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)

Mary, Mary quite contrary

I was excited to learn about a forthcoming book about Infanticide in Britain by Professor Anne-Marie Kilday, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. On the eve of its publication I decided to write a post about a noteworthy case of infanticide in early nineteenth-century Wales.

One of the most famous, or infamous, historical figures associated with the Mid-Wales border town of Presteigne is Mary Morgan, who in 1805 at the age of seventeen was convicted and executed for the murder of her illegitimate child.

Although Mary’s case took place in the early nineteenth century her story reads like a typical case study of infanticide in early modern Britain: She was a young, unmarried domestic servant who fell pregnant and, in an act of apparent desperation, killed her newborn child in an attempt to avoid poverty and the shame of bearing a child born as a result of an illicit sexual encounter. Mary apparently confessed her crime to a fellow servant who had grown suspicious and questioned her. Her infant’s body was discovered hidden in bed clothes with a deep, almost severing cut to the neck. These circumstances are repeated again and again in court records across Britain from the seventeenth century onwards.

Mary was then tried, convicted, condemned, and unlike the vast majority of other women convicted of the same crime, her sentence was carried out. This may be one reason why Mary’s case has generated so much local interest, but what also makes her story interesting is that we have evidence of two opposing contemporary attitudes towards her crime. On the one hand we have the Judge’s lengthy, sanctimonious Verdict, and on the other we have two empathetically moralising memorials to her in the local church yard.

Mary Morgan Stone 01 Mary Morgan Stone 02

To make sense of this it would be useful to first understand infanticide in early modern England and Wales. In modern, developed nations infanticide is typically associated with the unbalanced mental state of a woman suffering from a temporary loss of sanity shortly after given birth. Although this must have been a contributing factor in some cases of infanticide in early modern Britain the overwhelming majority of cases in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the result of all too common socio-economic circumstances. Ultimately these led some women to the extreme measure of killing or abandoning their new born child.

As in Mary Morgan’s case, most of the evidence we have of infanticide is from trial records, which in many cases tell us the name, age and occupation of the accused. In Wales, as in England, available evidence indicates that the majority of women brought before the courts on charges of infanticide were young, unmarried domestic servants. Domestic service was the single largest employer of unmarried women at this time, and the nature of their living conditions and working environment created ample opportunities for both promiscuity and exploitation. It was not uncommon for female servants to share living quarters with male servants or male members of the household. The identity of the father of Mary’s child is not known, but he was likely someone she either worked with or for. Bearing an illegitimate child could be economically catastrophic for a domestic servant, as she likely would be dismissed and have difficulty securing future employment. Faced with the prospect of a lifetime of poverty some women in Mary’s situation chose to do the unthinkable.

Infanticide as a specific crime first appeared in legislation in Britain in the 1624 ‘Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children’, which specifically applied to the murder of illegitimate children whose death was concealed by the mother. What’s key here is that this law did not apply to children born in lawful marriage, and evidence of concealment rather than evidence of murder was what was required to pass a guilty verdict. As a result, common defences arguments included that the mother was in fact married, or that the mother had disclosed her pregnancy to others or had made preparations for providing for the child, such as acquiring infant clothing and bed linens.

Under the 1624 legislation the sentence for all guilty verdicts was death by hanging. In the decades after the Act sentences were carried out with relative frequency, but by the eighteenth century the frequency dropped, and continued to drop further. Towards the turn of the nineteenth century Wales and the north of England saw a 95% acquittal rate despite solid evidence against the accused. These changes can be attributed, at least in part, to changing attitudes towards women. More puritanical views of women as dangerous temptresses shifted to a more romanticised view of women as hapless victims, and conviction rates reflected this. The Act was increasingly seen as disproportionately harsh, and judges and juries grew increasingly reluctant to condemn young women to death.

The Act was repealed in 1803 for the very reason that law makers believed too many women were getting away with murder. Under the new legislation proof of the murder rather than concealment was required for a conviction, which carried a sentence of death. If a woman was acquitted of murder she could still be convicted of concealment, which carried a sentence of two years in prison.

