Rural prostitutes as reflected in folklore and court materials

Keywords: folk songs, rural prostitution, sexual culture, peasants, court materials

By juxtaposing runo songs as well as newer folk songs with court and police materials, an attempt is made to find out whether prostitution, or paid sex, occurred in 19th-century Estonian rural settlements. The research question is whether the typical venue for the activity was the tavern, which has usually been associated with immoral sexual behaviour, or whether the practice was also carried on, e.g., by female farm servants, herd girls of the manor, cottagers, soldier’s wives etc. The terminology used for such women is also discussed. It turns out that in folklore the tavern and the manor were the main places where ’shameless deeds’ were done to girls mainly by strangers, whereas according to the the minutes of municipal courts payment for sex was mostly received somewhere else but tavern. Taverns were also in the focus of the attention of higher police officers and town doctors. As for the attitudes of local village people, prostitution –which was actually marginal in the country – was disapproved, but not to the extent allowing to tell on the women involved to the foreign-speaking police or court officials having different values. Although the attitudes reflected in folk songs are ambivalent, dirty songs are usually unreserved about prostitution and seem to treat the subject quite openly.


Andreas Kalkun (b. 1977), PhD, Estonian Folklore Archives of the Estonian Literary, Museum Researcher (Vanemuise 42, 51003 Tartu),

Kersti Lust (b. 1976), PhD, Tallinn University, Estonian Institute for Population Studies, Senior Researcher (Narva mnt 25, 10120 Tallinn),