The notion that infanticide was "rampant" in the Middle Ages has been used to bolster the equally erroneous concept that medieval families had no affection for their children. A dark and dreadful picture has been painted of thousands of unwanted babes suffering horrible fates at the hands of remorseless and cold-hearted parents.
There is absolutely no evidence to support such carnage.
That infanticide did exist is true; alas, it still takes place today. But the attitudes toward its practice are really the question, as is its frequency. To understand infanticide in the Middle Ages, it is important to examine its history in European society.
In the Roman Empire and among some Barbarian tribes, infanticide was accepted practice. A newborn would be placed before its father; if he picked the child up, it would be considered a member of the family and its life would begin. However, if the family was on the edge of starvation, if the child was deformed, or if the father had any other reasons not to accept it, the infant would be abandoned to die of exposure, with rescue a real, if not always likely, possibility.1
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this procedure is that life for the child began once it was accepted. If the child was not accepted, it was essentially treated as if it had never been born. In non-Judeo-Christian societies, the immortal soul (if individuals were considered to posess one) was not necessarily considered to reside in a child from the moment of its conception. Therefore, infanticide was not regarded as murder.
Whatever we might think today of this custom, the people of these ancient societies had what they considered to be sound reasons for performing infanticide. The fact that infants were occasionally abandoned or killed at birth apparently did not interfere with the ability of parents and siblings to love and cherish a newborn once it had been accepted as part of the family.
In the fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, and many Barbarian tribes had begun to convert, as well. Under the influence of the Christian Church, which saw the practice as a sin, western European attitudes towards infanticide began to change. More and more children were baptized shortly after birth, giving the child an identity and a place in the community, and making the prospect of deliberately killing him an altogether different matter. This does not mean that infanticide was eradicated overnight throughout Europe. But, as was often the case with Christian influence, over time ethical outlooks altered, and the idea of killing an unwanted infant was more commonly viewed as horrific.
As with most aspects of western culture, the Middle Ages served as a transition period between ancient societies and that of the modern world. Without hard data it is difficult to say just how quickly society and family attitudes towards infanticide changed in any given geographical area or among any particular cultural group. But change they did, as can be seen from the fact that infanticide was against the law in Christian European communities. Furthermore, by the late Middle Ages the concept of infanticide was distasteful enough that the false accusation of the act was regarded as a salacious slander.2
While infanticide did persist, there is no evidence to support widespread, let alone "rampant," practice. In Barbara Hanawalt's examination of more than 4,000 homicide cases from medieval English court records, she found only three cases of infanticide.3 While there may have been (and probably were) secret pregnancies and clandestine infant deaths, we have no evidence available to judge their frequency. We cannot assume they never happened, but we also cannot assume they happened on a regular basis. What is known is that no folkloric rationalization exists to justify the practice, and that folk tales dealing with the subject were cautionary in nature, with tragic consequences befalling characters that killed their babies.
It seems fairly reasonable to conclude that medieval society on the whole regarded infanticide as a horrible act. The killing of unwanted infants was therefore the exception, not the rule, and cannot be regarded as evidence of widespread indifference towards children from their parents.
How did the child who survived infancy spend his early years? Please join me next time for The Medieval Child, Part 4: The Playful Years.
1. Gies, Frances, and Gies, Joseph, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 34-35.
2. Hanawalt, Barbara, Growing Up in Medieval London (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 45.
3. Hanawalt, Barbara, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 102.
Sources and Suggested Reading
The links below will take you to a site where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants.
Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in
by Barbara A. Hanawalt
Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England
by Barbara A. Hanawalt
by Nicholas Orme
and the Family in the Middle Ages
by Frances and Joseph Gies