Mary Morgan’s case was tried not long after the passing of 1803 Act, and the judge presiding, Lord Justice Hardinges, came down on her with the full weight of the law. His verdict emphasizes that her infant’s death was quite a violent one, and Justice Hardings shows her no mercy. Hardings clearly did not see Mary as a victim – she was a wilful agent who, according to him, acted on her passions with no consideration of the consequences.

But Mary was, and still is, remembered in a decidedly more commiserative way by the community. Following Mary’s execution the judge ordered her to be cut down and her body sent to the surgeons for dissection. We have no record of whether this part of his verdict was ever carried out, and we are unsure of her final resting place. The community has, quite poignantly, erected two memorials to her in the church graveyard, one of which is a gravestone bearing the inscription,

In Memory of
Mary Morgan who suffer’d April 13 1805
Aged 17 Years

He that is without sin among you
Let him first cast a stone at her…

The use of the word ‘suffered’, and the reference to John 8:7 strongly indicated that Mary’s crime, although tragic, was not seen as reprehensible.  Intriguingly, a single word on the headstone appears to have been carved away and replaced with the word ‘suffered’.

Another Stone remembers Mary not as a murder of children, but as a beautiful young woman bestowed with a good disposition, but lack of Christian knowledge, who was made a victim by sin and who only realised the gravity of her offence through the, “eloquent and humane exertions of her benevolent Judge.” There is clearly a moralising tone, but it is not disparaging. Mary is used as a tragic character in a cautionary tale.

To this day these stones are maintained and restored on a regular basis, with replicas made to replace the originals when they are taken away for conservation work. Tucked away in the local church yard these could hardly be considered a tourist trap.

So why has the community gone to such lengths to commemorate a convicted child killer? Did Mary’s own youth make her deserving of mercy? Did the community have greater compassion towards her plight because they possessed a deeper understanding of her circumstances? Was there a sense of communal guilt? With the evidence we have it is impossible to say. What is evident is that the values and attitudes of the local judiciary and the community were in opposition over the sentence, which is also reflected in the changes to legislation made in 1803. Law makers changed legislation to ensure more women were convicted and punished for committing infanticide because sympathetic judges and juries were using loopholes to acquit, and unfortunately for Mary, these loopholes were closed by time she killed her newborn, illegitimate child.

Various local conspiracy theories abound, some of which are even presented in information leaflets in the Judge’s Lodgings Museum in Presteigne, none of which are supported by evidence. Frustratingly, some of these accounts go so far as to make sweeping statements about the prevalence, acceptance and even the encouragement of illegitimacy in Wales at that time, which again is backed up by nothing. I will address these sweeping assumptions and present some real evidence about illegitimacy in eighteenth-century Wales in my next post, so please, stay tuned!

Further Reading:

Jill Barber, ‘’Stolen Goods’: The Sexual Harassment of Female Servants in West Wales during the Nineteenth-century’, Rural History Rural History, 4 (1993), pp. 123-136.

Russell Davies, Hope and Heartbreak : A Social History of Wales and the Welsh, 1776-1871 (Cardiff : University of Wales Press, 2005).

J.R. Dickinson and J.A. Sharpe, ‘Infanticide in Early Modern England: the Court of Great Sessions at Chester 1650-1800’, in Mark Jackson, ed., Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment 1550-2000 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).

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

Sharon Howard, ‘Echos of History’

Mark Jackson, ‘Infant deaths: The Statues of 1624 and Medical Evidence at Coroners’ Inquests’, in Catherine Crawford and  Michael Crawford eds., Legal Medicine in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Mark Jackson, New-Born Child Murder: Women, Illegitimacy and the Courts in Eighteenth-Century England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

R. W. Malcolmson, ‘Infanticide in the Eighteenth-century’, in J. S. Cockburn, ed., Crime in England, 1550-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

Allyson N. May, ‘She at First Denied It: Infanticide Trials at the Old Bailey’, in Women and History, Valerie Frith, ed. (Toronto: Coach House, 1995).

Nick Woodward, ‘Infanticide in Wales, 1730-1830’, Welsh History Review, 23 (2007), pp. 94-125.

Keith Wrightson, ‘Infanticide in earlier seventeenth-century England’, Local Population Studies, 15 (1975), pp. 10-22.