”Finding a girl sleeping in the arms of a boy is not shameful for them.“ August Wilhelm Hupel’s descriptions of peasant sexual life in the context of the history of the Estonian family

Merili Metsvahi

The article gives a brief overview of the life and work of August Wilhelm Hupel and focuses on the treatment of peasant sexual life in Hupel’s three-volume work Topographische Nachrichten von Lief- und Ehstland (1774- 1782) (‘Topographic news from Livonia and Estonia’) and his articles Ueber den Werth der Jungfrauschaft unter Ehsten und Letten (‘On the value of virginity among Estonians and Latvians ‘, 1791) and Ueber das Hauben der ehstnischen Dirnen (‘Marriage rites for Estonian girls’, 1795). Hupel’s descriptions will be placed in the context of research on the history of the Estonian family. The history of the Estonian family has received serious attention only in the 21st century. The view that strongly patriarchal order has prevailed in Estonia since pre-history, propagated by 19th-centiry Baltic-German historians, dominated throughout the whole of the 20th century. Archaeologist and historian Marika Mägi, who in her work leans on the research of Swedish historian Nils Blomkvist, has refuted this belief. The earlier strong position of women started to weaken in the 13th century, starting from the Crusader conquest, which saw the collision of different views of the two cultures about the status of women. It is very probable that matrilineal descent was replaced by a patrilineal one during the 13th century. However, there were spheres of life that were hidden from the dominant classes and where changes were only minimal, for example the sphere of sexuality. It is the latter that we find information about in Hupel’s descriptions, the best source on the life of Estonian peasants in the 18th century. The descriptions demonstrate that in sexual life women retained a great degree of independence even 500 years after the Crusader conquest.