the material support of her father. Clearly she stayed in Einsiedeln, otherwise Zwingli would not have met her. His remark that she had “not denied” her relationship with the low-ranking official could indicate that she was living with this man, thus solving her problems – the lack of work, food and accommodation. 

When the barber’s daughter realised she was pregnant, she left Einsiedeln, presumably to hide her condition. Zwingli writes that she is “now in Zurich and awaiting the birth, but by God I know not where”. In other words, he was not in contact with the soon-to-be mother, and apparently had no plans to look after her. In view of so much male carelessness, today one wonders whether the rumours that were circulating in Zurich were just a coincidence, or whether the barber’s daughter wanted to take revenge on her unfaithful lover. The rumours did not hurt him in any case: On January 1, 1519 Huldrych Zwingli took up his new position at Grossmünster. The fact that his rival was living with a mistress and their six children doubtlessly made the Zurich canons’ decision easier. 

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