Hard Choices: Pregnancy Outside of Marriage

views updated

Hard Choices: Pregnancy Outside of Marriage


Social Control. Cases involving sexual actions and moral behavior were sometimes handled by church courts and sometimes by city or state courts; whatever the venue, because the consequences of sexual misconduct became visible within the bodies of women, they appeared more frequently than men in these courts. The vast majority of cases involving sexual misconduct were for premarital intercourse, termed fornication. It was often difficult for unmarried women to avoid sexual contacts. Many of them worked as domestic servants, where their employers or employers’ sons or male relatives could easily coerce them. They worked in close proximity to men (a large number of cases involved two servants in the same house) and were rarely supervised or chaperoned. Female servants were sent on errands alone or with men, or worked by themselves in fields far from other people; though notions of female honor might keep upper-class women secluded in their homes, in most parts of Europe there was little attempt to protect female servants or day-laborers from the risk of seduction or rape.

Remedies. Once an unmarried woman suspected she was pregnant, she had several options. In some parts of Europe, if she was a minor her father could go to court and sue the man involved for “trespass and damages” to his property. The woman herself could go to her local court and attempt to prove there had been a promise of marriage in order to coerce the man to marry her. This might also happen once her employer or acquaintances suspected pregnancy. Marriage was the favored official solution, and was agreed upon in a surprising number of cases, indicating that perhaps there had been an informal agreement, or at least that the man was now willing

to take responsibility for his actions. In cases where marriage was impossible, such as those involving married men or members of the clergy, the courts might order the man to maintain the child for a set period of years.

Extreme Measures. Many women attempted to deny the pregnancy as long as possible. The clothing styles of the period, with full skirts and aprons, allowed most women to go until late in the pregnancy without showing clear visible signs. A woman might attempt to induce an abortion, either by physical means such as tying her waist very tight or carrying heavy objects, or by herbal concoctions that she brewed herself or purchased from a local person reputed to know about such things. Recipes for abortifacients were readily available in popular medical guides, cookbooks, and herbals, generally labeled as medicine that would bring on a late menstrual flow, or “provoke the monthlies.” Both doctors and everyday people regarded regular menstruation as essential to maintaining a woman's health, so anything that stopped her periods was considered dangerous. Pregnancy was only one possible reason, and a woman could not be absolutely sure she was pregnant until she quickened, that is, felt the child move within her. This was the point at which the child was regarded as gaining a soul to become fully alive—that is what “quickening” originally meant—so that a woman taking medicine to start her period before quickening was generally not regarded as attempting an abortion. Whether any of these medicines would have been effective is another matter, however. Some of them did contain ingredients that do strengthen uterine contractions, such as ergot, rue, or savin, but these items can also be poisonous in large doses. It was difficult for women to know exactly what dosage they were taking, for the raw ingredients contain widely varying amounts of active ingredients and their strength depends on how one prepares them, so it was likely that a woman would take too little to have any effect or too much and become violently ill or die.

Punishment. Penalties for attempting or performing an abortion after the child had quickened grew increasingly harsh during this period. In the Holy Roman Empire, aborting a “living” child was made a capital offense in 1532, with death to be by decapitation for men and by drowning for women. Midwives were ordered “when they come upon a young girl or someone else who is pregnant outside of marriage, they should speak to them of their own accord and warn them with threats of punishment not to harm the fetus in any way or take any bad advice, as such foolish people are very likely to do.” Abortion was difficult to detect, however, and most accusations emerged in trials for infanticide, in which a mother's attempts to end her pregnancy before the birth became evidence of her intent.

Illegitimate Birth. In most cases women resigned themselves to having the baby even if they could not get

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions”

married, often leaving their normal place of residence to have it with friends or relatives, though it was illegal in many parts of Europe to harbor an unmarried pregnant woman. The consequences of unwed motherhood varied throughout Europe, with rural areas that needed many workers being the most tolerant. In rural Norway, for example, about one-quarter of the unwed mothers married men other than the father of their child one to six years after giving birth. For many unmarried women, however, pregnancy meant disaster, especially when the father was the woman's married employer or was related by blood or marriage. Such a situation was considered adultery or incest rather than simple fornication and could bring great shame on the household. Women in such situations were urged to lie about the father's identity or were simply fired; they received no support from the wife of the father, whose honor and reputation were tightly bound to her husband's. A pregnant woman fired by her employer was often in a desperate situation, as many authorities prohibited people from hiring or taking in unmarried pregnant women, charging them with aiding in a sexual offense.

Desperate Measures. Women in such a situation might have decided to hide the birth. They gave birth in outhouses, cow stalls, hay mounds, and dung heaps, hoping that they would be able to avoid public notice, and then they either took the infant to one of the new foundling homes that had opened during the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries in many cities, or they killed it. Before the sixteenth century, church and secular courts heard few cases of infanticide, as jurists recognized that physicians could not make a clear distinction between a stillbirth, a newborn who had died of natural causes, and one who had been murdered. This leniency changed in the sixteenth century, when infanticide became legally equated with murder in most areas of Europe and so carried the death penalty, often specified as death by drowning. These stringent statutes were quite rigorously enforced. More women were executed for infanticide in early modern Europe than any other crime except witchcraft.

Enforcement. Midwives were enlisted to help enforce the statutes. They were to report all births and attempt to find out the name of the father by asking the mother “during the pains of birth.” If an accused woman denied giving birth, midwives or a group of women from the village examined her to see if she had milk or showed other signs of recent delivery; in the case of foundlings, midwives might be asked to examine the breasts of all unmarried women in a parish for signs of childbirth. Midwives also examined the bodies of infants for signs that they had drawn breath. Courts were intent on gaining confessions, occasionally even bringing in the child's corpse to rattle the accused. Records from a 1549 trial in Nuremburg report: “And then the midwife said, ‘Oh, you innocent little child, if one of us here is guilty, give us a sign!’ and immediately the body raised its left arm and pointed at its mother.” The unfortunate mother was later executed by drowning.


Richard Adair, Courtship, Illegitimacy, and Marriage in Early Modern England (Manchester, U.K. & New York: Manchester University Press, 1996).

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).

Angus McLaren, A History of Contraception: From Antiquity to the Present Day (Oxford & Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1990).