Book Suggests Widespread Infanticide in Early Modern Europe

A new book titled “Death Control in the West 1500–1800: Sex Ratios at Baptism in Italy, France and England” by Gregory Hanlon and contributors presents a fresh perspective on infanticide practices in early modern Europe. The book challenges previous notions and argues that infanticide by married parents was a much more widespread practice than previously believed.

Hanlon, a French-trained behavioral historian and Distinguished Research Professor at Dalhousie University in Canada, highlights the limited scope of existing scholarship, which mainly focused on criminal trials involving unwed or married women who concealed their pregnancies and killed their newborns. The research suggests that married infanticidal mothers may have been significantly more numerous, with infanticide often going unnoticed and forgotten over time.

Using baptismal records and ecclesiastical censuses from various parishes in Italy, France, and England, Hanlon reveals startling patterns of infanticide across urban and rural areas, involving Catholics, Calvinists, and Anglicans alike. The study indicates that in rural Tuscany during the peak of infanticide, the victims may have constituted up to a third of all live births.

The book also explores gender preferences in infanticide. In 17th-century rural Tuscany, parents seemed willing to sacrifice one of their twin infants, opting to keep only one. In the city of Parma in northern Italy, working-class parents showed a preference for girls over boys. Similarly, the French town of Villeneuve-sur-Lot exhibited a clear pattern of favoring girls after 1650, especially among lower-status families seeking social mobility for their daughters.

Hanlon draws attention to the lenient punitive measures taken for infanticide crimes, highlighting that tribunals primarily targeted single mothers who deliberately killed their newborns, while abandonment of infants was not considered a comparable offense.

The book delves into the roles of the state, criminal justice system, poverty, and social class structures in the prevalence of infanticide. It also draws parallels between historical infanticide and contemporary discussions surrounding reproductive rights.

By challenging moralistic perspectives, Hanlon and the contributors encourage readers to confront the realities of infanticide and consider its implications for our present society.

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