By Anne-Marie Kilday (auth.)
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Extra resources for A History of Infanticide in Britain c. 1600 to the Present
72 Although questions remain about the rate and extent of illegitimacy during this era, the prevailing attitudes towards unmarried pregnancy seem to be uniform and unambiguous. Illegitimacy was clearly regarded by many as a social evil and an explicit example of deviant behaviour. 73 An illegitimate child thus came to represent the living embodiment of social and moral irregularity and the mother of a bastard child, in particular, was exposed to shame and opprobrium. 75 Given this, it is somewhat surprising that the recorded incidence of infanticide is so low across early modern Britain.
132 There were three key manifestations of this more humanitarian or legally efficient approach towards infanticide defendants which directly impacted upon conviction rates in the early modern period. First, from the second decade of the eighteenth century onwards, accused individuals were for the first time allowed to submit defences of various types. This mechanism gave them the chance to reaffirm their femininity and re-establish their credibility as women with ‘normal’ maternal instincts. 136 The second way in which a growing sympathy towards infanticide suspects became evident in prosecutions was the increased use and acceptance of mitigating circumstances, which were brought to the court’s attention via exculpatory evidence from the early 1700s onwards.
One reason why so many domestic servants were indicted for new-born child murder relates to the broad definition of their occupational status. During the early modern period a servant could undertake a multitude of tasks in a given household, including cooking, catering, sewing, mending, cleaning, attending, nursing, childminding, washing laundry, ploughing, planting, animal husbandry, and harvesting, and any or all of these duties could be part of a servant’s daily experience. 102 Domestic service was certainly a very common occupation in early modern England, for women especially.