Infanticide by married couples was routine in 1500-1800 - book

A new book points to infanticide by married couples as a means of controlling resources and maintaining social status.

 A 17th-Century painting of a baby. (photo credit: Creazilla)
A 17th-Century painting of a baby.
(photo credit: Creazilla)

Infanticide was carried out “routinely” by married parents in early modern Europe as a means of controlling resources and social status in Italy, France and England, according to a new book by a French-trained Canadian historian Prof. Gregory Hanlon and his colleagues.

Death Control in the West 1500-1800: Sex Ratios at Baptism in Italy, France and England is published by Routledge in London. The volume sheds light on the many infants whose existence went unrecorded and whose deaths went unpunished.

“Western historians have relied almost exclusively on records of criminal trials in which unwed mothers or married women carrying progeny not sired by their husbands hid their pregnancies and killed their newborns alone or with female accomplices,” Hanlon wrote. “However, married infanticidal mothers may have been a hundred times more numerous.”

“In most cases, infanticide was a crime leaving no aggrieved party seeking revenge if it was committed right away,” wrote the French-trained behavioral historian, who is a distinguished research professor at Dalhousie University. “It could be overlooked and forgotten with the passage of time.”

“In most cases, infanticide was a crime leaving no aggrieved party seeking revenge if it was committed right away."

Prof. Gregory Hanlon

Hanlon called attention to the limited scope of existing scholarship that has never focused on sex ratios of infants brought for baptism within hours or days after their birth. Records reveal startling spikes in the number of male baptisms in the aftermath of famines or diseases, he said.

 ''Portrait of a Dead Child.'' (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
''Portrait of a Dead Child.'' (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In rural Tuscany at the height of infanticide, the victims might have constituted up to a third of the total number of live births, his research found.

Using baptismal registers and ecclesiastical censuses drawn from scores of parishes in Italy, France and England, Hanlon showed similar infanticide patterns across cities and countries for Catholics, Calvinists, and Anglicans alike.

What were some reasons for infanticide at the time?

In Italy’s rural 17th-century Tuscany, parents seemed willing to sacrifice a child if they were a twin, opting to keep just one of the newborns, Hanlon said.

In the northern Italian city of Parma, Laura Hynes Jenkins found that working-class parents preferred girls over boys.

Contributor Dominic Rossi found a clear pattern of a preference for girls in the French town of Villeneuve-sur-Lot after 1650.

Rossi, one of the five former students who contributed to the book, raised the idea that “the lower-status families would want to marry their daughters up at the same time as economic conditions allowed them to make long-term plans for social movement.”

Evan Johnson, another contributor, showed that upper-class parents in rural Mézin had a clear preference for keeping newborn males.

Hanlon called attention to lax punitive measures taken for crimes of infanticide.

“Tribunals operated against single mothers almost exclusively, but only if they killed the newborn deliberately,” he said. “Simple abandonment was not a comparable offense.”

The roles of the state and the criminal justice system are rigorously examined in the study, alongside realities of poverty and social-class structures. The book draws parallels between histories of infanticide and present discussions of reproductive rights.

“Infanticide is murder, of course, but people did not consider this murder to be a crime,” Hanlon said, adding that “most people could live with it as an unpleasant fact of life.”

Hanlon and his contributors invited readers to reckon with infanticide beyond a moralistic approach to understand the social practice’s ramifications for our present times.

Using a rigorous methodological approach and analyzing a vast body of sources from towns and regions in Italy, France, and England over 300 years, the book hints at the extent of “routine” infanticide of newborns by married parents in early modern Europe, a practice ignored by contemporary tribunals.

“Married women had little reason to hide their condition from priests, midwives, neighbors and friends, but the practice of postpartum abortion was common everywhere, especially during times of hardship,” Hanlon wrote. “By no means was it confined to the lower classes or to girls alone. Proposing a series of reflections on population control, this volume explores how families adopted a system of selective infanticide to manage resources and to safeguard social status, just like populations elsewhere around the globe.”