Infanticide in Early Modern Germany: the experience of Augsburg Memmingen, Ulm, and Nördlingen, 1500-1800

Lewis, Margaret Brannan, Department of History, University of Virginia
Midelfort, Erik, Department of History, University of Virginia
Osheim, Duane, Department of History, University of Virginia
Rosenfeld, Sophia, Department of History, University of Virginia
Douglass, Carrie, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

Between 1500 and 1800, over 100 women and men were arrested for infanticide or abortion in the city of Augsburg in southern Germany. At least 100 more were arrested for the same crime in the three smaller cities of Ulm, Memmingen, and Nördlingen. Faced with harsh punishments as well as social stigma if found pregnant out of wedlock, many women in early modern Europe often saw abortion or infanticide as their only option. At the same time, town councils in these southern German cities increasingly considered it their responsibility to stop this threat to the godly community and to prosecute cases of infanticide or abortion and to punish (with death) those responsible. The story of young, unmarried serving maids committing infanticide to hide their shame is well-known, but does not fully encompass the entirety of how infanticide was perceived in the early modern world. This work argues that these cases must be understood in a larger cultural context in which violence toward children was a prevalent anxiety, apparent in popular printed literature and educated legal, medical, and religious discourse alike. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this anxiety was expressed in and reinforced by woodcuts featuring mass murders of families, deformed babies, and cannibalism of infants by witches and other dark creatures. By the end of the eighteenth century, infanticide was at the center of enlightened debates about sexual crimes, torture, and the death penalty. Infanticide became a cause célèbre in spite of the relatively low, and declining, numbers of occurrence.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
infanticide, Southern Germany, abortion, 1500-1800
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