Book Review – Infanticide and Abortion in Early Modern Germany

Infanticide and Abortion in Early Modern Germany  by Margaret Brannan Lewis

(Routledge, 2016), 204 pages, £95 Hardcover, £34.99 Kindle


Infanticide and Abortion in Early Modern Germany by Margaret Brannan Lewis is a compelling and comprehensive analysis of the social, cultural, economic, legal and medical context of these crimes over a 300 year period. Focusing both on diverse causes and perceptions, Lewis effectively strikes the fine and difficult balance between broad and robust research, thorough analysis, and accessible, well-crafted prose which makes it suitable for both academic and lay audiences.

Using records predominantly from urban centres across German-speaking regions of the Holy Roman Empire, this study covers roughly three centuries and is framed around legal reforms which reflected and influenced how the crimes were understood and prosecuted. Like the witch craze, instances of infanticide and abortion were rare, but were nonetheless a central feature of cultural anxieties. Lewis draws on this significance throughout the book.

However this is not merely a work of legal history concerned with female deviance, but rather a study which considers the broader cultural influences, understandings, anxieties, and socioeconomic motives, as well as the role fathers, families, communities, local authorities, and legal and medical experts played in the construction and perpetration of these crimes. Importantly, Lewis broadens her analysis beyond the culpability of unmarried women to demonstrate the complex ways in which local officials and legal reformers were also, paradoxically, responsible for the very circumstances which compelled some women to conceal their pregnancies and dispose of their infants.

The book is structured both chronologically and thematically, employing various approaches throughout. Starting with an examination of the legal, religious and socioeconomic context, which influenced the codification of laws pertaining to the closely-related crimes of infanticide and abortion in the early sixteenth century, the focus shifts to the ways in which these crimes were perceived and problematised more broadly across the Holy Roman Empire. This is followed by a somewhat tangential but relevant analysis of portrayals of violence against children found in the popular literature, which serves to illustrate anxieties about the precariousness of childhood and parenthood, and the perceived threat of individuals and groups on the margins of society. This is then rounded off with a discussion of the growing involvement of legal and medical experts in prosecutions, and the simultaneous emergence of sensationalised literature and Enlightenment attitudes towards these crimes, which ultimately shifted perceptions of perpetrators away from murderous mothers to hapless victims.

Those familiar with the history of infanticide in Britain will be struck by the brutality with which women accused of committing infanticide in early modern Germany were treated by the legal system, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The use of torture, which became a central point of debate in the eighteenth century, was frequently employed. Guilty verdicts carried the death penalty, and, as in Britain, verdicts were rare, but were still achieved approximately 50 per cent of the time. The proscribed means of execution ranged from drowning to being buried alive then impaled, to the more ‘humane’ beheading. The most significant differences to the British system is that those who were not convicted of killing their children, and those who were suspected of intentionally terminating their pregnancies, were still likely to face banishment from their community.

The strength of Lewis’s work is in her broad analysis of the socioeconomic, religious and legal circumstances which reveal the complex and diverse perceptions of, and responses to, unwanted pregnancies in early modern Germany. She effectively draws out broad trends while also emphasising the diversity of experience, noting that, ‘infanticide and abortion exist universally but are historically and culturally contingent’ (p. 186). Crucially, Lewis demonstrates that she is acutely aware of the significance of this in light of the current debates surrounding women’s reproductive rights, both in the United States where the book was written, and further afield.

The only problematic part of Lewis’s analysis is in her discussion of suicide by proxy. This is a fascinating phenomenon in which individuals who desire to end their lives without risking their eternal soul do so by committing crimes that carry the death penalty. Lewis locates the connection between suicide by proxy and infanticide in the targeting of unbaptised infants who, because of their innocence, would not suffer purgatory or damnation by dying without receiving the last rights. Lewis arguably goes one step too far by suggesting that both infanticide, as committed by unmarried mothers who sought to prevent their own poverty, and suicide by proxy shared similar motives in that both were driven by a desire to avoid destitution. It is likely that some instances of suicide by proxy were motivated by this, but it cannot be said that all suicides in the early modern period were economically motivated. Suicide is an immensely complex phenomena which cannot be attributed so single, universal causes. Lewis does acknowledge this, but her analysis of suicide by proxy would have been just as strong – if not stronger – without this tenuous and unnecessary link.

However, this is only one small part of what is, overall, both an accessible introduction and comprehensive analysis of the construction and perceptions of the crimes associated with non-marital childbirth in early modern Germany. Given the difficultly of the subject matter, the readability of this book striking, and is a testament to Lewis’s well-honed skills as as an historian and as a writer.


Further Reading (Infanticide and Abortion in Britain):

Peter C. Hoffer and N. E. H. Hull, Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England 1558-1803 (New York: New York University Press, 1981)

Mark Jackson, New-Born Child Murder: Women, illegitimacy and the courts in eighteenth-century England (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1996)

Mark Jackson (ed.), Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, 1550-2000 (London: Ashgate, 2002)

Anne-Marie Kilday, A History of Infanticide in Britain c. 1600 to the Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Laura Gowing, ‘Secret Births and Infanticide in Seventeenth-Century England’ Past and Present, 156 (1997), pp 87-115

Angus Mclaren, Reproductive Rituals: The Perception of Fertility in England from the Sixteenth Century to the Nineteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1984)

Emma Milne, ‘Courts must stop judging women who kill their babies as morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’’ The Conversation (3 May, 2016)

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