The Põltsamaa parish pastor August Wilhelm Hupel (1737–1819) published the article “Ueber den Werth der Jungfrauschaft unter Ehsten and Letten” (On the Values of Virginity among Estonians and Latvians) in 1791 in the periodical Nordische Micellaanen, for which he himself was the publisher. Hupel’s views on marriage and sexuality do not go beyond their Lutheran framework, which recognised monogamous marriage between man and woman as the only institution for channelling mankind’s natural sexuality. Yet Hupel is certainly not one of those conservatives who even in the 18th century permitted sexuality in marriage only with the aim of conceiving children. Thus he does not consider sex life within marriage during pregnancy or with an impotent spouse to be “whoring”. Among other things, he also speaks of mutual assistance (Hülfleistung) between spouses in the mutual satisfaction of each other’s sex drive.
On the basis of court trial records and other materials, it is known that a very broad gulf prevailed between the lifestyles of peasants and ecclesiastical sexual morals. Hupel, who as a pastor had to follow strict ecclesiastical regulations, often found himself in a situation where the members of his congregation wanted one thing while the regulations prescribed something else. Cases were common where peasant serfs fled and the wives they left behind started living together with other men. Hupel pursued the simplification of the divorce process, along with the possibility of holding church weddings to consecrate new cohabitations that had been entered into. Hupel was also against the forced marriage of couples that had split up during their engagement, which church authorities justified by the claim that such couples had allegedly begun an active sex life.
The direct impulse for Hupel’s article, which he refers to in his text, was the article “Ueber die Begriffe verschiedener Völker von dem Werthe
der Jungfrauschaft” (On How Different Peoples Understand the Value of Virginity) by the University of Göttingen philosophy professor Christoph Meiners (1747–1810) published in 1787 in the Göttingenisches Historisches Magazinis. This article borne by the spirit of the Enlightenment criticises the fetishism of virginity that prevailed in different parts of the world, setting it off against a whole series of contradictory examples of peoples that allegedly openly abhorred and hated virginity. If we compare Meiners’s and Hupel’s texts, we see that Hupel does not present Estonians and Latvians as an addition to the peoples enumerated by Meiners. Instead, he supplements Meiners by proposing a third possibility alongside the appreciation of virginity and holding it in contempt. In the case of that third possibility, in Hupel’s words, any kind of notion of virginity is altogether absent. As an empathic person living within the local culture, Hupel tries to understand the Estonian peasant members of his congregation. For this reason, the vast majority of Hupel’s comprehensive descriptions are presented in a neutral tone that does not judge.
What can the researchers of today find out from Hupel’s descriptions? Hupel pays a great deal of attention to premarital sexual freedom while at the same time leaving open the possibility for different interpretations. The sexual side of the customs associated with ehalkäimine (a custom where young single peasant men and women spent summer nights together, which has been compared to the 18th century New England custom of bundling) has been described very differently in later literature. Hupel did not participate in the discussion on the theme of “test nights” (Probenächte) that was in progress at that time in German cultural areas, nor did he use the notion of the test night, trial marriage or ehalkäimine. It must nevertheless be admitted that Hupel’s way of questioning people and his correspondence with his correspondents did not differ very much from the empirical methods that folklorists and ethnographers started using a century later. The work that Hupel did appeared to have been the best that could possibly be done by an individual in his position. He could not go along with the peasants when it was time for ehalkäimine, but his empathic attitude towards the peasantry and his enlightened aspiration to understand their emotional life and ways of thinking enabled him to contribute strikingly to the discussion in the scientific landscape of that time.