“The Ruined Girl”: Illicit Love in 18th Century Germany

by | October 18, 2021 | General | 2 comments

When you’re completely immersed in 18th century German church records—as I must confess I am—the one word you see over and over is “legitimate.” In birth, marriage, and even death records for children and unmarried youth, the “legitimacy” of a daughter or son accompanies each entry as if it were a middle name.

I began to wonder if any child was ever noted as “illegitimate.” Soon enough, those records began to emerge as well. As one might expect, these irregular situations got more attention from the priest scribe. The formula of date of birth, name of child, name and residence of parents and godparent required additional discussion of the identity of the father or the lack thereof.

As we storytellers know, the unusual situation gets more attention from the reader as well. Thanks to the services of a kind family member who has studied Latin, we can get a glimpse into dramas of illicit love in 18th-century Germany.

My first example actually dates back to the 17th century, which shows that extramarital relations most definitely did not begin in 1963, as the poet Philip Larkin suggested in his brilliant poem of social commentary, “Annus Mirabilis.”

On the contrary, we have evidence in these church records that extramarital sex occurred several times all the way back in 1677. That’s when a woman named Margarethe, who was not given a surname, gave birth to a boy she named Hieronymus.

In the church record, the priest notes: “The identity of the father, or fathers, is thought to be one of the soldiers from Lünnenburg who were here this year in the wintertime.” One assumes he knew there could only be one biological father, but Margarethe’s interactions with a number of different soldiers was apparently noted and condemned in the record for twenty-first-century readers to ponder.

Not all of the villagers were as judgmental. Young Hieronymus Reber agreed to stand as the babe’s baptismal sponsor, and my seventh-great-grandfather, Nicholaus Hufnagel, served as an additional witness. It was unusual to have two people stand as sponsors. I like to think that Grandpa Nick understood that poor Margarethe was doing the best she could and needed the extra support of her friends.

During the 18th century, the mothers of illegitimate children tend to be out-of-towners, with unusual surnames, making me wonder if they sought to have the birth recorded in a neighboring parish so as to escape the sanctioning eye of the neighborhood. Generally the priest names a father and the circumstances through which his identify was discovered. One father was a French commissar, another a traveling salesman, men who could escape responsibility easily. Sadly, many of the babies died soon after birth.

In one case in 1720, a sick mother who had recently lost her illegitimate child was being cared for by friends in the parish of Somborn. The priest visited her every day and his kindness apparently swayed the Protestant woman into considering conversion to Catholicism. The priest notes that the woman passed away before she could officially convert, but he absolved her of her sins before she died and buried her in a Catholic ceremony anyway.

I can’t but help see the exultation of victory in the way he underlined “Catholic rite” in et in Ca’met: Somb: ritu Catholica Sepulta est [buried in the cemetery in Somborn by the Catholic rite]. Hopefully St. Peter took note when the woman passed through the Pearly Gates.

While illegitimate births were rare in the 17th and 18th-century records, the 19th century sees an explosion of children born out of wedlock. Perhaps the Napoleonic Wars made young people more willing to seize pleasure in the moment?

In 1821, Magdalena, the wife of Jakob Kreis who was a soldier serving in Austria, gave birth to a son fathered by a local widower named Konrad Schreiber. Although the record is disapproving, a modern reader can’t help but imagine the two providing comfort for each other in their loneliness.

In 1828, there were FOUR illegitimate births on a single page! Two of the children were subsequently legitimized by the marriage of the parents, as noted in the margins.

The 26 April entry for Johann Georg, illegitimate son of Christina Roos, notes that the sponsor was “Joanne Roos, fratre corruptae.” My helpful Latin expert suggested possible translations beyond the literal “corrupted girl.” Brother of the adulteress, brother of the ruined one, brother of the seduced girl, brother of the misled girl—all heap ignominy upon the woman who had a lover out of wedlock, but her brother stood with her in adversity.

Another Hufnagel who found fame in the church records was a certain Heinrich Hufnagel who admitted to fathering the child of Katharina Egold, born in November 1826. The child died 6 days later, and surely the priest hoped that the couple would learn from their disgrace. However, a year and a half later, in February 1828, the couple had another child and “Heinrich Hufnagel confessed that he himself was the father of the infant.” This child did not die, nor it seems, did the couple ever marry. Clearly they were ahead of their time in seeing marriage as just a piece of paper.

I’ll conclude with another story of Hufnagel solidarity and serendipity. In 1826, my third-great-aunt Maria Anna Hufnagel had an illegitimate child named Christina, father unnamed. Maria Anna’s brother Lorenz was my third-great-grandfather through my maternal grandmother’s father. The sponsor for the child was Christina Franz, who it just so happens was my third-great grandmother through my maternal grandmother’s mother.

Christina Franz was unaware that her granddaughter would marry her friend’s brother’s grandson in 1888 in Pennsylvania. Neither Anna Maria Hufnagel nor Christina Franz ever saw the sacred book which told the story of a friend supporting the mother of an illegitimate child. However, thanks to the internet, her great-great-great-granddaughter can appreciate her gesture of solidarity with a “ruined girl.”

Write on!

[The Nursery (1770) by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons].

Donna George Storey

I want to change the world one dirty story at a time. When I posted this mission statement on my website, I hoped my cheeky ambition would make my readers smile. I smile every time I read it myself. And yet I’m totally serious. I truly believe that writers who are brave enough to speak their truth about the erotic experience in all its complexity—the yearning, the pleasure, the conflicts, and the sweet satisfaction—do change the world for the better. So if you’re here at ERWA because you’re already writing erotica, a big thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re more a reader than a writer, I encourage you to start dreaming and writing and expressing the truth and magic of this fundamental part of the human experience in your own unique voice. Can there be a more pleasurable way to change the world? I'm the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical erotic novel set in Japan, The Mammoth Book of Erotica Presents the Best of Donna George Storey  and nearly 200 short stories and essays in journals and anthologies. Check out my Facebook author page at: https://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor/  


  1. lisabet sarai

    Hello, Donna,

    More historical fun! However, would every birth have been recorded? I would expect that some mothers of illegitimate children would not have wanted to make their shame official.

  2. Donna George Storey

    I think they went to another parish to be recorded. There was a very strong sense that a child had to be baptized or you’d be sending the poor soul to hell.

    Btw, I saw “Victoria and Abdul,” at your suggestion. What an interesting (and until recently, suppressed) story! I’m going to get the book as well to get the more scholarly view.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


Babysitting the Baumgartners - The Movie
From Adam & Eve - Based on the Book by New York Times Bestselling Authors Selena Kitt



Pin It on Pinterest