Two databases on prostitution in Bruges, 1750-1790

Prostitution appeals to the imagination but it remains a subject about which there is little clarity and a great deal of misunderstanding. The two PROST databases are available to those who wish to gain more insight into how the sector was organised in the 18th century and the lives of the women who were active in it.

Information sheet

Title: Two databases on prostitution in Bruges

Author: Dr. Maja Mechant

Population/Subject: prostitution

Region: Bruges, Belgium

Period: 1750-1790

Number of units: 1 200 people, 370 court cases

Number of variables: 360

Format: CSV, XLS, XML, PDF

Accessibility: No restrictions on top of the general terms and conditions of use of the Quetelet Center.

Context of the database

The databases on prostitutes in Bruges were compiled by Maja Mechant as part of her doctoral research into the life courses of women who worked in the Bruges prostitution sector between 1750 and 1790. The doctoral project “Hoeren, pauwen ende ondeugende doghters” (“Whores, peacocks and naughty daughters”, supervisor Professor Dr. Isabelle Devos) was funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO).

What data can you find in this database?

1. Database of court cases

The first database (created in MS Access) contains all court cases concerning prostitution in Bruges for the period 1750-1790 and is based on judicial sources such as criminal investigations, hearings of the accused and judgements. The Bruges trials are exceptionally rich and detailed. This database therefore provides an extraordinarily multifaceted and colourful picture of the prostitution sector in 18th-century Bruges.

The database is organised at the level of the individual. This means that every prostitute, brothel owner or other relevant person constitutes a separate master record.

The content of the court cases is set out in the court case sub-table. After all, one individual could appear several times in the legal sources. The sub-table contains fields such as:

  • Reason for the arrest
  • Age of the accused
  • Medical condition of the accused
  • Marital status
  • Work relationships
There were often several witnesses at the hearing and a judgment regularly consisted of a combination of different penalties.

2. Life-course database

The second database (created in MS Access) contains demographic information about the entire life courses of the women identified in the trials and about a control group (Bruges women, born in 1778). The data in this database come from the parish registers and civil registers of births, marriages and deaths. They are less diverse than those in the first database, but they are exceptional in that they provide a picture of the entire life courses of prostitutes.

This database only contains information about the prostitutes and the control group. So brothel owners and other organisers are disregarded here.

The immutable data about the person in question, such as the date and place of birth and the date and place of death, were entered in the master records. Five sub-tables with a one-to-many relationship are linked to the main table:

  • Parental households
  • Own households
  • Occupations
  • Residences
  • Marital status 

Sub-tables were further added to the first two tables. In the case of parental households, these relate to:

  • Parents
  • Brothers and sisters
  • Occupations
  • Residences
  • In the case of people with their own household, these relate to marriages (with a further subdivision for the occupations and residences of the spouses) and children.

How can you consult data from the database?

The PROST databases are managed by the Quetelet Center. Those who are interested in using these databases should submit a reasoned request to the Quetelet Center (

Publications based on PROST

  • Mechant, Maja. “Hoeren, pauwen ende ondeughende doghters : de levenslopen van vrouwen in de Brugse prostitutie (1750-1790)”. PhD diss., Universiteit Gent, 2018.
  • Mechant, Maja. “Selling sex in a provincial town: prostitution in Bruges”. in Selling sex in the city: A global history of prostitution, 1600s-2000s, 15 September 2017, 60–84.
  • Mechant, Maja. “ ‘Why did she not live with her husband and how was she able to support herself?’ Grass widow prostitutes in eighteenth century Bruges”. In Singles in the cities of North-West Europe, ca. 1000-2000, edited by Isabelle Devos, Ariadne Schmidt, and Julie De Groot, 158–76. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015.
  • Mechant, Maja. “ ‘Betycht van hoererije.’ Het gebruik van de Brugse processen voor onderzoek naar prostitutie (1750-1790)”. In Het pleit is in den zak! Procesdossiers uit het ancien régime en hun perspectieven voor historisch onderzoek. Acta van de studiedag gehouden op het Algemeen Rijksarchief, edited by Harald Deceulaer, Sébastien Dubois, and Laetizia Puccio, 223–37. Brussel: Algemeen Rijksarchief, 2014.
  • Mechant, Maja. “Geboren en getogen in kwetsbaarheid? De familiale achtergronden van prostituees werkzaam in Brugge tijdens de achttiende eeuw”. In Kwetsbare groepen en historische demografie, edited by Isabelle Devos, Koen Matthijs, and Bart Van de Putte, 47–69. Jaarboek historische demografie. Acco Uitgeverij, 2014.
  • Mechant, Maja. “Dishonest and unruly daughters: the combined efforts of families and courts in handling prostitution in eighteenth century Bruges”. Popolazione e Storia 14, no. 1 (2013): 129–50.
  • Mechant, Maja. “ ‘Waerom sij met haeren man niet en woont ende waermede sij haer van haeren kant alleen geneirt’: getrouwde alleenstaande prostituees in Brugge tijdens de achttiende eeuw”. Historica (Amsterdam) 35, no. 3 (2012): 7–13.
  • Mechant, Maja, Sofie De Langhe, Sofie De Veirman, Isabelle Devos, and Christa Matthys. “Mogelijkheden en beperkingen van de levensloopanalyse voor het vroegmoderne demografisch onderzoek in Vlaanderen”. In Leren van historische levenslopen, edited by Koen Matthijs, Jan Kok, and Hilde Bras, 75–95. Jaarboek 2012. Leuven/Den Haag: Acco Uitgeverij, 2012.